THE BLOG

Why Would I Travel the Refugee Route and Return to Lesbos?

03/01/2016 19:10 GMT | Updated 03/01/2017 10:12 GMT

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My last trip to Lesbos, as an artist's assistant, culminated in me traipsing, backpack-clad and muddy, through the Western Balkans, hoping that the next refugee camp was close and praying that I would be allowed in.

Recently graduated, I was looking for a job in the humanitarian sector in London and jumped at the opportunity to accompany a conflict artist to the frontline of this crisis. Often, my wish to volunteer was compatible with Arabella's work, as we were both keen to be on the beaches awaiting arrivals. The first time I saw the shoreline strewn with the debris of human lives discarded, however, and even more so with the first arrival I witnessed, my humanitarian impulse took over. I must have been a horribly frustrating assistant to poor Arabella - she would frequently turn around to ask for her other lens or a pencil, only to spot me at the other end of the beach with a child in each arm.

I cancelled my flight back, joined a local volunteer group and worked at a transit camp distributing food to our guests. Honestly, I found it harder working there, as, facing some of the busiest days of the summer, we had to be fairly utilitarian, maximising efficiency at the expense of interaction. There was less emotion here than on the beaches, and I felt that I was failing each hungry face I could give no more than a piece of bread to. Standing on Lesvos, watching swathes of humanity pass by on the long road to somewhere, we wondered where they were going, how they were getting there, and what it was like on the way. With Arabella's encouragement, I decided to accompany a family on their journey through Europe to help answer these questions.

A week later, I bought a ferry ticket to Athens. This is not the place to recount the details of my journey (I wrote another blog as I travelled - I Am A Refugee - where I do tell the story fully), but in essence, the journey took me through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia - where I became separated and had to find another family - Hungary, Austria, and Germany. There were days of exhaustion, hours of cold, moments of panic - yes. There were also surges of love, a sense of solidarity, the warmth of protection. Two families, who had lost everything, adopted me as one of their own. One family I speak to regularly, the other daily. In our few days' companionship, we shared an unequallable level of trust and intimacy, and I loved them.

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My first day back in London I was sick. I didn't have a bug, I hadn't eaten anything bad - I was just sick. I didn't leave the house for three days. On emerging, the city looked different. I saw new buildings that had always been there. I noticed bright colours and patterns that blinded me. I listened to conversations that confused me - people complaining about the service at a restaurant, or the complex logistics of their overly comfortable lives. And I was homesick. Homesick for my Afghan family, living in a hostel, uncertain, lost, scared - and with only a small bag. They didn't complain.

Reintegrated somewhat into London life, my work began. Driven by the news of two tragically fatal weeks of bad weather in the Aegean, I wrote. I wrote articles, emails, notes, lists. I was determined to make people hear what I had to tell them; to make the government shake themselves out of their detached apathy and help our fellow humans. I felt sick with guilt to be sitting in an edgy Shoreditch café typing on my MacBook Air and thinking I was helping, when I could - and should, I believed - have been on the beaches, lifting hypothermic people from boats and giving CPR. Perhaps I was slightly crazed for those few weeks - I certainly don't remember them clearly.

My work has since developed into a patchwork of writing, speaking, reading, and working with Arabella on 'Flight'. The founding principle of everything I do is to break down negative perceptions, to call on people to question their previously held views, and to re-centre the focus of the discussions of this crisis on the individual human experience. Although I now have much more faith in the importance of doing these things, I also recognise the more immediate impact of hands-on volunteering at the frontier of this suffering.

So why am I going back? Partly out of guilt, I suppose. Guilt that I am privileged, through no merit of my own. Guilt that I was born, fortuitously, in England, with multiple roofs over my head. Guilt that, while others like me have put their lives on hold for months and dedicated themselves entirely to helping people, I am fitting in my help around my own life. I am going back to try to strike a balance between my long-term approaches to helping and tangible, immediate aid. I am going back to help, to make a difference - to improve, even with a smile, as many people's experience of that horrific journey as I can. I am going back because I want to work again, face-to-face, with the people I am trying to help. I miss this close contact, the raw emotions - the joy, the gratitude, the fear, the pain; humanity stripped down to its very essence. I'm going back to be a part of all of that. I'm going back to see what it's like now, to update and to deepen my understanding of the situation. So that when I tell people I know what I am talking about, I actually do.

I don't know what I am going to find. I don't know what to expect from this trip, with such different nuances to the first. When I get on the plane on Boxing Day, I don't know where it will lead. But I'm looking forward to it - please join me for the journey...