They give me the silver spoon while they eat with plastic spoons. One did not sleep all night last night because he was so excited I was coming. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that one person cannot change anything. The tiniest bit of kindness you give to these people is returned to you a million-fold. We might not be able to change the system, or help people with asylum, but we can try to make people at home in Europe listen. We can show the people here love and allow them an outlet for their love in return.

Claire Payne :: Ireland :: Age 29 :: Works at Peace Action Training and Research Institute of Romania

Chios Island :: June 2017

  • What made you decide to come and volunteer?

The first time I came to volunteer was in Lesbos in 2015. It was very much a “humanitarian aid” mission. I did not understand what true volunteering is. I raised money, filled a car with supplies, and delivered them on the beach to new arrivals who were hungry, wet and cold. However, there were so many boats constantly arriving, and people moved on so quickly, you had no time to make many personal connections. It really was “crisis mode”. Things are so different now.

  • What did you know about the place and the situation before arriving?

I knew there were a lot of people who needed help. I followed the situation in Lesbos on social media and decided to use my work holidays to come and see what I could do. To be honest, I think I came into the situation pretty blind… Now my eyes couldn’t be more open… You have these people and their stories etched in your mind and heart everywhere you go…

The last five trips I have made have been to Chios. I have so much respect for the people who have given up everything to be there long term. Unfortunately due to work commitments this is not possible for me.

  • When did you arrive and for how long have you stayed?

I have volunteered six times now between Chios and Lesbos. Each visit is generally for around two weeks though my last trip was a short bank holiday weekend- it is amazing how much you can pack into two days there.

  • Did you arive alone or with friends?

I tend to go alone, as I prefer spending more quality time one on one with the people in the camp, rather than socialising with friends from home. It also gives people private time with me as they may wish to share things and stories without a group around.

  • What reactions did you get from family and friends before coming?

Generally they don’t get it. Everyone is wrapped up in their own world, jobs, relationships etc. There are many people who do care and it makes them sad to see what is happening, but they don’t see how it is their problem, and why I should be giving up my time and money to help if I am not being paid. In my view, these people (refugees- I hate the word refugees) have given me more than any money can buy. They have changed me.. All of us who have worked on the islands probably have some degree of trauma… but if we can have helped even just a little, it is worth it.

  • An influential / defining moment you had during volunteering.

There are so many…. the morning I left Souda camp car park for the first time. I just cried with my new friends at the injustice that I could get on a plane and they could not. The stories you hear every day of sadness and struggle… self harm and desparation… It is hard to pick out a specific moment, because there is an intense feeling of doom and desparation on Chios right now. Everything you see and hear adds to this dark cloud, so it is more like a buildup to a thunderstorm right now, as NGOs prepare to pull out and the municipality is planning on building a closed detention centre and carrying out deportations.

  • What do you feel you learned? about the people, about life, about the situation

Spending time with the people in Souda teaches you so much, about yourself, others, and the incredible ability of people to continue in the face of unbelievable adversity. The injustice of life and this world, and of the EU who claims to support human rights. It has made me an angrier person, but also a deeply empathetic one. It has taught me so much about the complexities of war, politics, factions, ethnic divides, just what a human being is capable of doing to another. But also how all these divides fade away in common humanity when volunteers and refugees sit down together over tea and food, and talk as equals. All that separates us is a document which allows me to travel, and them not.

  • Have you experienced moments of crisis or trauma?

Of course…however nothing we experience can ever be compared to those people fleeing war zones with one bag, not knowing what the future holds. Of course you have moments where it can be overwhelming, but it is something I try to push down in order to continue. Probably not the best method of self-care.

  • Do you remember anyone in particular among refugees or volunteers?

Wow, what a question… there are so many! So many….  One I met on the beach in Lesbos, who had arrived with her brother from Aleppo. She collpased on the sand looking back out to sea in tears, as her parents were left behind. Another, an old Iraqi woman, who was the first person I lifted off a boat, who took my face in her hands and kept kissing it… what she must have witnessed… and having been born in London I felt such responsibility for it, and for her… The “brothers” I made in Souda, the rap and music with Abdullah and Ali,Moataz, Khaled, Loay, Abu Seif, my “translator” Khaled, “ya Mohammad”, Suhel, Omar who takes care of the kittens at the Hero Centre with Ahmad…the list is endless… With some I am in touch every day…

  • What are you taking with you back home

All of them. There is a poem “I carry your heart with  me” by E E Cummings. This is how I feel about the guys in Souda…

“i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
It might seem crazy and over-emotional to anyone who does not understand. But when you have this bond with people, everywhere you go, you take them with you. You hope that in every area of your life you can do them justice, spread the word, make people understand them and what is going on. Because in European media they are voiceless. They are portrayed as a threat, an unknown. I know them. I know their stories, their hopes and dreams. They are young men, our age, who should be studying, dating, getting married.I focus on the men as women and children are generally moved quicker from the camp, whereas the men are forgotten by “the system” and left to rot with rats running over their faces at night in the tents. This is not an exaggeration- my friend told me this happened to him. Their lives are on hold. They all have Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat. They just want a chance to continue their lives, their studies. They do not ask for anything else. They don’t want benefits. They want to work, and work hard. They will contribute to any society they join. They are good honest people stuck in an impossible situation through no fault of their own. The European Asylum system is completely immoral and against any “European values”. I don’t think such a thing exists anymore. They don’t want to be stuck on the Greek islands any more than the islanders want them there… I keep saying “they” as I hate the word “refugee”- it amalgamates all these individuals into one blanket term, and we must remember that “refugee” is just a temporary state. It does not define the person. This situation cannot last forever, and I pray that one day soon they will be citizens again with the same rights as us….What is happening is not right… I promised my friends I would fight for them. This I will do.