There are things I don’t remember.
For example, I don’t remember the last time I didn’t have to sniff my socks to see if they were clean enough to wear before I put them on in the morning. I don’t remember the last time I didn’t take the leftover napkins from lunch and put them in my backpack to use as toilet paper later. I don’t remember the last time I thought twice about pulling on a musty donation jacket because it was cold out, or the last time I bought new clothes. I don’t remember the last time I wore makeup. And I don’t remember the last time I looked in the mirror other than when I brush my teeth in the morning and at night.
I don’t remember what it feels like to spend all day lying in bed, or the last time I expected my internet to be fast enough to stream Netflix. I don’t remember the last time I slept in a room I could really call my own. I don’t remember the way good bread tastes, with good cheese. I don’t remember the last time I agonized over calories, or felt guilty for eating carbs. I don’t remember the last time I strategized about how to get asked out by boy I didn’t really like that much, anyway.
With my nose in my socks, I think, when did this become normal?
But there are other things I don’t remember, things I wish I did. I don’t remember the last time I heard from my best friends at home, heard their voices, or laughed with them over dinner. I don’t remember the last time I had a conversation with someone who has known me longer than a few months. I don’t remember the last time I made plans more than a day or two in advance. I don’t remember the last time I was there for someone I love, in celebration or in mourning, beyond a phone call or an exclamation mark-laden email. I don’t remember the last time I heard news before it was two months old.
And I’ve missed things. I won’t remember celebrating the engagement of a best friend, because I wasn’t there. I won’t remember holding the hand of another when she felt like her world was falling apart. I won’t remember holidays with my family, or afternoons doing puzzles with my grandmother. I won’t remember giddy first dates, the taste of popcorn at the movies, or the ease of knocking on a friend’s door with a pint of ice cream because I was in the neighborhood.
I won’t remember these little things, these small bits of life that matter so very much, because by choosing this door I opted, for a time, to sit these other parts of my life out.
And these things I don’t remember— the pictures of friends that I’m not in, the inside jokes that I don’t know— those losses leave tiny fractures in my heart, every single time.
When I first arrived in Lesvos, frozen, tired, and woefully ignorant of what I would find here, there was a back corner of my mind devoted to my escape. I didn’t know if I would make it my planned two months. I didn’t know if I wanted to make it.
However, when it came time to look up my return ticket, I found myself incapable of searching my email to confirm my flight details. I did not want to give the answer when people asked when I was leaving. My answer soon changed from, “The end of March,” to “It’s open-ended.” Long-term volunteers gave me knowing looks. Soon, “Open-ended,” turned into, “I’m leaving soon, but it’s just for a visit. I’ll only be gone for a week. Or two.”
The decision to leave, for a time or forever, is particularly fraught for volunteers in this current climate. It is easier to leave something that you think is moving in the right direction. At the moment, volunteers are watching months, years, of work unravel as refugees are deported to Turkey, a country every major human rights group refuses to agree is safe for refugees. Volunteers instead protest the EU decision, unsure of how the pieces of the larger political game will continue to move across the board. As a volunteer, you want to throw up your hands and shout, “Stop! Stop! You’re going the wrong way!”
Leaving a crisis situation behind is impossible because every day is different. It is like playing the slot machines at a casino. Just one more spin. Just one more day. Who knows what will happen tomorrow. For some, you might call this place a beautiful, terrible addiction.
There is a joke among volunteers that those who have been here since the summer are just those who were foolish enough to come without a return ticket. Although the foresight to book your departure in advance is no guarantee of success. Many volunteers have cancelled and moved flights, or rerouted their trips home to the north of Greece to continue helping.
That’s the issue, you see. There is always more work to do.
One afternoon in Pikpa a volunteer came in to the kitchen to say goodbye on his way to the airport. “It’s temporary,” he said. He would come back soon.
“Just a visit,” he frowned. “It’s funny how home isn’t really home anymore, isn’t it? It’s just a place to visit in between time here?”
Volunteer after volunteer has left the island in my time, and I have gone to their leaving dinners, said my goodbyes, and wished them the best. Those who are leaving because of external reasons—returning to school, relationships, family obligations, or jobs—have the easiest time of it. The burden of choice is not theirs. Those being sent home because their visas are about to expire are dragged away kicking and screaming by their better judgment. Those of us with more flexible arrangements— without jobs, families, or lovers to go home to— have a harder time.
The weight of the crisis anchors us in place. How can you choose a life that is not here, not doing this work? How can you go home? And when you do go home, how do you manage it?
There is no map for this territory.
The road to home is different for us all.
My friend, Zoe, said going home was as though time fractured when she stepped off the island. She walked right into her old routines, and loved every minute of her separate, very complete, life. And in that time at home, it was as if time had completely stopped on Lesvos, as though the island ceased to exist except in name. She smiled when people asked her about her experience and quickly changed the subject back to them, unable to fully articulate the gravity of the world outside this one. When she returned to Lesvos she found it somewhat jarring that things had not actually frozen in time, but gently quaked, shifted, and settled again.
Rasmus said going home was painful because he found that while everything there had stayed the same, he was changed. His return was like opening his closet and finding that all of his old clothing still fit, but he didn’t recognize the person wearing them. Like waking up and finding out that the party is over.
Arne said he lasted about two weeks at home before he bought a one-way ticket to Palestine to volunteer with refugees there.
Others leave parts of themselves behind when they go. A friend, unable to obtain a visa-extension, texted and called every few days for weeks to find out was happening on the island.
