The Psychological Toll of Volunteering at a Refugee Camp

"I would cry very often. I couldn't control my emotions."

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jan 13 2017, 2:38pm

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Lazar Dimitrijevic first came to Samos, Greece last March. The 23-year-old, who was earning his master's degree in human security, took a short trip to the island to see the situation "with my own eyes." What he found rattled him.

Dimitrijevic remembers "the sight of men, women, and children being detained in an open air prison resembling a concentration camp." He says the camp was closed at the time of his visit, so the people were locked inside. He shook their hands through the fences, an experience he described as "a very strong experience that urged me to take action." He decided to come back to do something.

On his return, he worked with an NGO at one of the outdoor camps on the island, unprotected from the cold winters and brutally hot summers, distributing clothing and working with the unaccompanied minors. Three times a week, he gave lessons in English, art, and music, while completing academic research on the teenagers in the camp. "I would feel overwhelmed at times because there were times we had to say, 'No, you cannot have two pairs of pants' to someone who clearly has nothing," he told me. "We would have to say no because if we don't stick to the system in place and display favoritism to one it would be unfair to others."

For Dimitrijevic, who is Swiss and earning his degree in Denmark, the reality in the camps felt like worlds away from his own life.

"At the beginning, it was really hard," he said. "I would cry very often. I couldn't control my emotions."

Once, a man intentionally set himself on fire in the camp. "It was during the afternoon when many kids were playing around," he told me. "It changes your perception of problems in your life. It makes you nauseous to compare the problems."

"There were times we had to say, 'No, you cannot have two pairs of pants' to someone who clearly has nothing." — Lazar Dimitrijevic

Since 2014, more than 1.5 million people have sought refuge throughout the European continent. Many of them entered through Greece. According to the United Nations, almost 400,000 people entered the country's territory during the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015 and today, there are still over 62,000 in Greece. The vast majority come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and arrive in the country saddled with trauma—from ongoing conflicts and wars, memories of violence and death.

"When I first [arrived at the camp], not everyone was willing to talk. They didn't feel trust between us and them. It takes a lot of time and a lot of dedication to achieve that," Dimitrijevic told me. Over time, though, the refugees he worked with opened up about their stories—including details, of war, torture, and loss. "I feel proud that I have been able to enable this trust with some of them. Many times they cry and you cry together—there is a very strong sense of suffering."

But with that kind of trust comes a psychological burden. "You have to find this way to be OK and positive even though you work in a context that can take you out of balance," he said.

There aren't any public official figures on how many volunteers and humanitarians currently work in Greece's refugee camps, but many of them are young people like Dimitrijevic. And while the weight of handling the crisis was divided between state and European agencies, local or international NGOs, volunteers often have little or no connection to other helpers.

Nikos Gionakis, a psychologist who trains volunteers in emergency mental health aid at the Babel Day Center, a mental health unit for immigrants located in Athens, says the traumatic situations refugees bring with them to camps can be "transferred" to volunteers who deal with those situations day in and day out.

Gionakis says it's important for volunteers to "be aware of their motivation, expectations, [and] preparation," when arriving in camps, as well as staying consistent with the healthy habits they had before arriving. He reminds volunteers to sleep, eat, and rest when they need to, lean on their teams for support, and try "not to forget they are not able to save the whole world."

Many camps have experimented with offering psychological services for volunteers. "These initiatives take the form of stress management training, individual or group supervision, and training in specific skills that will allow [volunteers] to become aware of the nature of the phenomenon they try to manage and of the appropriate interventions," Gionakis told me.

Dimitrijevic's NGO, Save the Children, offered psycho-emotional support, which he described as "support provided by professional therapists hired by the various NGOs." But Dimitrijevic said he never used it, and in the time he worked at the camps, "I personally don't know someone who specifically made use of this service."

Jasmine Doust, a 23-year-old from London, came to Samos five months ago and had to take a break in November before ultimately returning.

"I was burned out, and the burn out was built up because of bad emotions," she told me.

While at the camp, Doust worked seven days a week, with hardly any breaks. "In October alone we had 1,400 arrivals. That's an average of 45 people a day," she said. "It's a really heavy workload."

Doust, one of three coordinators for the Samos Volunteers group, started to feel the weight of the situations she saw on a daily basis. But when a therapist came to the camp to work as a volunteer and offered to hold therapy sessions with the volunteers on the side, Doust says she was so busy that she says she didn't have time to attend.

Gionakis says it's essential to provide volunteers with support on their teams—and remind them that they aren't alone in these situations. "You need to have support for your own if you are going to support others," he said. "We emphasize on providing this support both to professionals as well as volunteers too."

But Doust, like Dimitrijevic, says that "after Samos, everything looks insignificant." Psychologists sometimes refer to this re-framing as "overview effect," a situation faced by astronauts who fail to see any meaning in earthly problems. For Doust, it's a re-framing that won't go away even after she leaves.

"I think that most likely [volunteers] do leave in despair," she told me. "When I go home, I will be in a very bad way."

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