How Can I Help?


I’m currently volunteering with refugees in Greece and have been sharing some of my photographs on Instagram. A good friend of mine, John Stevens, recently sent me a message. “Your Instagram feed has been devastating to watch,” he said. “I don’t know how to help, but I want to.”

Dear John:

Thank you for your note on Instagram. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. I’m glad that you like my images, and I agree with you that the refugee crisis has been “devastating to watch.”

I’m volunteering on Lesbos, the Greek island where many of the refugees land. I was talking to a journalist who said that the previous week the seas had been rough, and she’d helped gather the drowned bodies that had washed up on the shore. A few days ago there was a protest in Mytilene, the main port city here, in which Muslims were demanding space to properly bury their dead. (When a Muslim dies, you’re supposed to bury him with his head facing Mecca.) Imagine fleeing your country, watching your mother or brother or child drown, then having to go through that.

Last night I was working in one of the processing centers where refugees receive the permissions to enter the European Union. I was handing out food and water, and it was only after a few hours that I realized that almost everyone I handed something to was able to receive it with empty hands. These folks had walked from Afghanistan — from Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh — with nothing but the clothes on their backs. That sounds cliche, but I mean it literally. It’s as though they were having lunch at home, heard a bang, stood up, and started walking. Last night I saw a few guys wearing flip-flops. It’s winter in Europe. Imagine.

You ask what you can do. That’s a good question.

I used to volunteer as an EMT in Virginia. That’s why after I arrived to Lesbos, I immediately went to the north: because I’d heard there was a need for volunteers with medical experience. After I arrived, though, I found there wasn’t much to do. For all the talk of “be the change you wish to see in the world,” I was one guy with no medical supplies. Eventually I hooked up with a group of Israeli medics with a 4×4 and better supplies, but even then my ability to help was fairly minimal. After all, if there was a problem at sea, what was I going to do? Fortunately, there was a team of lifeguards who’d arrived from Spain with wetsuits and jet-skis and radar to track rafts at night, and that’s when you start getting into real help territory.

I can help a little. The Spanish lifeguards can help even more. But it’s the Greek Coast Guard that can help the most.

There are thousands of volunteers here. Individuals who quit their jobs to come help, small groups who packed up a van and drove across a continent to donate clothes. And that’s beautiful. For all the awfulness and hatred and devastation that we seem to see every day, a medical student from London decides to burn through her savings to bandage the knee of a father who’s carrying his daughter from Kabul to Munich. My god, that’s beautiful.

But it’s also limited. Because there’s only so much an individual or a small contingent can do. To make a real impact, we the disparate have to figure out ways to coordinate — often with different goals in different languages and for different lengths of time — and there’s only so much Scotch tape can do to facilitate that. At some point, this stops being a job for individuals and starts being a job for organizations. For NGOs. For governments. While a van can distribute blankets out blankets, it’s the UN that provides the shelters that refugees need when it rains. I can hand out bottled water after a refugee is processed, but it’s the Greek government that needs to organize the registration in the first place.

Last week I helped a 13 year-old Bangladeshi boy find a pair of dry shoes in a donation bin beside the beach. From there he walked a few kilometers to a transit camp where he caught a bus to the processing center in the south. If he hasn’t already, he’ll get his registration papers from the Greek police, then take a ferry to Athens. From there he’ll head to Idomeni and the UN camp on Greece’s northern border. If he gets sick along the way — I don’t remember if I gave him socks, too — he can make an appointment with Doctors Without Borders before entering Macedonia and catching the train that will carry him to Serbia. He’ll travel through Croatia, Slovakia, Austria, and into Germany, where he’ll be directed to a new town and new housing to start a new life, which by that point will almost certainly require a new pair of shoes.

imageYou’re around 5200 miles away and ask what you can do to help the crisis. I’m right smack in the middle of it — I’m on the island where the refugees land — and I’m wondering the same thing: What is my role in all of this? I can help with footwear, John, but I don’t have a train.

What can you do to help? What can I?

Before I came here, I bought an old Land Cruiser and drove from Austin to Yellowstone. Texas is huge — you don’t realize how big it is until you try to cross it — and I would occasionally pass road signs warning, “No Services Next 100 Miles.” No gas stations. No roadside diners. No rest stops. Other than highway pavement and fence wire, there were no signs of human existence. Just vast expanses of empty space. Eventually I got to Cody, Wyoming, a beautiful little western town named after the famous Buffalo Bill. One afternoon I walked into a souvenir shop and noticed a t-shirt on the wall. It showed a map of the United States with bold black letters proclaiming, “Fuck Off, We’re Full.”

My family is from Syria and I’m on sabbatical. I came to here to volunteer. And I know that seems like a dramatic thing. But you know what’s the most dramatic realization I’ve had since I arrived? That I didn’t need to come here to help. That if there’s good for me to do in the world, I won’t have to fly 5200 miles to find it. I read this week that the governor of Texas (along with a dozen or so others) had, in the wake of the Paris attacks, written a letter to President Obama saying that Texas would not accept any Syrian refugees. “Terrorists,” they say. “You never know.”

What can you do? What can I? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I think a good place to start is: When the world shows up and asks for help, we can default to yes.

When I see a homeless person begging for money, I can default to yes. When a student lingers after the final bell and asks for extra help, you can default to yes. A young man approached me last night and asked for a blanket. I was tired and we didn’t have any blankets. But I had my personal sleeping bag in the trunk of my rental car. The guy walked up. The opportunity showed up. I said no. I could have said yes.

Of course, there are lots of homeless people and I don’t have enough dollars to go around. You arrive early and teach a full day. At some point you have to go home. At some point you have to say no. There’s no need for martyrdom. There’s a reason there are limits on blood donations. Millions of migrants are streaming towards Europe. Germany has been incredibly generous, but at some point it will have to say no to one thing to say yes to another. It’s entirely possible I made the right call in not offering up my sleeping bag last night; it wasn’t that cold and maybe someone else will need it more late (even if that someone else is me). But it’s not the decision that disappoints me. What disappoints me is how I went about making it. Instead of approaching the situation thinking, “I will help this person unless I can come up with a good reason why I shouldn’t,” I thought, “I won’t help this person unless he can come up with a good reason why I should.”

The default setting. Where the onus lies. That’s an aspect of my character I’d like to improve.

This refugee crisis has been devastating. There are monumental things to be done — feeding millions of people, ensuring their safety, providing stability and shelter — and it’s tempting to think, “I must help.” And we can try. We can take a sabbatical and buy a plane ticket and book a hotel and rent a car and drive to a camp and look a refugee in the eye and smile as we hand him a plastic bag of food. But I did all of that, and I still think I would have done more good by just writing a check to the Red Cross and walking the 2.4 miles from my house to the Texas State Capitol. Instead of trying to fix the planet, I suspect I’d do more good by just focusing on becoming a better, gentler, more patient and more generous person; by becoming the kind of individual the collection of whom make a refugee crisis less likely in the first place. Because aside from the occasional tornado or hurricane, pretty much every disaster we face as a species comes down to us not treating one another very well.

How do we solve manmade crises like these? By not creating them. By opting for kindness. By defaulting to yes. Life gives us plenty of opportunities to get better at that, and we don’t have to travel to find them.

Of course, we as a species did create a crisis and we do need to fix it. What can you do to help, you ask? It’s been a week since you wrote. In that time, what has the world asked of you, and how were your defaults set?

But if you’re looking for something specific: shoes. You can send shoes.

November 17, 2015

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