Today was the first of many volunteering. Anna, Amy, and I got a taxi to Pikpa since we didn’t actually know where it was, and went in for the morning meeting. This consisted of a group of people from all over the world sitting outside in the sun, on homemade couches upcycled from life jacket stuffing and rubber boats, talking about the day. Everyone spoke English with accents that ranged from New Zealand (Anna), to South Africa (Sim), to Canada (Ray), to Yorkshire (Nel), to Texas, Athens, Syria, Jordan, Holland, France, and many more.
Pikpa used to be a summer camp until it closed, but several years ago a group of volunteers began turning it into a home for especially vulnerable refugees. Marieke, a Dutch volunteer who has been on Lesvos for several months and orients new volunteers, described vulnerable as, “Single parent families, or families that have become single parent on the way, because we do have many tragic stories. We also take people with disabilities, chronic illness, things like that…. Our priority is taking care of our guests. If you get involved in a project and one of our guests needs something, you stop the project and take care of the guest, that’s how we do it here. They are the priority.”
Marieke outlined the code of conduct, gave us a tour of the camp, and assigned chores. We split up to take out the garbage, clean the toilets, begin food preparation, and tear apart life vests. Everyone worked, chatted, and greeted each other with hugs. Some of the camp’s guests came by every now and then and said hello.
It struck me that everyone, including the refugees, seemed happy. The volunteers were enthusiastic about their projects, thrilled to meet new volunteers, and eager to convince us to stay long-term. The nominal organizers went out of their way to make us feel welcome and give us a representative view of what goes on at the camp. It felt less like a temporary gathering place and more like a permanent home with a rotating group of residents. It felt intentional. “Have fun,” said Marieke, when assigning tasks, “If you’re not having fun, stop what you’re doing and go do something else.”
Around 13:00 two cars full of eight people left Pikpa for a warehouse outside Mytilene. Our task was to sort donations and box them up for transport to wherever they were most needed. Easy, I thought, I’m an organized kind of person. Sorting clothes. Easy.
In a sense it was easy. We opened boxes, split things up into logical categories, and boxed them up again. But in another sense, the job was impossible. When we opened the large, double doors of the concrete warehouse set into the side of a hill, I heard an audible silence. Nel twinkled at us, “So! Our job is to get this all sorted today!”
“Do you really think we can do all this in one day?” asked Alison, an older volunteer from the UK and Turkey.
Nel burst out laughing, “No, we have two weeks. But if I say ‘we’ll do twenty boxes,’ then we’ll do twenty boxes! If I say, ‘we’ll do forty boxes,’ then we’ll do forty!”
We worked for four and a half hours, and did something around forty or fifty boxes. By the end we’d made a noticeable dent in the pile, and we were all exhausted. To keep our spirits up we had a fashion show…
We admired the view…
… And played a brief game of Would You Rather, during which the most important thing I learned was that only Americans like playing “summer camp games” while we work. Zekei, a volunteer from Turkey, said to me, “You can share your American love of community experience,” which I can assure you is not a sentence I expected to hear today.
We only had one small avalanche, and all it revealed was a box full of alarming clothes from the eighties. According to Ray there is actually an office buried somewhere in the pile, but I don’t think we’ll find it for at least another week. It was a fun day, and I’ll be at it again tomorrow! The only discouraging thing about it was how much we had to throw out. At a guess I’d say maybe 50-60% were useful right away. We boxed up summer things for later, but my estimate is that we threw away around 20-30% of the clothes we sorted. If you’re considering donating, feel free to send me a message or a comment asking what we need in the moment! Warm shoes, long overcoats, and warm winter things are very welcome right now. Think about walking through Europe in January. What would you want to wear?
Better yet, consider donating money instead of items. As I get more familiar with the groups working on the island I will compile a document of reputable local aid organizations that take donations. Volunteers and organizers on the ground know what they need, and they can buy it locally, thus stimulating the Greek economy while helping refugees. Double the impact!
All in all an auspicious start to this adventure. I’m looking forward to the months ahead!
Kalinichta from Mytilene!
*From now on I’m spelling it “Lesvos” rather than “Lesbos,” as that is how the locals do it when they write the name of the island in Latin script.