I’m 32 years old, and until 2016 I’d never volunteered, or supported a cause. I’d always been too focused on the way my own situation failed to live up to what I thought I deserved. I thought that life was about achieving personal happiness, career success, making someone love you, building a home. I felt cheated out of all of these things, blamed my less-than-perfect start in life for my failure to succeed in adulthood, and generally never really looked above the parapet at anything going on outside.
I knew there was a refugee crisis, but it wasn’t real to me.
Then, channel-surfing whilst home alone one Sunday, I stumbled across Al-Jazeera, a channel I didn’t know we had. I watched a news bulletin. And another. And another. I couldn’t turn away. I’d never seen news shows like that before – graphic, unflinching, unfiltered. I stayed seated through a documentary on Aleppo before finally switching off the television.
I felt panic, helplessness, shock. I felt disgust – at what was happening out there, and at myself and everyone like me living our bubble lives in here. I had to do something, and I had no idea what.
I spent the next hours online, researching. I learned about the Jungle in Calais – less than 50 miles away from my hometown as the crow flies, but I’d barely known it existed. I got in touch with a teacher there. I tried to figure out what the most basic, immediate needs would be in that environment and came up with a ludicrous plan to bring Portaloos to the camp. It was stupid. I had neither the connections nor the know-how to pull it off. But it was a start.
Unfortunately, with the failure of my ‘project’, I reverted to my usual state of mind – apathy. For the next few months, I took no further action. I moved house. I took a promotion at work. I started a new relationship. I focused on me.
And yet none of those things made me happy. And the unhappier I became, the harder it became to maintain the wall between me and the outside world. I couldn’t keep up the pretence that nothing was happening out there. I’d seen what humans were doing to other humans. Something had changed.
I started looking for a way to contribute. I felt that if I could do something constructive, positive, useful, it would be a step towards balancing out the destruction perpetrated by other fellow humans. I found a community centre close to my home which offered English classes to asylum seekers and refugees, and started volunteering there once a week as an English teacher in their youth sessions. And finally I understood something – that the faceless wave of refugees is made up of individuals. Actual people. All kinds of people.
I taught teenagers from Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea. Many of them had fled their homes alone. Many would be sent back once they turned 18. Getting to know them, one by one, was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had so far. Above all, I was astounded at the kindness and friendship they showed to one another. They didn’t care if one student couldn’t understand a language point when everyone else could – they would stop the lesson and explain to him over and over again until he got it. Lessons began with a mixture of frustration and joy for me – the kids were never on time, and the class would stop whenever a student showed up so that he could hug and kiss each other member of the class.
I began to understand though, how much the system was working against these wonderful children. The majority were attending local schools, where they were expected to follow a similar curriculum to that of their local peers. Most of them didn’t have the English language skills to manage this, and the resources to support them just didn’t exist. Whatever I could do with them once a week would never be enough.
At the same time, my personal life was nose-diving. I hated my job, my boyfriend, my living situation. I needed to make changes. I asked myself what made me happy about my current life, and was surprised when I realised that the time I was happiest was Saturday morning, volunteering at the community centre. I felt useful. I was using my time on something that mattered. I wanted to do more of that.
I decided to take a two month break from work, and applied to be a volunteer English teacher with a small NGO in a camp in mainland Greece. With very little idea of what to expect, I booked my tickets, packed my bags and left.
That was nearly eight months ago. I never came back to my old life. I’m now the Education Coordinator for that same NGO, and currently have no plans to return to ‘normal’ life. There is never an easy day here, but there is never a day when I doubt my decision to stay either. A previous volunteer put my feelings into words as she tried to explain why she keeps coming back here. “When I’m in my home country, I feel that the world is mean, our politicians take the easy way out and people are either quiet or racist. When I work in camp, I am surrounded by people who want to think and believe that there is another way of doing this.”
Working in the field, I have found so much darkness and fear, but I have also found hope, and I’m not letting go of it.