Monday, December 28, 2015

An Emotional Guide to Lesvos

By Colleen Sinsky

Welcome volunteers, thank you for being here. Whatever your motivations are, whatever your skill set, whatever your time commitment is- welcome. You are needed. 

Before arriving here, emotionally engaging in the crisis was optional. You could read an article about the Syrian war, glance at a photo of a baby crying on a Greek beach, and then continue scrolling through the newsfeed and disengage from it. Here on Lesvos though, you're fully in it.

You'll see throngs of just-arrived refugees walk past the café where you came to decompress and call home. You'll see so many life jackets strewn around that they will lose their significance and you will stop noticing them. You'll spend the day working alongside amazing people and fighting back tears as you come face to face with the human victims of an inhuman war. The beautiful sea will look more ominous. Dinner conversation with other volunteers will center around border closures and Turkish politics. When you get into bed you'll question why you are the one in a hotel room rather than in a muddy refugee camp. And at night you'll dream about overcrowded rafts landing in your hometown. You might start to question the rosy worldview you were able to maintain before this. 

You might be jarred by feelings of frustration at a world that allows the people in front of you to be so desperate for the things that you already have. You might feel helpless, angry, overwhelmed, lonely, guilty, or lost. Maybe you'll realize that there is so much more going on here than you simply "helping," but that it's difficult to put it into words.

Your emotional defenses might go up. Your brain might try to protect itself from seeing the tragic

reality in front of you by justifying and rationalizing. Insulating yourself does serve the purpose of allowing you to get through the day as a functional helper. But I think that the most important thing that you can do here for yourself and for the individuals you are serving is to consciously let your defenses down, and let yourself feel all of those overwhelming emotions. Come here to learn, come here to break down barriers and conquer fears through conversations. Come here to let your heart be broken.

Do the work, whether it's giving medical aid, sorting socks, or serving tea, with a heart that is humble enough to learn and vulnerable enough to evolve. Ask questions. Listen. Smile even though you want to cry at the injustice of it all – do that later. Try not to get so absorbed in busyness or in taking photos that you aren't able to be fully present to whoever is in front of you. Take a deep breath and realign yourself in between interactions because each person deserves your best. During stressful, crowded moments, it’s possible to fall into the trap of losing your ability to be empathetic to individuals, and to see the refugees as numbers or a nuisance. If you feel yourself doing this, take a step back and check in with yourself or a fellow volunteer. The way that you interact with people is as important as the assistance you are providing. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, that will come across to the people you’re there to help, and you’ll have become part of the uncaring, stressed out government operations. 

Respect privacy, make eye contact, be calm and polite, and don't be afraid to laugh. Refugees have told me that we are the first smiles they have seen in a long time, so when appropriate, it's important to share happiness- especially with children. Take the time to inform yourself so that you can be an accurate source of relevant information. Learn some Arabic and Farsi phrases, and find translators in the crowd to help you. Introduce yourself and proactively offer assistance. When you can, give refugees options. "Blue or black socks?" "Apple or orange?" "Choose one toy from this box." It sounds insignificant, but presenting people with options is an important way to restore some feelings of control and human dignity.

Recognize that refugees may have come from experiences where being defensive and pushy has been necessary to stay alive. Don't think that people are being "manipulative" - instead, recognize that they are resilient survivors who have had to learn how to get their needs met. The stories you hear from Lesvos are often full of baby hugs and heartfelt story sharing, but please remember that the gruff, standoffish man has a trauma history and is as deserving of your compassionate attention as anyone else. Remember that these are brave, passionate, loving, fearful individuals. Everything you do for them should reflect this.

Please be a responsible volunteer. Research the issues and geography ahead of time, learn what organizations are currently operating here, and read accounts from volunteers on the ground. Take direction from people who have been here longer, and try to work within established practices. They may not be perfect, but be conscious of the many people- locals, grassroots projects, and large scale non-governmental organizations- have been working hard in overwhelming situations with limited resources. As a short-term volunteer, your job is to set your ego aside and support the long-term efforts; even if that means making sandwiches, keeping watch, and sorting donations. You’ll have a much richer experience, and your impact much greater if you can set aside a vision of yourself as a hero, rescuing children from the sea.

