What are volunteers like? Thoughts from Nea Kavala

Nives has been a volunteer fieldworker for A Drop in the Ocean twice. First on Lesvos and currently in Nea Kavala. In this blog post, she shares her thoughts on what it is like to be a volunteer.

Foto/photo: Nives Zun

Coming home after my stay on Lesvos last year was really hard. Apart from the emotional toil of witnessing people living in horrendous conditions in Moria refugee camp, I had trouble getting used to my usual work environment and colleagues. My job in Brussels was not bad and I was part of a great team. Still, it was not the same. Without mentioning the meaningfulness of an office job in a public administration compared to working directly with vulnerable people, I also struggled fitting in with my colleagues. What I felt was what I had heard from other volunteers before – you meet people you really click with. It might sound cheesy, but I can call my fellow volunteers “my crowd”, “my kind of people”, sometimes even “my soul tribe”.

Working in the refugee camps is a job. There are enjoyable tasks and duties you won’t like, there are good days and bad days, and you get along with some volunteers better than with the others. Still, it is much more than a job. If nothing else, you chose to do it, for free, usually based on your deep convictions and values. Volunteering, I have never met anyone annoyed by their job, complaining about it or calling in sick because they do not feel like getting out of bed in the morning.

The stereotypical volunteer in (some) peoples’ eyes is a young, naïve person with an enormous unrealistic ambition to change the world. I might have met one or two of those, but most were nothing like that. The volunteers are actually a pretty diverse group in terms of gender, age, background, education, skills and everything else. Idealistic, for sure, but not naive. Most are indeed young, either finishing their studies or taking a break before starting ”real” jobs. Volunteering is a precious work experience, I strongly believe it gives people multi-layered skills for the future, personally and professionally. Those younger volunteers tend to stay in their positions longer, for a few months or even a year. Some chose to be coordinators, taking up a more responsible role and engaging for at least 6 months on a contract.

I have also met quite a few volunteers of my age and older (I am 49). When I went to Lesvos, I still had a full-time job, so I used my leave days. This is common for volunteers of my age – volunteering instead of going on holidays. In such cases they can only come for shorter periods, a few weeks maximum. Then there are those who quit their jobs (permanently or temporary) and come for a longer time, which is what I am doing now. In my experience this is often a result of disillusionment with the capitalist materialistic world of earning money and/or looking for something more meaningful to contribute to humanity (you see, not only young people have dreams). When I left Brussels to come to Nea Kavala, one of the kindest messages I got was from a younger colleague who congratulated me for setting an example that volunteering is something that older people can do too. 

If I inspire anyone to follow in my footsteps, my heart will surely be happy

Nives Zun

Another important group of volunteers I want to talk about are community volunteers – people who live in the refugee camps and are part of A Drop in the Ocean different projects. They are a mixed group of people, men and women from different countries, different ages, family status etc. They need to speak at least a basic level of English as they are valuable translators between us and our beneficiaries. But their role is much more than that. In Nea Kavala, they run many activities independently, with us, international volunteers only assisting them. They are hardworking, dedicated, smart, curious, kind, wonderful individuals, each with their own history, not to mention their difficult current situation. It is amazing that they volunteer their time, energy and skills. With community volunteers, the people in the camp become familiar faces, we learn their names, and get to hear their interesting and often heart-breaking stories. I have gotten to know their families, hobbies, sense of humour and more. We share coffees and chit chat, just like any other work buddies anywhere else in the world. Some become friends.

Working in and around the refugee camps is emotionally challenging, so being surrounded by a ”good crowd of people” with whom I feel on the same wavelength as is essential. No matter what role we have, teaching English, doing art workshops, distributing clothes or project management, we are sharing a unique life changing experience. I am not saying our motivation to do this work is always the same, but I feel some underlying connection with every single one of the people I have volunteered with on Lesvos and in Nea Kavala. This was even more true during the last months as we went through Covid lockdown together, not being able to socialise with other people outside of the volunteering team. I even spent Christmas with some members of my Drop family as travelling back home was too complicated.

It is therefore really hard when you (or another volunteer you got close to) leave. Since I arrived here in Nea Kavala, my team has been a stable group of around 15 volunteers and coordinators. In the last few weeks however, quite a few volunteers have left and new arrivals joined the team. It is needless to say how hard it is to say goodbye to people you get attached to, even in the best of circumstances and the possibility to stay connected virtually or to meet up again. It is much harder to say goodbye to our community volunteers. Most of them have lived in the camp for over a year, some more than two. They have no idea when they will get a final decision on their asylum application and be able to move on, with their lives currently on hold. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it is for them to see us come and go. No matter how good friends we become, we, international volunteers, inevitably all leave, moving on to another job or going back to our home countries. All I can wish for people staying behind in the camps is that perhaps one day we meet again in better circumstances for them, with the Covid epidemic being over, sharing a cup of tea somewhere safe and nice.

Nives has been documenting her time in Greece through her personal blog. Read other blog posts here.