Julia is the daughter of Barbaraexpat. She is currently volunteering in Chios, supporting young people in the Vial refugee camp. This is her touching testimonial.
When I was 11 years old, my friend and I had an idea for our primary school musical. We wrote a script about two girls, Nuria and Zenab, their escape from war torn Iraq and their journey to Australia. We even wrote a song in which Nuria and Zenab sing about their desire to remain at home and not embark on the dangerous journey:
“How we wish we could just stay there, in the place we love the best. How we wish we could just stay there and just forget the rest.”
My mum volunteered for an organisation in Melbourne, teaching English to refugees and I would join her on occasion. These visits inspired my idea for the school musical. I met young people just like me but with life experiences so vastly different from mine. Having lived my entire life in one of the most liveable cities, war and conflict were a completely foreign concept to me.
I graduated from university at the end of 2018, and finding myself a bit lost (like the majority of arts graduates), I decided to try and gain some life experience through volunteering. In September last year I moved to the Greek Island of Chios to work for a grassroots NGO Action for Education. AfE provides non-formal education and a safe space for young people between the ages of 14-22 living in Chios’s notorious Vial Refugee Camp. In the four months since my arrival, the camp has doubled in population, from approximately 3000 to 6000 people.
I arrived in Chios after a month of travelling through Europe with my boyfriend and our friends. It’s no surprise I felt as though I had been catapulted out of my comfort zone. After a few weeks of feeling completely out of my league, I began to relax and feel more comfortable in my role.
Volunteers live in a townhouse with two bedrooms. There are usually up to 13 of us living in this space. We are each other’s housemates, colleagues, social group and support network. Many might call this a disaster waiting to happen. Of course there are times when tensions run high and you wish you could take a phone call inside without the whole household listening in, or that you could close the door and have a room to yourself. But for the most part it works. I think it’s because everyone in the house is dedicated to a common cause: providing a safe space where young people can have a break from the reality of life in Vial.
Surprisingly what I find the most challenging is not the lack of personal space, or the fact that we work 6 days a week. My biggest challenge is dealing with feelings of hopelessness at the huge extent of the crisis, and guilt about my own privileged position.
I have always been so proud of the fact that I have two passports, allowing me to travel freely in many different countries. In Chios, I struggle with the idea that I have two passports when I know so many people who have none.
When it rains, it is hard not to feel guilty about the fact that we have a warm, safe place to spend the night. The torrential rains that often occur during winter, send all our thoughts to Vial. To the thousands of people whose tents are about to flood and who won’t be able to dry their clothes for days. To those who don’t even have a tent and who are sleeping under a bush. We’re all painfully aware of the fact that there are boats arriving almost everyday and that the number of young people without access to any services continues to grow. It’s easy to feel like the smallest, most insignificant drop in the ocean.
One Sunday, we decided to make the most of our day off. We hired bicycles and rode along the coast to a small beach town. It was a beautiful day; the sun shone brightly and the sea stretched out before us as we cycled along the windy road. It was hard not to feel happy. We stopped at a restaurant for lunch. It was full of Greek families out for Sunday lunch. We sat down and ordered food. That’s when one of us said, “I’m so grateful that we are able to sit here together and eat lovely food and ride our bicycles”.
At that moment the importance of feeling grateful and not guilty clicked for me. I am a young person lucky enough to be born in the right place at the right time. Although this privilege is something that I have always been aware of, I have paid little attention to over the years. I think it’s because I have always been surrounded by people as privileged as myself. Being in Chios put me face to face with a different reality. Things I’ve always taken for granted, made me feel overcome by guilt. For the first time, there were people who I cared about who hardly had access to basic human rights. What I came to realise is that there is a great difference between reading or hearing about the asylum seeker experience, and seeing the devastating reality firsthand.
Grateful for the fact that I have a safe place to go, which allows me to be well rested and do my work. Because if my luck turned, and I found myself without these privileges, I am certain that someone would take that role and help me.
What I realised that Sunday is that guilt can be transformed into gratitude. It is something I am yet to master, but as I head back to Chios now after a few weeks break in Italy, I will make a conscious effort to feel grateful. Grateful for the fact that I have two passports, which have allowed me to travel to Greece without any visa restrictions. Grateful for the fact that I have a safe place to go, which allows me to be well rested and do my work. Because if my luck turned, and I found myself without these privileges, I am certain that someone would take that role and help me. And for that I would be grateful.