It's important to accept your own smallness. Remember the parable of 'the starfish thrower', in which a boy, on a shore of thousands of beached, dying starfish is tossing some back to sea and points out to a pessimistic passerby that while he can't save the whole beach, that each small act does in fact make a huge difference to the individual starfish being saved. Your small contributions have an enormous impact on each individual that you assist. Embrace the fact that while you may not be doing large scale things right now, that you can do small things with great love (said Mother Theresa). And when a passionate community takes on enough of these small, starfish-saving acts of love, the tide on oppression will change. 

Even after working 12+ hours a day, you still might feel helpless, given the scale of the crisis. You might be kept awake by the haunting face of a cold little girl you helped, wondering where she is and if you could have done more. The trauma that the refugees are experiencing is, in a way, contagious, and you'll likely carry some of what you hear and see here for the rest of your life. An Afghani man I met in Moria camp my last night on Lesvos reminded me that it's important to be sensitive to others' pain. Even if it hurts, without the ability to be empathetic, we would miss out on a key part of being human. 

Notice your feelings. Ask yourself why you are having a certain reaction. Engage with what's going on for you- don't push it away. Remember that every emotional response you have is valid, and that you are having a normal reaction to an abnormal experience. Take some time to put intentional thought into what you do at home to decompress. Do you run? Call a friend? Journal? Cook? Read? Look at the stars? It's important to figure out how to incorporate those self-care things you do for yourself at home into your volunteer experience. Talk to other volunteers who may be experiencing a reaction similar to yours. Whenever possible, organize a small group dinner or coffee gathering- digesting what you are going through informally with peers is hugely helpful to integrating this intense experience you are having. It's important not just to remember that you aren't alone, but also to perhaps hear someone else give voice to a reaction that you have had. Be aware of the very real danger of inexperienced volunteers developing lingering unhealthy emotions as a result of the trauma that they've been exposed to. If you are experiencing difficulty sleeping, anxiety, irritation, hopelessness, a change in eating patterns or exhaustion, you may be experiencing 'compassion fatigue' which is the same thing as 'secondary traumatic stress.' It's possible that these feelings can become Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Please consult a professional if your negative feelings persist or worsen.(Link at the end.)

Keep yourself safe. Take breaks, and step out if a situation feels unsafe or beyond your ability. You can only give so much of yourself. Recognize that if you've chosen to come here, it's likely that you have a "helper" personality and could burn yourself out with your own enthusiasm. Reserve some of that energy for yourself, and to share with fellow volunteers. Be kind and respectful to Greek locals and authorities and to fellow volunteers. Assume goodwill, avoid casting judgement, and please reach out to talk. It's likely that all of the other volunteers you meet have been working hard and biting back tears all day as well. Even if you don’t know a fellow volunteer very well, don’t be afraid of offering a genuine “How are YOU doing?” Actively creating that space to talk about what you’re experience can build strong relationships, and help process and integrate what you both are experiencing. You're in a unique, passionate, multicultural community, so engage, and learn from it.

Once back at home, it might feel alienating to try to talk to friends and family about what you've experienced here. Even if they love and support you and the refugees 100%, you have been in such a huge, traumatic, and completely foreign environment, it's going to be difficult to feel understood. Be gentle with them, say what you need, and accept their love and concern for you.

And loved ones back home reading this: Listen! Ask open-ended questions. Read the news so that you know what to ask about. Look at your loved one's pictures. Be supportive and empathetic, even if you don't totally understand it. Keep listening, and create a space between you where it's always safe to talk about the volunteer experience. Ask what your loved one needs to feel supported. Get engaged yourself in the refugee crisis.

