Most people think that the sacrifices you make to volunteer are about money. That they are only very grounded things. Clothes, restaurants, cigarettes. Peripheric things, that don’t affect your inner sphere. And indeed, it’s one aspect of it. But it is only a very superficial one.
As a matter of fact, my time in Greece was quite surprising for me.
On 2 occasions, some itinerant reporters interviewed us to create documentaries about alternative lifestyles. Because we were that very small NGO, living and working in a shared flat, 6 in a 50meters square flat. A volunteer legal advice NGO managed by a former theater actor that had planned to stay in Greece for 2 weeks, 3 years ago. An NGO having no idea how to survive the next 3months, unable to buy a new washing machine, despite the old one favorite hobby being randomly burning some clothes, or to buy a new set of keys. I remember my boss hugging me out of relief when I told him I saved 30euros. Leaving the keys to a hidden place and praying no one would notice and rub us of the few things we had. But an NGO standing together, for the best, and sometimes for the worst.
I met professional poets traveling Europe to gain knowledge, to witness the conditions of migrants or to diffuse their energy to other queer poets, or kuir as they prefer to write it. Versatile, being silent for hours, just witnessing our day, or creating a bubble of craziness at 4 am, exploring the arcane of Bradburry while playing a randomly composed song on the guitar. Staying, at 75 years old, in a dark cave on the rock-hard sofa of an afghani asylum seeker, not out of lack of money, but only to spend the few hours a day Abdullah could spare, after all the volunteering he was doing, talking about his feelings and trying to understand better his perception of his world. Giving up some of their personal spotlight time, to allow others to express themselves. Telling them their voices are worth being heard, and that no matter who will pay attention to it, writing is a liberating process.
I spent hours playing Syrian card games, not being able to speak with even one person out of 4, but only communicating through cards and a few expressions I learned without even understanding what they actually mean. Sharing, at 6 am, a chicken cooked for you by 2 of those 20 refugees staying in a house for 4 people when you had actually planned on going to bed at 10.
I saw stars shining over the harbor of Thessaloniki, while refugees and volunteers gathered to dance their way to dawn.
There is incredible beauty in living this life.
And it is challenging, on a personal level. Finding a way that is not the common one. Finding satisfaction in what you do instead of what you have. Sharing and being shared with.
But sometimes, life just comes knocking at the door. Reminding you how fragile you are in this kind of life. Because you have no safety net there. I don’t know how many of the long term volunteers I saw so far just weren’t able to afford health insurance. Because that’s not really an option when you get about 200 euros a month for a living.
Not to mention that the organization you work for is actually depending on other’s people generosity, and is very rarely self-sustained. If you have to summarise, you rely on the fact that other people are able to sustain themselves, and, in the remaining margin after they fulfilled their needs, consider more important to help you, as an organization, than to spend this money elsewhere. And the part of this margin they decide to dedicate to your action, has to be enough for you to sustain your organization and by this, yourself. Of course, you also continuously and constantly have to convince them that what you’re doing is worthy of their involvement. And that, to say the least, is a highly volatile material.
Without any real back up plan.
And it’s also true for the ones you love. Shall they be sick, you cannot rely on what you are doing to be able to visit them or support them. To help them in this moment of pain. You also cannot really be in a conventional relationship. Because you simply don’t have the intimacy needed to build it. You have to take a leap of faith, believe and invent other ways of being together.
And in these moments, when life comes knocking at the door, reminding you of how vulnerable you are to its caprices, you just feel like the first one of the three pigs when he saw his whole straw construction being blown away by the wolf. Running away to a safer building, that might not resist much more, but that is definitely better than standing naked in front of the sharp teeth that are smiling at you.
There is not much you can do to counter the discouragement that comes in during those moments. Food doesn’t really fill you anymore, and even a shot of sugar (or several) cannot really satisfy your starving for reassurance. Every little effort becomes hard to make it your own, to identify yourself to. Small pleasures you are used to relying on to feel better just taste like cold tobacco, even though your last cigarette was 5 hours ago. Your body doesn’t seem your own. Being so fragile as an individual just bounces back to your body and makes you feel so feeble. Your hands start shaking when you write to your loved ones because you are struggling to find any solution to bring them the support they would need. Your stomach keeps warning you not to eat too much because he might writhe just a little bit too much if you overthink. So you can’t really think, because the thoughts you’re trying to avoid are always awake, ready to poke you, those tricky tricksters. Just like you are.
cover credits: unsplash.com/Dimitris Pantos