Translators without Borders has been working with aid organizations responding to the European Refugee crisis since September. Every day, TWB deploys its Words of Relief Rapid Response Teams in Arabic, Farsi and Greek to improve communications between refugees and aid organizations, governments and local residents. Having spent months engrossed in the crisis from afar, TWB Deputy Director, Rebecca Petras, decided to go to Greece with her family in late December and early January as an independent volunteer. Below is part one of her experience volunteering on Chios. Part two will focus on the language divide.
Volunteering on chios
“There’s a boat! There’s a boat!” screamed my daughter from her perch 50 meters above the sea, correctly identifying the approaching black blob. Everyone mobilized. The ‘pirates’ grabbed rescue gear, cars were called to bring dry clothes. The nurse grabbed her kit. We ran to the van to get it warm for babies. And then the boat took a sharp turn up the coast. As often was the case, they had heard us and did not know if we were friend or foe.
When the cold, wet, scared bodies finally reached the shore and emerged from the brush, 200 meters up the coast, we were there, ready to help. Chaos ensued. Lifejackets thrown off. Arms gestured to determine if anyone was still in the water. Children clung to moms. A crying and soaked baby was thrust into my arms.
For the next hour we did what volunteers all along the shores of eastern Greek islands do every night. Helped take wet clothes off tiny children. Stood guard at brush where women could privately change their garb. Threw our coats around freezing babies. Held the emergency kit for the nurse as she treated a tiny figure. Put gloves on dozens and dozens of very cold hands. Gave families small change so they could take the bus to registration in town. All in the pitch dark, -4 degrees Celsius night.
And when they had all loaded on the bus, we sighed, dazed and confused. We stumbled around picking up wet clothes, saving the trousers and shoes that could be recycled for the next night, and waiting for the next call.
More than 1,500 refugees scrambled ashore that night on Chios.
Hungry and tired, these individuals and families hail from as far away as Afghanistan. They carry almost nothing. They wear the same clothes for days, weeks, months. When we give them a fresh pair of trousers, they leave the old, not wanting to carry more than required.
But their joy shines through. This is Greece. This is Europe. Safety. They think not about the hardships to come – they made it – and everyone in the boat made it. They were not the mother who lost her son at sea the next night, or the woman who was thrown out to lighten the load a couple nights later. Tonight they will sleep in a cold warehouse, dry and together. And that is good.\
Yet as volunteers, hailing from all over Europe and North America, we have a different view.
We see the hunger. With bad weather in Turkey, people wait days in the woods, waiting for their chance to get on a boat. Food is not the focus, getting across 6 kilometers of water is. When we feed this group and hundreds of others the next day, we feel inadequate: One cup of vegetarian high-protein soup per person with one piece of bread and a piece of fruit does not fill stomachs. But when all is sourced and financed by volunteers, it is the best we can do.
We see the misunderstandings, miscommunication and confusion.
At any given time, at least three languages are in play. Unlike other crises, where the affected population is generally on their home turf, in this crisis the local population does not speak the language of the affected population. They don’t even share common scripts; only a tiny minority understand Greek and one of the main languages of the refugees, Arabic or Farsi. As this is my particular area of interest, I’ll share more on this is my next posting.
We see the incredible care of the locals. Before the crisis, Toula was a single mom running a small tourist hotel south of Chios Town – she is now the heart and soul behind search and rescue, mobilizing teams every evening at her hotel, giving volunteers huge discounts at her hotel, and washing trousers every day to give to the next group. The pirates are three local guys who patrol the coast on their motorbikes every night. Despoina gave away all her clothes when she saw people emerging from the water in front of her home. Then she gave away all her husband’s clothes. When she had nothing for the wet and cold children who approached her, she knew it was time to create a donation shop where she works every day, organizing donations, giving out clothes to those who just came ashore, handing a small toy to each child.
We see the endless lack of leadership in this crisis. The Greek government. The Turkish government. The EU. The UN. The governments responsible for the bloodshed. Where are they?
And finally, when we leave, returning to our daily lives, we see and feel the emptiness in our hearts. Where did they go? Will they make it? Will they be able to carry the babies all that way? Will we learn to live together?
I left a piece of my heart on Chios. But I gained an understanding of what it means to be a true contributor to a better world, and I hope to hold on to that as I work to help from afar.
By Rebecca Petras, Translators without Borders Deputy Director and Head of Innovation