If a stranger, or someone in your life, is unsympathetic or hostile, don't take it personally. You've had the opportunity to see behind the curtain that the mass media paints for us. If you are ready to engage with someone who doesn't 'get it' please do so from a calm, informed, and respectful place. If you're not in a good place to challenge someone's opinion, then respectfully decline to engage. In the same way that no refugee 'owes' you their story and opinion, you don't have an obligation to be the great defender of the crisis. Though, if you are able to be an informed, respectful, advocate back home, that is great! In all of this, be aware of your own privilege, and let the things you become aware of here influence how you interact with people. Be a humble advocate. Don't make the story be about you. Give the refugees a voice.

It's easy to be overwhelmed by the combination of war in the news and the individual tragedies in front of you. To be optimistic sometimes seems absurd, and it flies in the face of what sensationalist mass media wants us to believe, but we must be optimistic. We have to be able to see that traumatized children can still play, and remember that thousands of volunteers have come here, with the support of friends and family, from around the world. We have to be able to enjoy a beautiful sunrise, see the love and hope a young Syrian couples shares, and appreciate the Greek grandmothers who rock scared refugee babies to sleep. We have to recognize that we are part of community of people who are as bothered by this injustice as you are

When you get back home, don't fall back asleep. The transition back to daily life can be difficult if you disengage. Instead, allow what you've seen here to change you, and continue to seek out ways at home to advocate and to remain involved. Keep in touch with the people you met while volunteering. Having borne witness to this amount of tragedy should break your heart and break you out of the comfortable worldview you've had before this. Some have described that in hindsight, their life feels like it is divided between “pre-Lesvos and post-Lesvos.” Some are unhappy back at home, in what feels like a shallow life, until they book a return ticket. It is difficult to ever fully “leave” the island. The crisis hasn’t ended because you’re back at home, and Lesvos is not the only place where tragedy is happening, so continue to support the refugees, and to foster better understanding in your own community. Be proud of your contribution to humanity during such a dark time, and be grateful that you were able to be here. Wherever you are, be the reason that others can be optimistic about humanity.

Further Resources:

International network of counselors and psychologists are available for Skype support for volunteers on Lesvos (and other islands). This is provided by each therapist as a free service for volunteers in Lesvos who are feeling overwhelmed or just needing to talk. Please contact with your language preference.

"Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide To Caring For Self While Caring For Others" by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky is a really fantastic book that has helped me a lot in my social work career and in volunteering.
"This book is written for anyone who is doing work with an intention to make the world more sustainable and hopeful—all in all, a better place—and who, through this work, is exposed to the hardship, pain, crisis, trauma, or suffering of other living beings or the planet itself. It is for those who notice that they are not the same people they once were, or are being told by their families, friends, colleagues, or pets that something is different about them."

Guardian article on "Mental Health Crisis Among Aid Workers" with practical suggestions for self care.

If you have questions, concerns, suggestions, or just want to reach out, my email is
I've done social work with the homeless population of Portland, Oregon for four years and have been done on-scene trauma intervention alongside emergency response. I have an interest in mitigating secondary trauma among advocates through building community and sharing information. After spending a month volunteering on Lesvos with A Drop In The Ocean, I became concerned with the effect that the work was having on volunteers. I hope that this article, and my being vulnerable about my experience in my other writing will help give words to what the helpers are going through. Here's a link to another article I wrote on my volunteer experience on Lesvos "Hope and Heartbreak." Thank you for reading, and thank you to Chris Murray, Remy Abdoul Troubadour, and Siri Mette Vollmo for your help and suggestions on this piece.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Five Stories from Lesvos

By Colleen Sinsky

Here are five stories from Lesvos that will never be on the news. I wrote them each to share on Facebook in order to document my month of volunteering here and to advocate for a more compassionate refugee resettlement program in the US by humanizing the victims I've met here. I've been surprised by the overwhelming response to each of these vignettes, so here are they are, collected for you. Thank you for reading!

