A Drop Helps – An Interview with William Nygaard

“The effort of A Drop in the Ocean is a mere drop, but their work is incredibly important and well-organised. Keeping track of the logistics of us volunteers calls for good skills and leadership qualities. It went astonishingly well, with the patience and oversight of good leaders. The offer is wonderful, despite not reaching everyone in the camps. The social employment, language training, crafts, games, sports, and more are some of the foundation for creating hope. A drop helps.” – William Nygaard, previous editor and director of H. Aschehoug & CO, chairman of the Norwegian PEN, and voluntary fieldworker for A Drop in the Ocean.

William Nygaard is most known as the former publishing director at the Norwegian publishing company Aschehoug & CO, and later as chairman of the Norwegian PEN. He travelled to Lesvos in 2018, as a voluntary fieldworker for A Drop in the Ocean. We have had a conversation with him, talking about his reflections regarding the refugee situation in Greece and Europe, and interactions with people he had in the field that made an impact.

What made you want to volunteer as a fieldworker with A Drop in the Ocean?

– I wanted to be involved in the field long before I resigned as a publisher, which I did more than nine years ago, to learn more about the situation refugees face when their last resort is to leave everything behind and flee their homes. Instead of this, I ended up with PEN, the world largest organisation for free speech. In the Norwegian PEN we went to several court cases and prison visits in Turkey, we have stablished a PEN centre in Kabul, the Afghanistan PEN, with support from the Norwegian Department for Foreign Affairs. We have also established PEN Eritrea in Exile. We visited congresses in many vulnerable parts of the world. Additionally, we have built a guarding system of the diversity of free speech in Norway, a Norwegian project for free speech and responsibility of freedom of expression. After six years on the board and treating the growing challenges facing freedom of speech, I am back to square one. The refugee situation has been getting worse, and it was time for new initiatives.

What did you face on Lesvos, and what are your thoughts regarding the work of A Drop in the Ocean on Lesvos?

William Nygaard and Kristina Quintano by the Refugee Life Jacket Graveyard on Lesvos

– Kristina Quintano, the messenger from hell, introduced Erle and I to several activists on Lesvos, and we got in contact with them, and A Drop in the Ocean welcomed us as volunteers. We are very grateful for this. Our days as volunteers were both educational and impactful. We were both obedient and disobedient. We respected all the rules until our departure. We were careful with how we presented the information to those at home, through social media, to ensure people’s privacy. In fact, we were probably too careful, because it is important that the inadequacy of European diversity is known. On the day of departure, we threw away the yellow safety vest and went into Moria’s inner core through the famous whole in the fence. This way, we got an insight into the situation inside the tents outside the barbed wire and the unhygienic and sad conditions inside the barbed wire. The circumstances for the refugees, both inside and outside of the barbed wire, are unacceptable, on a nightmarish level especially during rain or cold periods, and over time in general. The volunteers are doing everything they can to mitigate the circumstances. Tents are leaking and are on top of moist soil, making the conditions in the camps even worse. The safety precautions for women, as well as children, are basically non-existent. Overflowing containers with zero privacy are not a sign of a future. Hundreds of sleeping bags from the Drop is a small alleviation, but it is simply a drop. Refugees are in a hopeless situation, where the uncertainty of what is to come is the worst. Waiting for ambiguous answers regarding individual’s and families’ future is a despair.

Was there any incidents or human encounters that made a significant impact?

– We met a volunteer at the Drop Centre, a former Afghan journalist with obvious talents. He fled after receiving death threats from the Taliban. His uncle, a police officer, was executed and his best friend from his journalism degree was shot outside his mosque. He received this information while we were at the centre. Our friend is about to lose hope. We are still trying to help him understand that determination is what will yield his further path. Unfortunately, there are many people like him in Moria. We met to Afghan people who were deported from Norway after almost two years of residence. One of them spoke the Bergen dialect, the other one a dialect from Rogaland. They were once again on the hunt for freedom, with a seemingly hopeful attitude. Will they succeed and where will they eventually end up? We were the ones who were left wondering; how much time are these young people supposed to spend to get an answer regarding their future? Our estimate is between six or eight years before they are in a new, safe home. And the same amount of time can pass, without any progress at all. To us, this feeling of being incapacitated and just watching from the side lines makes us angry and create an overwhelming lust to act. We must raise awareness, to make sure that means and power can be used to help.

What are your thoughts on the current situation for refugees in Greece and in Europe?

– The situation for refugees is discouraging. History will cast judgement on European state leaders and their inadequacy when international politics have created these large refugee movements. The wars in the Middle East and the Turkey agreement is a bad combination, to put it lightly. In the end, it is the inept leadership in this world that has sparked this situation. And when the crisis emerges, the state leaders fail to neither acknowledge their mistakes nor take responsibility to solve a human tragedy. Italy and Greece are two nations that are especially affected by this situation. But are they using the means they are provided with to take humanitarian responsibility? Det obvious answer is a resounding no. And that’s a bemused no. There are means in a circuit, but are they going in the right direction? Non-governmental organisations such as A Drop in the Ocean, the Humanity Yeam, the Hope Project, Advocates Abroad, and many more are kept out of the official financial circuits of aid. Why is that? And the well-established aid organisations have pulled out. Why is that? The exception was Doctors without Borders. And no ships are picking up refugees today? What kind of politic is this, choosing between promoting fear and saving lives, in a situation where the crisis emerged from the politics itself? Where is the state leadership with the responsibility and ability to prioritise and create active decisions?

Which thoughts and reflections are you left with after volunteering?

– It seems like the politicians have yet again fallen into the classic trap, which is the most dangerous of them all, of being numbed by the hopelessness when the crisis is a fact. Their eyes are closed, and the media fails to report what is happening. Therefore, the responsibility to acknowledge the problem and call for help lies within the grassroot organisations. It is a long road ahead. In the meantime, priceless work is being done where the heart is beating – in the voluntary and small organisations – who have witnessed and experienced the outcome of this crisis; the loss of life and dignity.