It has already been almost a full month since returning home from volunteering with the refugee relief effort in Greece.
When I first arrived back home, I had a hard time talking about my time in Greece. For the first week, I kept myself within the safe confines of my apartment. Not because I didn't want to talk about it, but because I didn't know how. I didn't know how to answer the imminent "How was your trip?" questions that would surely be fielded my way. How do you answer such an innocently trivial question to describe an experience so big? And what if people already had their own preconceived notions and stances on the refugee crisis? What if they diminished my experience, and most of all the stories of those I had the chance to listen to, to mere numbers, or to incomplete information heard through the media or through their own circles? What if people didn't want to talk about it at all?
Amongst our volunteer circle, we were constantly plugged into every small development, happening both in Greece and across other borders, that might have an effect on the refugees. We were part of numerous Facebook information groups and Whatsapp groups - receiving updates on the number of boats that arrived overnight, the number of drownings that day, and the constant update on conditions and needs of camps across the country. We discussed everything openly, without judgment but with understanding. The common goal amongst everyone, refugee or volunteer, was to understand the situation better. Get the facts. Find out information on what to do next, what the options for all of these individual refugees stranded in Greece were, and how we could provide them with even a bit of dignity and hope. If there were moments of silence, most of us were still having these conversations within our own heads. After 12 + hour shifts, we would regroup and meet over a bite to eat and discuss our day, our experiences, and our encounters even further. We would then collapse in our hotel rooms, sometimes after a few shed tears and emotionally charged conversations, just to get a few hours of sleep before doing it all over again the next day.
I've realized that the most strange and hard aspect of being back home has been the silence and the normalcy.
Every day I wake up to what are sometimes hundreds of Whatsapp messages from volunteers still in Greece communicating through various groups, calling for help at the port, organizing shifts, sharing on the ground information, calling for translators, informing others about protests, and organizing themselves to best deliver services and aid. Our own Whatsapp group named "Team America" (how other volunteers affectionately began referring to our 10 person group of Americans, Canadians, and one Bosnian) has not seen a single silent day since returning back to our own cities. We individually still check in through Whatsapp and Facebook with refugees that we became friends with, and whom we are trying to help from afar if only to try and gather information that isn't available to them on the ground.
We left the refugee crisis in Greece almost a month ago, but it has not left us. The role that technology has played in this has been incredible. Inside my smartphone screen is another world, another reality, that I am transported back into every single day. Outside of that screen, the world is normal. People in Ottawa are coming out of winter hibernation, they are convening on sun-drenched patios, they go about their regular scheduled programming. I have been doing the same. I have also caught myself repeatedly stopping and observing this privileged, peaceful, safe reality that I find myself back in, and all I want to do is scream.
"WHY THE FUCK AREN'T PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT THIS!? Why is it so QUIET!"
I've quickly learned that only through sharing experiences and stories of uncomfortable and shocking subject matter, that we can begin to have conversations that NEED to happen. By creating a discourse we give life to things that matter, we make others realize that they matter. I've also realized that people do care and they do want to listen. They want to be shocked. They want to know the reality. They want to be able to feel connected to the rest of humanity. Most of all, They want to know what they can do. Then, of course, there are those who will remain bigots no matter how hard one may try to empathize with them. But even they deserve to hear the stories, because if there is a small glimpse of understanding amongst the bigotry, then we are much further ahead as a collective race than we would be behind from spending a few moments of our time talking to one another about things that matter.
Where I began, on a personal level, became so far from where I ended after just 2 weeks in Greece. I don't have any particular word to describe what this experience was like. Nor did I ever expect to. It was everything. Sad, uplifting, humorous, uncomfortable, exhausting, heartbreaking, shocking, frustrating, angering, beautiful, inspiring, demoralizing, inhumane, human, amazing, challenging, impactful, and emotional beyond words.
There is nothing that can prepare one for something like this. As much as I thought I knew about the globally defined "refugee crisis", as much as I thought I could relate and understand, and as much as I thought to be mentally prepared for what was to come, most of my own preconceived notions went out the door on Day 1 in Lesvos. All of this has left me with this lingering thought over the past few weeks;
How do we maintain valid perceptions of the world and the events that happen globally, when many of those perceptions are formed by what mainstream media presents us, how it does so, and the many factors that affect how that presentation of information is carried out?
Before arriving in Greece, my own perceptions of the refugee crisis were largely influenced by what I saw on the media. In my mind, I had prepared myself to go to Greece and volunteer in providing relief to Syrian refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. Of course, our team met and helped so many Syrian families, children, young men, and women. However, it instantly became clear that this refugee crisis is much bigger, and spans much further than solely the Syrian refugee experience. This is about humanity on a global scale.
This is about stepping out of our individualistic mindsets and remembering events that are close enough in history that the memories still bring about pain for many. We need to change the conversation away from what's been presented to us. Away from the discourse that this crisis is a global security concern. This is a global humanitarian crisis, quickly becoming the largest in our history as civilized nations.