“Breathe,” I thought to myself as I crouched to the ground for the umpteenth time to frantically dig through the children’s shoe bins to find a pair of boots to put on the shivering little boy sitting on the counter in front of me.
No more than 6 years old, he had just taken one of the most dangerous journeys of his life from Turkey to Greece in a rubber dinghy filled to the brim with others escaping violence and war in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Cold and soaking wet after his trip across the sea, it was my job to get him out of his wet clothes and into dry ones as quickly as possible.
As I gently tried to push his foot into a boot that I thought would fit, I gave him a thumbs up and a thumbs down to try to determine if the shoe fit or not. As I awaited his response, a soaking wet woman pulled on my arm, saying something in a language I couldn’t distinguish. I motioned “one minute” to her as I turned back to the boy to confirm the boots (more or less) fit and then to bins behind me to track down a hat and gloves so that he could be on his way, and I could help the next cold, wet new arrival.
I was recently talking with a friend in the U.S. about my experience volunteering with Lighthouse Relief on the Greek island of Lesvos earlier this winter. (You can read more about my time in Greece here.) As I tried to tell her what I did each day, I found it difficult to describe the place where I spent most of my time — Lighthouse’s women and children’s clothing tent.
Each day, boats full of people land on the shores of Lesvos. Those that arrive on the northern part of the island must make the long trek to a registration center in the south, which is approximately 30 miles away across the mountains of Lesvos. When a boat lands near the Lighthouse Relief camp*, new arrivals are greeted at the beach, escorted to camp where they can warm up by the fire, change into dry clothes, have tea and snacks, get information about next steps, and be on there way to registration on the other side of the island. Their time at Lighthouse camp is usually brief; however, the services provided help to prepare them for the difficult journey ahead, no matter where their final destination may be.
Shortly after beginning my stint as a volunteer with Lighthouse, I found the place where I could be of the most assistance was the women and children’s clothing tent. I had previously heard that it was a bit chaotic and overwhelming, and I even met some volunteers who pledged that after a few days in the tent that they would never step foot in it again!
What happens in the women’s tent is hard to describe…
It’s a mix of serving as a welcome committee and a friendly face for new arrivals,
to being arms to hug and a shoulder to cry on for those who are overwhelmed by their journey and safe arrival.
It’s part clothing changer as you remove wet clothes as quickly as possible from people you’ve just met to get them into something warm and dry for the cold winter days,
and part stylist as you attempt to put together an outfit that they would actually like to wear and feel comfortable in, particularly understanding cultural differences in clothing.
It’s part babysitter as you find yourself with someone’s crying child in your arms as the mother runs in the changing room to get into dry clothes,
and part newly met BFF as you (while not being able to speak a word of the same language) laugh with a woman about your age as you hold up different clothing options for her to choose from and her reaction when she sees some of her options.
It’s part desperation as you reach the bottom of the plastic bin to find that there are no shoes left in the size you need and see at least 5 other women who you know will need shoes in the same size and you’re not sure what to do,
and part joy when you see a child’s face light up when she sees the new pair of sneakers that she will get to wear rather than her soaking wet ones.
Sometimes it’s gut-wrenching as you see a little boy refuse to accept a dry winter coat because he thinks that you will take away the one he brought from home, which is all he has left to remind him of where he’s from, and then the relief on his face when you put the new coat on him and put his wet coat in a bag for him to take with him.
It’s the feeling that if you stop moving and take a moment to look around you and fully think through the situation that the new arrivals must have found themselves in at home to have left everything behind, the very dangerous journey they just undertook to be standing in front of you, and what difficult conditions lie ahead for them before they can find a new, safe home that you just might fall apart.
It’s part entertainer as you talk non-stop to a little boy about trying to find him clothes (even though he can’t understand you) to distract him from his shivering while you try to determine is he 6-7, 8-10, or 12-14 in children’s pants,
and it’s part innovator as you try to figure out just what to do when a 9-year old boy doesn’t want to strip down totally naked in front of a tent full of women and children he has never met before so you grab an emergency blanket, jump over the counter, and get his brother to help you create a mini-changing room in the middle of the tent so the little boy will take off his cold, wet clothes and put on dry ones.
It’s part bouncer as you stand at the entrance to the tent telling wet women and children that they can’t all come in the tent at the same time and that they must wait in the cold for space to clear out so that there’s room for them to enter and change,
and it’s part dancer as you learn to flow in front of, behind, and around a handful of other volunteers as you all quietly and quickly pull out bins, grab clothes, and maneuver around each other in a very small space to help new arrivals change as fast as possible.
When you’re lucky and someone speaks English or there is a translator around, it’s part listener as you get a chance to hear the stories of those who have risked so much and have a moment to tell you at least a little bit about their lives and why they fled,
and it’s part hand-sign extraordinaire as you try to decipher what is needed when your English and Spanish aren’t that useful when communicating with those speaking Farsi, Pashtu, Dari, Arabic, Nepali, and seemingly a hundred other languages that you don’t know.
It’s part productive as you feel like you are actually doing something helpful for those who have just arrived,
but it’s also extremely overwhelming as your ears ring from the sound of babies wailing for 5 hours on end, urgent requests yelled in from the medical tent, the sighs of pregnant women who can’t find a shirt long and stretchy enough to cover their growing bellies, and your fellow volunteer waiting outside the tent who keeps pressing whether she can send more people in or not and how much longer until she can.
My second day volunteering with Lighthouse, I spent 5 hours nonstop in the women’s tent feeling all of the above a thousand times over. It was tragic, it was exhausting, and a bit disheartening — but, more than anything, it was hopeful.
It was a reminder of the strength of the human spirit to survive and just know that a better life exists somewhere.
And, while I may not have been able to broker world peace or solve the conflict in Syria or save anyone’s life as a volunteer in the women’s tent. For just a minute, I was a welcoming face, I was a hand to hold, I was someone who was there and who cared. And, while it may not change the course of history, for a moment, I was helpful to a fellow human in need. And, this is why I continued to go to the women’s tent every day.
It wasn’t as glamorous as pulling people out of the water on the beach. I didn’t have as much time to talk one-on-one with asylum seekers as those who worked by the fire as new arrivals waited on their family members or friends to change. (Not to say that any of these tasks were not equally as important!) But, the women’s tent was a place where I could do something to prepare those seeking asylum for the many challenges ahead. It was a place where my organization, efficiency, and calm demeanor under pressure could be helpful. And, maybe, a place where I could give those I met a sliver of hope that not all those they met along their way were out to get them or take advantage of them — that some people were there to help and provide assistance with no expectations of anything in return.
This is the women’s tent, and I’m glad that I got to be just a small part of 1 tent on 1 island in the midst of such a huge crisis.
* When I refer to the “Lighthouse camp” it is less of a camp and more of a transition area. On land rented by the organization, Lighthouse has set up a number of tents and several fire pits. Approximately 25 meters from the water’s edge lies the entrance to the camp. Inside are port-a-potties, a women and children’s clothing tent, a men’s clothing tent, a kitchen tent, 2-3 large tents that can sleep up to about 200 people in close quarters, a storage tent, a medical tent, and a tent for The Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island. It’s just meant to be a temporary place for people to come and sit by the fire after surviving their ocean crossing, get dry clothes, have something warm to eat, get information about next steps, and continue on their way.
This post is dedicated to all of the volunteers who have taken time out of their lives and traveled near and far to help those on Lesvos and other areas throughout Europe and the Middle East. I met some incredible people (including those pictured below and the one who took this photo) during my time in Lesvos, and I’m a better person for my time with them. Keep up the good work!