The Changing Role of the International Volunteer on the Aegean Islands

by Jacob Warn, former Executive Editor, currently volunteering with refugees on the Greek island of Chios

The refugee crisis has brought populations all over Europe to a breaking point of intolerance. Local populations, once welcoming, have lost their patience, evidenced on Chios, a Greek island separated from Turkey by five kilometres of water. Here, as elsewhere, local and refugee populations have been forced to co-exist for decades.

Locals often look back to the 1990s and early 2000s when the first refugees arrived on the shores of this island. They speak anecdotally of their unconditional offers of help, support, clothing and housing. Yet their stories end in frustration as they recall the prolonged impact on their communities, businesses and livelihoods.

As a volunteer working with an educational NGO on this island, our work revolves around children of the refugee population. We spend our time isolated from the Greek population, collecting children from the camps, spending days inside our school buildings and socialising amongst ourselves. Those we meet are typically other volunteers, from all over the globe, yet few Greeks. We may have learnt Arabic and Persian, spoken French or Spanish, but after 5 months we know no more Greek than on our arrival.

With the recent announcement that the Greek government plans to take over all NGO operations on the Greek islands from July, it remains to be answered who will be the friendly faces and unconditional supporters of these men, women and children. It’s true that there are those from Chios who offer their solidarity, who volunteer themselves and seek to ameliorate circumstances. But they are few. Attacks by far-right parties occur with unfortunate frequency, but perhaps even more damaging is the growing impatience and intolerance of the wider populations. Add to this the sad and often misplaced preconceptions of refugees against Greece and Greeks, arising from their first encounter with the country and a tendency to lay the blame at the feet of their first hosts.

It is increasingly important, then, that we come to recognise the potential of international volunteers as conduits between local and refugee populations, not just as filling the gap as local populations become disenfranchised. As I spend longer here, it seems clear that we must use our positions, resources and skills to acts as intermediaries. Indeed, fostering and healing relationships between Greek locals and the migrant populations waiting for months or years for their asylum requests may be an aspect of the humanitarian response forgotten in the overwhelming international response to the refugees arriving on European shores.

This means taking practical steps to re-introduce and re-acquaint the long-term and short-term inhabitants on Chios. As educationalists, this includes opening up our schools and centres to all, so that young people have the opportunities to meet each other and to learn together. It means using the incredibly diverse skill-sets of international volunteers, coming to Chios for humanitarian aid, to achieve a broader and far more ambitious social goal. Schools, hospitals and other state-run buildings continue to suffer from Greece’s economic crises of the past eight years, but by sharing our energy, creativity and resources with these institutions, we can continue to indirectly help our intended beneficiaries by improving the conditions and experiences of all those on the island.

For example, this week at Be Aware and Share, we launched a new ‘Bar Bites’ initiative whereby graduates of the organisation’s refugee Cooking School produce small cookies and savoury snacks for a number of bars and cafes in Chios town. Affording some structure and activity to those waiting in the camps, the initiative makes good use of donation funding to cover the small production costs, whilst the cookies we provide to bars subtly send out a message of cooperation in the spirit of conviviality.

As we count down the weeks and months before the Greek State’s ‘take-over’ on the Aegean islands, the role of the international volunteer has to change, or rather, it must take on an additional responsibility. For it is in fact irresponsible to work without reaching out to the communities in whose neighbourhoods we operate on a daily basis. We do a disservice not to constantly seek out the solidarity and support of local populations, since when we leave, as we must, it is those who we first came to help who risk to lose the most.

The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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