More departed volunteers share articles on Facebook or write messages when something noteworthy is on the news, wanting to know if anything has changed. Others stay active on the WhatsApp and messaging groups, following information exchanges and laughing at volunteer jokes. It can be very lonely, I’ve been told, outside this universe.
Still more post photos, videos, memories, and heartfelt status’s about leaving the island.
Some disappear with barely a trace.
It is complicated, choosing. It is painful to choose to chase a different life when this work is an option; when I could easily choose to make it my option. Choosing to dance at wedding receptions and drink beers at baseball games, eat at restaurants and shop in stores, meet for coffees and do Pilates. To clock in and clock out.
I never thought I would choose to do this work. I suppose I never considered it, the expanded humanity of the blurbs I read in my morning Skimm or New York Times Daily Briefing email. I never thought about the way those words looked in life, unfolded and animated like a pop-up greeting card. I understood the mechanics of the working body of the world, but I couldn’t see the flesh for all the bones.
I certainly never expected to be any good at it. Part of the difficulty leaving is that I know I am useful here. I can make a difference.
What is most painful to admit is this: Yes, I am valuable here, but the giant wheels and cogs of this massive undertaking will continue to spin without me. I have been able to help, however slightly, and that is a gift, but no one person is so essential that they cannot go home.
The volunteer community is extraordinary in its diversity and commitment, but there is a dearth of volunteers who are well-intentioned, have the skills to effectively manage a operation of this magnitude, and have the resources to stay to see it through. There are few, and they are prized accordingly. What is more common is that incredibly useful volunteers arrive and after a few weeks have to leave, back to successful jobs and lives at home.
As is the case everywhere in the world, valuable talent is siphoned off into the private sector, where the lifestyle is more certain and the money excellent. People with skills know what they can have and what they could earn, and many who gravitate towards service initially find themselves frustrated by the limited resources and opportunities of their professions and turn back to the private sector.
In America in particular, people have to choose to be teachers, social workers, volunteers, public defenders, judges, youth-mentors, non-profit workers, mothers, soldiers, and advocates. So also must they choose to be writers, historians, artists, chefs, painters, architects, farmers, and musicians. It is difficult to choose to have fewer resources, to live with less than you grew up with, to choose a different life for yourself. Can we really blame those who choose not to?
I was recently accepted into Columbia Journalism School in New York, a change that has swung the door to my life-before-Lesvos wide open again. The astonishing challenge of paying for the degree feels urgently at odds with the work of a humanitarian aid volunteer, like a lasso around my waist, yanking me back.
I don’t remember a time where I have ever been less certain about what I ought to do, or who I ought to be.
My biggest fear is that I will become someone who did this work, past tense. That it will be like a chapter, closed and numbered before the next one begins. I don’t want to wake up one day and think, that was an interesting thing I did, because for me and many others, Lesvos wasn’t simply an experience. More than an island, it was an awakening. To look the world in the eye and not be turned away, is to forever change the way you perceive your place in the world, and your obligation to it.
Working on Lesvos will leave you with more questions than answers. I believe we must all try to be patient with the unresolved nature of the world, and with life, and become comfortable living with these questions while we work. Because when it comes to how to choose the best life there are no easy answers, and there is no time to wait for them.
The point is to live everything. Live it now. And hope that one day, perhaps without even noticing it, we will live our way to the answers.
Leaving Lesvos, even for a short time, and to allowing myself to consider a life— to choose a life—off the island in the future, is frightening. What if I lose hold of all these things I have learned?
Because while there are things I don’t remember, the good and the bad, there are also things I don’t want to forget. Details that are easy to lose track of as I slip back into the rhythm of my life, as though I am simply moving through sliding doors on a subway car.
I don’t want to forget the feeling of surprise at being offered the first bite of food from a Syrian refugee who hadn’t eaten properly in days.
I don’t want to forget the satisfaction of seeing a child playing, warm in a jacket I fitted onto them.
I don’t want to forget the sound of laughter, exploding forth from a group of Afghan men, dancing in a ring to the music of a makeshift speaker, overwhelmed by the joy of finding themselves back on solid ground.
I don’t want to forget the anguish in the voice of a mother who has lost her baby in the sea.
I don’t want to forget the feeling of numb fingers, frozen from picking up wet clothing off the ground.
I don’t want to forget the softness of a toddler’s arms on my shoulders as I dressed them.
I don’t want to forget the bright taste of fried cauliflower in lemon sauce, prepared so skillfully by a Syrian chef who helped us to cook for dozens of refugees before sitting down to feed his own family.
I don’t want to forget the kick of sweetened chai tea on my tongue during a long afternoon.
I don’t want to forget the heat of a tightly bundled baby in my arms.
I don’t want to forget the smell of hundreds of bodies packed together into tents, families huddled together in groups, or the singular scent of clothing when it is the only set a person has.
I don’t want to forget that there are people who need help, and there is a world worth fighting for.
I don’t want to forget that there are people in this world who will drop everything— careers, mortgages, degrees— to pour themselves into a crisis.
I don’t want to forget the relief on the faces of those who made it here safely. I don’t want to forget the torment on the faces of those who left everyone they love behind. I don’t want to forget the terror and sadness of those who were turned away.
I don’t want to forget that this world is closer to my own than it is far away.
I don’t want to forget that I have the choice to go home, to choose a life for myself, and that is an unbelievable privilege.
These are the things I will fight with all my might to remember. We all will.