As you may know, earlier this winter, I spent 10 days in Greece volunteering on the island of Lesvos with Lighthouse Relief, assisting asylum seekers who were arriving via boat from Turkey. I’ve had a number of people contact me asking about my experience who have said that they have considered volunteering themselves. So, in response to these inquiries, I wanted to put together a list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) in case you’re thinking of volunteering on Lesvos or just interested in learning more about the details of my experience.
Where did you volunteer?
After researching a few different organizations, talking with people who had traveled to the island previously, and getting in contact with Lighthouse Relief, I felt that this organization was a good fit for the work I wanted to do and the time that I had available.
Lighthouse Relief is a Swedish organization that has been operating in northern Lesvos since September 2015. Lighthouse runs a reception camp that greets refugees who arrive along the shore. The camp can sleep up to 200 people who arrive at night and need a place to sleep. Lighthouse also distributes dry clothes, water, and hot food to arrivals. Additionally, the camp has a medical area, play space for children, toilets, and running water. Overnight, Lighthouse runs an operation at the Korakas lighthouse on the rocky coast just east of the town of Skala Sikamineas. Lighthouse also helps with clean-up of the island’s beaches and collaborates with the Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island to wash and re-use clothing.
In addition to Lighthouse, I know people who had good volunteer experiences with Starfish, Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island, and Better Days for Moria. And, there are dozens more groups working on Lesvos that do great work.
What did you do all day?
My responsibilities varied depending on the shift I was working (approximately 7:30 am – 4:30 pm, 3:30 pm – 12:30 am, or 11:30 pm – 8:30 am). I primarily worked the 7:30 am – 4:30 pm shift. This was the time that the camp was the busiest, and I found that my assistance was needed most during this time. My duties ranged from cleaning up tents that had been slept in overnight, preparing tea and distributing it to arrivals, sharing information and flyers with asylum seeker about next steps, helping in the women and children’s clothing tent, coordinating transportation of refugees from the beach to Stage 2 between Lighthouse and UNHCR, picking up trash, sorting dirty and wet clothes for washing, assisting on minor camp infrastructure projects, cleaning up the beach, and everything in between. One of the places I found I enjoyed a great deal, felt most useful, and had the skills for was the women’s tent. (You can read more here.)
In addition to working with Lighthouse at their camp, I also did a night shift at Moria through a partnership Lighthouse has with Better Days of Moria. I worked from 12:00 am – 9:30 am doing everything from serving tea to those waiting in registration line, picking up dirty clothes and blankets to be washed, helping new arrivals find a tent to sleep in for the night, finding blankets for children who did have coats, preparing an overflow area for additional arrivals, distributing clothing to new arrivals, sharing information on how to get from registration to Athens, and working inside the family compound’s distribution room.
What were your costs?
Accommodations – Between 10 euros and 22 euros per night (per person) for a private room with my husband, private bathroom, and heating. However, there are more communal options that can be arranged for cheaper. Check out the Lesvos Hotel Sharing Facebook group to connect with others volunteering and looking to share accommodations.
Food – Approximately 15 euros per person per day, including granola bar for breakfast, lunch at camp or a quick mid-day snack, and large dinner at a restaurant (with wine or beer and sometimes an appetizer). If you’re on a tight budget, find somewhere to stay that has a communal kitchen. Cooking all of your meals can significantly reduce your costs.
Transportation (on Lesvos) – As we were on Lesvos for a limited amount of time, knew that we wanted to travel to multiple places on the island, and weren’t sure what we were doing for accommodations, we decided to rent a car. Lighthouse had also noted that it was useful for volunteers to have a car. We gave people rides to Moria to volunteer and to the airport, and people typically chipped in to help cover the cost of gas. Our rental car cost 30 euros per day. (Note: Our car was a little more expensive as we needed an automatic. If you can drive a stick shift car, you can find one cheaper!) Typically, we take public transportation, however, on Lesvos, the bus runs a lot less frequently in the winter. Overall, we are happy with our decision to have a rental car. But, you can definitely volunteer without one! (Note: If you have to take a taxi to or from the airport, it costs 70 euros each way.) Check out the Lesvos Volunteers Ride Sharing Facebook group to connect with others volunteering and looking to share rental cars or catch rides around the island.
