This months blog post comes from Rachael Swancott Boon who shares this moving account of being led to and volunteering with Kos Solidarity.
When you are within the Quaker community you are not alone, there is, for want of a better word, an army at your back ready with political activism, shared enthusiasm, big ideas and the strength and will to implement them. My name is Rachael Swancott Boon, I am a Quaker from Chorley meeting in Pendle Area Meeting where I have worshipped my whole life.
I have just spent a stint volunteering on the Greek island of Kos with a local refugee aid organisation there – Kos Solidarity. I was in Kos town in November as well and have found both my trips to be greatly enriching both spiritually and in many other ways, my Greek and my Arabic for example are coming on a treat!
I, like most people became aware of the sheer size of the refugee crisis with the news story about the bodies of Aylan and Galip Kurdi washing up on a Turkish beach. I read an article about how a group of artists had painted images of Aylan, some had depicted him with angel wings, others surrounded by people but the one that stayed with me was a depiction of him in a bed, seemingly asleep, the picture was titled ‘how the story should have ended.’ Aylan and Galip were travelling to Kos. I googled variations on ‘ways to help refugees’ and I typed various key words into the Facebook search bar, which led me to many organisations all of whom advised eager volunteers to sign up with an organisation and not to turn up anywhere unannounced. I then waited for, essentially, some sort of sign. About a week later ‘Kos Solidarity’ posted a request for volunteers on their facebook page, I emailed them and 2 weeks later I was on a plane.
Opening myself up to all these channels of information, regularly checking the news and social media meant that I had a better understanding of what was needed ‘on the ground’ and could make an educated decision about where my skill sets would be most useful. I knew that I wanted to help because I am able physically and had the time. On the surface of it this felt like a ‘no brainer’ When you look a little deeper, I wanted to help because I have been raised a Quaker and have a strong sense of what I feel is the right thing to do but also I have a strong sense of when I am being pulled or led to do something. I wouldn’t have been moved to do so much research and act so quickly if it wasn’t a leading, and all the pieces wouldn’t have fallen in to place so simply for my travels if others hadn’t recognised that leading within me. Both my trips have been funded predominantly by Quakers, the first time by supporting meetings and individuals and the second time by Ffriends donating to my crowd funding page.
The arrivals in Kos while I was there were sometimes none and sometimes 300 + and they will only increase as the weather gets warmer. The crossing with the right weather and equipment is not a perilous one, one of the reasons it is the chosen route is the relative kindness of the sea. However the death toll continues to rise on a weekly basis. There are few things as stressful as driving up and down a stretch of beach trying to find a wrecked boat that may have survivors. However something that I have seen surprise and confuse new volunteers regularly is the fact that new arrivals are often not obviously traumatised and do not respond well to saccharine sympathy! It turns out that these refugees are people and respond to a stressful situation in their own individual ways.
Our tragedies and traumas do not define us, the mark us yes, but define us? No.
Tragedy does not strip us of our autonomy, individuality or normality. Shelter, food, sex and sleep are not our basic needs. Familiarity and comfort are basic; anger, music, make up and games are basic.
To help someone mid high stress is an acquired skill, it requires a practiced art.
Try not an approach of saviour
‘you poor wretched thing, reach for my hand and be healed for I have that of god in me’.
“Would you like a biscuit?”
“Have you heard this song?”
“Here, you can use my hairbrush.”
“Have a cigarette, here...”
“Would you like to help me sort these clothes?”
“That’s really shit, I’m sorry that happened to you.”
It’s easy to think of refugees as one body and in quite simple terms, 'those poor refugees' or 'those bloody refugees' but actually and of course unsurprisingly, they are just people, some of them are lovely, some are cynical, some beat their wives, some are gay, some are wheeler dealers, some are doctors, some are Muslim, some are Christian and they aren't all grateful but when they are it is lovely. You let them take a selfie with you, you try to make them laugh and you remember their names. People are people, it is what it is.
There is no doubt I will be back here in Kos to continue helping with the good work this wonderful organisation does however I can’t help but feel that there is always more and bigger things to be done. Whether it’s in the news or not this problem isn't going away and with added pressure on Greece to close their borders and the mounting negative attitude to refugees of any sort in Europe I think it’s only going to get bigger. It’s easy to feel small and useless these days but my experience is testament to the fact that even the smallest group of organised people can make a difference! I would encourage anyone who is feeling led to make a small difference, to put their faith in to action, to tell others about what you want to do and to go and do it.