"If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you  have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."
-Lilla Watson

One night in late November, the Greek Coast Guard got a call that a refugee boat was hours overdue because family members back in Turkey hadn't heard from their loved ones on board. After searching the dark sea for hours, the Coast Guard found the raft and brought everyone on board to the nearest land- a tiny fishing village-where a café was turned into a makeshift Emergency Room. There, doctors and volunteers managed to save everyone, despite many suffering from hypothermia and shock, including a nine month old baby with Downs Syndrome. Throughout the rescue, the refugees were frantically telling the aid workers that there was someone else lost at sea- they had to continue searching. 
When the engine of the raft had died halfway across the Aegean, and the overcrowded raft began to fill with water, the families on board panicked. The last of their possessions were tossed overboard, but they continued to drift and slowly sink on the dark sea. From the edge of the raft, a tall, broad-shouldered man from Iraq spoke up. His wife and children had been killed by the rockets that destroyed his home. He was alone in the world. To give the sinking raft more time, he would jump overboard, hoping that without his weight, the others on board would have a chance of rescue. 

I don't know how long he floated, or what that frigid, lonesome night in the Aegean was like. I imagine that he looked up at the stars and thought about his wife and children, and how he would soon meet them again. I imagine that they would be proud of him.

Meanwhile, the Spanish lifeguards had heard the story and quickly mobilized jet skis, heading off into the darkness to find him. Every once in a while the lifeguards would cut the engines, scan the choppy water with flashlights, and call his name. Eventually their light fell onto the man's waterlogged orange life vest, and the lifeguards raced his unconscious body back to the café on shore. Doctors and volunteers had few resources, but spent two hours administering oxygen and trying to warm him up. The doctors said that he teetered on the brink of life and death and would not have survived another five minutes in the water. But he did survive. He eventually sat up to ask about the raft and to thank his rescuers in every language he knew. I don't know his name or where he hopes to go, but I know that he texts his rescuers updates and gratitude daily. I hope he finds a place he can someday call home again.

It's true that not all refugees are women and orphans. It's true that they come from a culture that I know little about. And it's true that it's easier to think in broad generalizations and to let fear overshadow our responsibility towards other humans. But I would rather live in a country with that man who willingly sacrificed his life, than be part of one that would exclude him. 

Thanks to Joakim B Olsen and Maria Kamal, fellow volunteers at A Drop In The Ocean, ( who spent a long night saving lives and  told me their story. 

Also to the lifeguards of Proactiva

And doctors of IsraAid

It was eerie to walk amid these towering piles of discarded life vests. I'm now used to seeing the vests along beaches, but in the central landfill- where all of the gathered vests are brought from around the island- I was struck by the sheer magnitude of this crisis, and by this physical evidence of the collective trauma endured along the journey. I couldn't stop comparing this massive pile on Lesvos to the tens of thousands of shoes taken from the Jews murdered in the Holocaust because they were not able to flee the Nazi regime. I thought that the purpose of displaying those shoes in various Holocaust memorial museums around the world was to shame and remind the world of the terror our ignorance once caused. If it is only through hindsight that we let ourselves be horrified by atrocities of this scale, then we are doomed to repeat history again and again.

More than a piece of trash, each vest represents a life story. Of bombs destroying neighborhoods and random police raids, and children going to bed afraid. Of the agonizing decision to pack and leave the only home you've ever known because a war zone isn't a home, and to become a placeless family at the mercy of an unmerciful world. Of forcing your children to keep walking through the night and to lie silently so that you won't be discovered. Of beatings at the border and remembering the favorite food you'll never have again. Of seeing that much open water for the very first time, and then the tiny raft that the smuggler you paid is now forcing you to get on. And you know that 60 people is too many for a boat this size, and you know that each life vest you paid €150 for is fake, and you know how many people have drowned ahead of you on this crossing, but you sit in the boat anyways and hold your beautiful, scared children close. You avoid eye contact with the others because seeing your fear and desperation reflected in them would be more than you could handle. So you stare straight ahead, while your brain prays for "Europe. Europe. Europe. Europe." so that there's not space to wonder if your wandering nightmare will ever end. Because when your home is a pile of rubble, and there is nowhere but forward, you tell yourself that this life vest means hope and not death.