Transportation from Athens to Lesvos – There are two ways to get from Athens to Lesvos — overnight ferry or flight. We found that the flight was not that much more expensive or the same price as the flight. And, as we were short on time, we deiced flying was the best use of our time. We found tickets from Athens to Mytilene between 65 euros and 110 euros per person one way, depending on the day and time.
Communications – We already had an unlocked cell phone and bought a sim card and data package in the Athens airport so that we would have phone and internet access in Greece. It was extremely helpful in communicating with other volunteers, getting directions via GPS, etc. to have a phone. (Although, if you volunteer in the north, we found that our phone regularly picked up the Turkish towers instead of the Greek ones and wouldn’t work if we were down on the beach.) Our sim card, calling, texting, and 2 GB of data cost 40 euros and was more than enough for our time on the island.
Other – Lesvos is a popular tourist destination during the summer, and there are lots of things to see and do on the island. As we were there in the winter, many of these attractions were closed. However, one of the days we were off (as we were planning to work an overnight shift rather than a day shift), we did go check out the castle in Molyvos, which costs 2 euros per person to visit.
What was volunteering on Lesvos like?
If you have never experienced a humanitarian crisis or a natural disaster before, you may be initially overwhelmed by the situation on Lesvos. In some ways, the island is very normal and nothing seems out of the ordinary. But, in other ways, it is a world away from the life that you know. The desperation and hope that I saw in people are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Just remember what people have been through to make it to Lesvos, that you are there to help, and be a friendly welcoming face for new arrivals. If you can do that and follow directions, you will be fine!
To prepare yourself, for volunteering, I would recommend that you become more familiar with the crisis and the situation on Lesvos. The U.N. has an email list that you can subscribe to get daily updates. (Sign up here.) You can also join the Information Point for Lesvos Volunteers Facebook group to hear directly from other volunteers about their experiences and connect with organizations working on the island.
Overall, you must remember that the people that you will be interacting with are vulnerable. They should be protected. At all times, they should be respected, and you should do everything you can to help them maintain their dignity. Take photos and collect stories to share with those back home, but make sure that you always ask first. Be kind and be gentle. And, become familiar with humanitarian principles and the ICRC Code of Conduct.
Do you have to have medical skills?
You do not have to have medical skills; however, they are extremely useful! If you’re not a medical professional, consider getting CPR-certified before you volunteer. Read about how to use emergency blankets and how to help someone suffering from shock and hypothermia. But, at the end of the day, remember that you are not a medical professional and defer to the on-call doctor or nurse in cases of medical emergency.
Do I need to speak Arabic?
No, but it is extremely helpful if you speak Arabic or Farsi. Volunteer organizations greatly need people who speak these languages. However, if you only speak English, don’t let lack of language discourage you from going. Before traveling to Lesvos, learn a few words in Arabic and Farsi. It is always comforting for people to hear a few words of their own language when they arrive to a foreign place. Despite the language barrier, you will be surprised how far hand signs (and a smile!) can get you. And, if you are in a bind, you can almost always find at least one asylum seeker in each boat who speaks English.
Can I go alone?
Absolutely! I know a number of people who traveled to volunteer on Lesvos on their own. You can meet up with volunteers once you arrive or make connections with people on one of the three main volunteer Facebook groups: Information Point for Lesvos Volunteers, Lesvos Volunteers Accommodation Sharing, and Lesvos Car Sharing. Once you’re on the island, it’s easy to make friends with volunteers and find a community of people to connect with.
How do I get around?
See the “What were your costs?” section for more information on renting a car vs. public transportation. Also, the Lesvos Car Sharing Facebook group is a great resource for finding a ride around the island. And, if all else fails, you can take a taxi. (A taxi from the Mytilini airport to Skala Sikamineas, where Lighthouse is located, costs 70 euros.)
What are the 10 things I shouldn’t leave home without?
- Headlamp — I used mine multiple times a day, every day. I never travel without one!
- Unlocked smart phone (and then buy a sim card and data plan upon arrival in Greece)
- Sturdy work/hiking boots
- Long underwear (in the winter!)
- Wool socks (in the winter!)
- Small notepad with pen
- Sharpie (marker)
- Scissors or multi-tool – I regularly needed scissors and rarely could find any!
- Hat (warm for winter, to shade your face in summer)
- Gloves (in the winter!)
- Bonus: Bubbles! You can make almost any child smile by just blowing some bubbles! 🙂