The Hidden Costs of Volunteering in Greece

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Thousands of volunteer are going to Greece in hopes of making even a small dent on the country’s refugee crisis. But, weeks later, many find themselves out of element and out of support.

By Jacqueline Kantor


A volunteer tries to console a refugee on Sykamia beach, on the Greek island of Lesbos. (Photo: Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s been weeks since Heidi Liedtke left Greece, and still she dreams about the run-down room in an abandoned hospital where she taught English to a group of pregnant teenagers from Aleppo. Even now, her Facebook feed remains a constant stream of updates from Athens, most of her notifications from volunteer groups. Almost every day, she messages her friends back in Greece to make sure they’re all right and safe. Though Liedtke keeps looking up airfare to return, she knows going back will make it harder to leave a second time.

One month after graduating from American University, Liedtke flew to Greece in search of an opportunity to use her Arabic skills and understanding of the Middle East to help, in any way, with one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time. As one of thousands of independent volunteers, she found herself in one of the most unusual aid situations to date, one that has led to under-qualified individuals handling complex issues.

People come to Greece in search of the opportunity to make some sort of dent in an issue that seems limitless; weeks later, when they emerge from the insular world of refugee volunteering, they find themselves out of their element and out of support.

“Typically I don’t talk about it [to family] because there’s so much to say that I don’t know where to begin,” Liedtke says. “What do I prioritize? The time I distracted a group of children’s attention from a fight on the other side of a caravan? The issues with voluntourism? I can’t sum it up in one conversation.”

For months, people fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere have been washing up in Western Europe’s poorest country, a nation critically underprepared to house the nearly 60,000 refugees stuck somewhere between a war zone and family reunification.

The psychological struggles of those who land on Lesvos or other such islands is incalculable. There is the trauma of the war zone they fled, the trauma of a dangerous journey, the trauma of being stuck in unsanitary camps filled with fist fights and sexual abuse and wild animals, and then, the most gnawing feeling of all: hopelessness.

Volunteers from all over the world have stepped in to fill the massive gaps in support and basic care where Europe and Greece have failed. The lack of resources in the country has led to tape-and-glue solutions, many of them administered by untrained individuals. Thousands of refugees are housed in abandoned buildings where food, supplies, education, and children’s activities are funded and supported by foreigners. Medical care for everything from pregnancy exams to psychological counseling is provided by groups like independent midwives or teams of doctors based out of Athens for two weeks at a time.

The ease of volunteering in Greece, which is a more affordable, familiar journey then traveling to camps in Jordan or Lebanon, adds another draw for European and American volunteers and means there are more hands on the ground, but less professional preparation among the masses. (For months, for example, the go-to manager for the largest informal refugee camp in Athens was a former policeman from New Zealand.)

Pick out a handful of long-term volunteers in Greece and you’re likely to hit on at least one of these negative effects of aid work: secondary trauma stress, compassion fatigue, countertransference, vicarious traumatization, or burnout.

“Sharing stories and time and tea and feelings makes it easy to sympathize and empathize and feel the burden that they carry.”

In 2002, a study by Sharon Rae Jenkins and Stephanie Baird determined the most common conditions affecting therapists working with trauma therapy as secondary trauma stress, or STS (sometimes referred to as compassion fatigue), and vicarious trauma, or VT. The two vary somewhat — STS is more similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, and sufferers would develop similar symptoms, whereas VT is more likely to include “changes in their worldviews, schemas, and relationships that are similar to the changes their clients have experienced,” as explained in a 2015 study on counselors working with Iraqi refugees in Jordan.

Anger and cynicism are two more symptoms of STS. These can be directed at the system or the state, or, sometimes, friends, family, and fellow volunteers. Chronic exhaustion, guilt, or detachment are also indicators. Former volunteers speak of a deep desire to go back to Greece once they leave, and a sense of unease when brought back to the “real world.”

Because resources are so limited and mental-health support so rare, people who have potentially never been in a refugee camp — let alone dealt with traumatized individuals — are now the most common source of support for refugees.

It comes down to basic statistics, says Norman Hering, a psychologist from California who started volunteering in Athens full-time in mid-April: “I would bet 99 percent of these people have post-traumatic stress disorder from their home country.”

“What that means,” he adds, “is, when you come into contact with them, it affects you.”

Martacylia Patsi, a 26-year-old midwife from Athens who began volunteering in January at the sprawling Piraeus Port refugee camp, found herself quickly overwhelmed by the hours and the stories she was hearing, and noticed the impact on her own day-to-day life.

Her shift with a non-governmental organization supporting pregnant and new mothers is supposed to end at about 3:30 each day, but she usually returns home hours later because of last-second appointments or persistent invites to share tea in someone’s tent. When she gets home and goes to relax, she’s constantly reminded of the refugee crisis via updates from Greek and foreign media.

“Even when my minds gets tired after difficult days or during days off work, I still catch myself getting back to this topic,” she says. “It’s a part of me and I’m a part of it, I guess now.”

Patsi has felt sometime tired and on the verge of quitting, and finds it difficult to witness and hear such devastating stories. She worked at Piraeus from February up until its closure in late July, and was among the most trusted and well-know volunteers.

“People of the port knew us, and we knew them,” she says. “Every day the people that we worked with came by to see us and invite us for tea to their tents. So we heard many stories for their lives they used to have, for the traveling and what they left behind or what they lost while traveling. Seeing their faces while talking, that picture can’t be faded from one’s mind easily. Sharing stories and time and tea and feelings makes it easy to sympathize and empathize and feel the burden that they carry somehow … you feel very often the burden that they carry and the intense feeling to protect that people.”

Volunteers talk of getting sucked into the cause and being unable to extract themselves, first by heart-wrenching photographs from Aleppo and the islands, then through personal investment once they arrive at the camps.

Many volunteers arrive planning to spend days or weeks in action, and end up switching around schedules, delaying flights, and, sometimes, completely upending their lives to dedicate themselves to the cause. Hering initially moved from the United States to the Netherlands, and a chance, one-week trip to work with a Dutch organization had him rerouting his Europe plans and re-settling in Athens.

He now manages non-food donations and supplies at Skaramangas, a government-run camp on the outskirts of the capitol. Most of the volunteers come for two to three weeks, Hering says. Briefer stays tend to contribute to exhaustion, one of the many conditions associated with STS. People with limited time sometimes try to work almost 12 hours a day for the full 14 days of their visit.

Once, a Skaramangas volunteer came to Hering distraught after spending time in the tent of a Syrian woman. Through an interpreter, the woman told the volunteer about her experience huddling on the floor with her young children as their house was bombed. Everyone in the tent was crying — the mother, the children, the volunteers, the interpreter. The volunteer emerged from the experience inconsolable.

“She said, ‘I feel so hopeless and powerless,’ and I told her she actually did a lot,” Hering says. “By showing the pain and trauma, this was allowing this mother to heal.”