"What you have to understand, is that no one puts their children on a boat unless the water is safer than the land."
-From "Home" by Warsan Shire


The engine of the small wooden boat that 'Sara' and her family were on gave up halfway across the Aegean Sea this morning. They were adrift towards a dangerous coastline until a local fisherman managed to tow them to a rocky beach where we, and a team of Greek lifeguards were waiting. We formed a human chain to dry land and passed the babies and kids to safety. Everyone was shaken but fine. 
I cannot imagine the anguish of risking the ocean in an overcrowded boat with your children. I cannot imagine the horror that they are escaping. 
Sara is blind in one eye from shrapnel from a rocket hitting their neighborhood in Syria, but you would never guess it from how well she looks after her younger sisters, how ready she is to play a game, and how quickly she figured out my iPhone camera. 
Her family has one suitcase between them, and nothing left of their home. This is whose future will be made hopeless by closed borders.
Today, during a quiet, chilly morning spent cleaning a Lesvos beach, I found a soggy pink backpack rocking in the waves. I dragged it up the shore and knelt down beside it to search for a passport I could try to reunite with its owner. I pulled out small pink Levis, a sweatshirt with a rainbow owl, frilly yellow socks, a purple hairbrush and messy collection of hair ties. No passport or anything identifiable, but a young girl's entire life possessions carefully folded, carried, and then lost.

What was she thinking as she chose which clothes to pack? Was she optimistic, imagining herself as the American girls she'd seen on TV? Was she terrified, as bombs shattered the neighborhood outside?  Were her parents shouting from down the hall, "Hurry, it's time to leave."? Did she say a final tearful goodbye to her favorite stuffed animal who wouldn't fit?

I don't know the fate of the pink backpack's owner. I found it beside a young Syrian boy's passport, so they may have washed up together from a raft that sank in the night. It may have been tossed overboard when an overcrowded raft began to fill with water. I wish I knew where she is now—I think. 

There is too much tragedy here for it to be newsworthy anymore, but these  stories deserve to be told.

"Hamid" and I met walking past the glow of a campfire on 'Afghan Hill' in a squalid, overcrowded refugee camp in southern Lesvos last night. We were born just 22 days apart into wildly different worlds- USA and Afghanistan. He is a former elementary school English teacher and UN volunteer who just arrived on a raft from Turkey, seeking a safe place to call home.
Here is the essence of the insights that Hamid shared in the raw conversation that ensued.

"I've seen so many things that make me question if life should have happened. People who have lost their entire families and had to leave with nothing. Would it be better if life had never happened, rather than this misery? I used to think yes, but I am trying to be optimistic. 

I know that the mass media lies everywhere, but for 27 years I saw them telling us that the US and Europe don't care about us, the poor people. But I realize, here on Lesvos, that that's not true at all. Can you believe that last night at 3am I saw two female volunteers like you actually walking around to ask if people were okay? Really! They actually came here from their countries, just for us, and were awake all night just to see that refugees here were warm enough. I still can't believe it. I thought that no one cared, that no one got along, but here it's different. Yeah, this camp isn't very nice, and it's very cold, but I've never experienced multiculturalism and volunteers like this. For the first time, I am really optimistic. Maybe our governments do not get along, but here we do get along. This place makes me happy. It makes me optimistic for my future and for the world, because it's happening here. 

I can see so much beauty in the world, and it's important, because without that, and without optimism, that's not life anymore. I was talking to a volunteer doctor here yesterday, and she was also very sensitive and emotional like you, and we decided the truth. That it's good to be a sensitive person, and to feel others' pain, because if you don't, then you are missing out on a key part of being human. You're not really living how humans are supposed to live. You're supposed to care for each other no matter how different they are. And that is what's happening here."

Thank you Hamid, I needed that lesson in optimism as a send off from this beautiful, heartbreaking island. 

And thank you volunteers and other allies for being a beacon of compassion in an otherwise dark time.