Thursday, 18 February 2016

Volunteering with Kos Solidarity

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’.

Try instead
“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?”

And sometimes
“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.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Faith, Power and Peace

Friends - a short holiday from the more traditional theme of this blog as I wanted to share my experiences from some courses related to peace, non violence and militarism.

Last May Diana Francis gave the Swarthmore Lecture, an annual lecture given at the national yearly meeting of Quakers in Britain. She gave it on the theme, Faith, Power and Peace. You can listen to her lecture here.

I sat and listened, and for me it was an experience that I am struggling to find ways to describe – it felt like I was alone in a room and Diana was talking directly to me, I remember it finishing and suddenly becoming aware of this room filled to the edges with Friends.

I feel very blessed to have been able to support Diana Francis and Steve Whiting from Turning the Tide as they put together 3 courses for Woodbrooke building on the themes for the lecture.

  • ·         Violence, Non Violence and the Power to Transform
  • ·         From Militarisation to Peace
  • ·         Speaking up Speaking Out.

There are quite a few upsides to my job, but these three courses and the experience of watching Diana and Steve work together was one I feel very lucky to have had.

Three courses gave us the opportunity to look at the themes in some depth, and to build close relationships among participants; we had some attend all three courses and some attend one or two.
I learnt a lot over these weekends, not just about what we mean by peace and the dynamics of peace and power but I learnt about myself and I learnt about groups and how they work.

One participant commented the preparation for these courses was the lifetime witness of these Friends. This was so evident to me, they shared some of their life and their ministry in peace making with us over these courses. We do have an excellent opportunity at Woodbrooke for Friends to share a little of their passion and love with us and I am full of gratitude.

What will I take away from these courses? What did I learn?

I learnt about the importance of process; of setting ground rules and following them, of managing expectations but allowing for flexibility and to be surprised by something.

I learnt that to look at peace ‘out there’ I must look at peace inside of me; to acknowledge the way I am, the culture I have grown up in, the power dynamics I am used to.

It was a reminder of how little I know about current situations aside from what I hear from mainstream media, and acknowledging this is only one part of the picture.

I kept on coming back to the need to unpick the dominant narrative and to tackling the persistent untruths.

But perhaps the most important message I could take was that these issues I care about, militarism, climate change, economic justice – it’s not enough for me to say I care about them, I need to do something about it. My response won’t be the same as yours, we will all find our own way to speak and act in response to these issues but these experiences of coming together to share, to learn, to listen and to find ways of acting are precious. 

These courses have reawakened my mind to the rising tide of militarism in our society, perhaps for a world that is preparing for a world in which resources are scarce and we feel we need to defend or fight for access. If as Friends, our experience leads us to an understanding that each ‘is unique, precious, a child of God’ then we need to do something.

The next event Woodbrooke is holding on Militarisation is in February 2016 – looking at Militarisation in our schools, in the media and in our community. If you would like to join us, details are here