Day 14. Today, as I looked around the camp full of refugees, I saw not just the refugees, but the volunteers I will leave behind. Those who will stay to work day in and day out. I am filed with love and gratitude for these people. Did you know that many long term volunteers are unemployed, from countries where a stable decent paying job is more a dream than a hope? In Macedonia, the minimum wage is €200 a month, and many of the volunteers get that, or less, in a stipend for helping full time at the camps. The volunteers from NuN stay in a small apartment in Gevgelija –two bedrooms, 3-4 men, €250 a month. They bring supplies from Skopje to the camps in old cars that were donated, not worthy of selling, or in their own cars, racking up miles and wear when they have no jobs. Or they take the bus 2.5 hrs each way because they have no car. They give money to refugees in need from their meager stipends. I wish i were an artist. In my minds eye, I see a route spanning from the Greek islands through the Balkans, made up of hands of those who have little, helping those who have lost all. I wish I could paint it across the sky for all to see.
I confess I am feeling ashamed that i must go home. That I must return to my life, to my job, to make money, in order to continue a life that is comfortable, when so many others can’t. I came to help the refugees at a time when I normally would have taken a vacation and gone somewhere warm for a few weeks. I have helped, but without inconveniencing myself. When I think about how well Kemal ( Nun Gevgelija) and Ediedi and Kastriot Rexhepi, and all the other long term volunteers have treated us, I want to cry. We were never alone, never without the things we needed, even if the things we needed were hard to find. I am thankful, not because of these things, but because they opened my eyes and my heart, and showed me a new way of seeing.
I’ve heard the stories of Lence Zdravkin standing at her window watching refugees trudge by in the heat, not knowing how to get where they wanted to go, but continuing anyway. How she was compelled to help, although it was illegal — to give them water and food, to direct them on their way. How Kemal and his best friend left Skopje for Gevgeljia to hand out fruit, watermelons, oranges, whatever they could buy in bulk locally, daily, with money they could not afford, but could not pocket when so many needed food. Of beautiful hair that had to be shaved because lice was discovered after distributing food to refugees at the train station. Of Edi, a father of 4 children, 3 still at home, and a grandfather — who came to help and stayed because he and Kemal had worked together to help refugees during the Bosnian war. There are many such stories, some are well known, but most are simply the silent stories of people’s hearts. It is because of these people, not the governments, not the big international NGOs, not us short term volunteers with all of our donations–that so many refugees have been helped and saved. Were it not for their hearts calling out to us, we might not have heard.
We who have resources, or at least the opportunity to gather donations, must help those who don’t. We must support the local long term volunteers, because without them the refugees are frankly, screwed. As an American, I have the possibility of raising funds. I can choose to come for two weeks, or to raise funds to come for 6 months or a year. Locals don’t have that luxury, but they help, even without the possibility of raising funds. Sehr Haroon and I have started a long-term volunteer fund for NuN. Jointly, we contributed €1100 and hope that others who come to volunteer with NuN on a short term basis, will donate to this fund as well. And that everyone who goes to help, whether on the islands or elsewhere in the Balkans will take a moment to remember, that those who are helping the most, may have very little. That it is not only the refugees we must support, but the locals who are the backbone of this crisis. I ask all of you volunteers who come from countries where we have resources, where we can gather donations, to give something to the local long term volunteers–whatever you can–even if it is just €20 you slip into someone’s hand. To always remember the local volunteers may have little resources, but a great deal of pride (so would never ask.) And huge hearts. The refugees need them. Let us all remember that. Thank you.