My Week as a Volunteer in Greece – Part VII: Where Do We Go from Here?

In this series of articles on my recent experiences as a refugee relief volunteer in Athens, Greece, I’ve shared with you:

  • Some background on the current refugee crisis;
  • The impact of the crisis on the refugees and on Greece;
  • What I’ve personally seen and heard;
  • Who I’ve met;
  • What you can do to help.

I’ve even given you a crash course in the difference between a migrant and a refugee.

What I haven’t talked about very much includes:

  • My own reluctance and trepidation;
  • How I feel about the refugee situation; e.g., what should we do? What is our social and moral responsibility?
  • My thoughts about the future; e.g., will I go back? Is there a better way?

Talking about facts and figures is often much easier than talking about our own attitudes, beliefs, and feelings. But I will say that, while I learned a great deal of facts, most of what I learned challenged my heart as much – or more than – my head.

When I think back on the volunteer experience as a whole, I will begin by acknowledging that it can be very emotionally tiring, challenging, and downright draining. However, it is also an incomparable experience – to provide help to someone that you don’t want or expect thanks from is a beautiful thing.

Volunteer service reminds me of how truly amazing we humans are and that we are all pure at the core. We are capable of coming together, regardless of race, nationality, or religion; despite any obstacle, despite any felt emotions. In Greece, when I saw someone that needed us to give assistance, I jolly well did it, with a smile on my face, and even my own dry sense of humor.

My journey to Greece was just a short plane ride away. The time and cost for the refugees who made their journey was so much greater. A commercial ferry ride from Turkey to Greece costs around $20. But the “non-commercial” route which can include payments to smugglers – brings the cost up to $1,500 per refugee. Not to mention the costs to body and spirit – the long trudges from country to country, the dangerous boat rides, the individuals lost to the sea or snipers’ bullets. Their stories remind me of the nature of true courage.

A week later, I ask myself: where do we go from here? The refugee “solution” is not a simple one, as evidenced by all the controversy that surrounds the current situation. It takes us all out of our comfort zones, doesn’t it?

Most of us hang out in our own little worlds – mine is Judaism and Zionism, dealing for the most part with people who share our habits, beliefs, and attitudes. I know that I spend at least 90% of my own time is spent with people who share a love of Judaism and/or a love of Israel. On Facebook, most groups I belong to are the same. I get “likes” from my friends and sometimes from their friends who are part of the same “ghetto” or perhaps one or two degrees removed. Like many people, I seem to prefer an echo chamber that affirms my own opinions. Yes, I like to have my opinions liked.

I think of this social media phenomenon when I think about the refugee situation. As much as idealistically I would love to accept the refugees I met into Israel, I know that for many reasons it’s impractical and not doable. So I find myself wishing I had an “in” and an  “influence” on those in the 22 Arab countries to take in their neighbors. For 70 years, the Arab countries have not accepted even Palestinian refugees, while Israel is a country almost entirely populated by refugees. Many of those individuals came from Arab or other Muslim countries.

Originally, I had very mixed feelings about letting refugees into others’ countries. But after the past week, I would encourage all individuals who hold negative views about refugees to go out – from wherever they reside – and interact with them. The Syrian people are not the terrorists; the refugees are not the terrorists. But they are fleeing from those who are.

I see both sides of the coin on this topic and certainly understand the fear. I don’t claim to have the ideal solution in mind. I know that Canada is welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees. Canada is the next-door neighbor to the country of my birth. What happens in the future if just one of these immigrants is involved in a terrorist act? On the other hand, do you condemn 24,999 individuals for the possible actions of one? I’ve concluded that, with proper vetting procedures (not yet in place), I’m willing to take the chance.

In conclusion, what did I really learn, and what do I think now?

I learned that:

  • These refugees are educated, kind, and calm. I was humbled to see their reactions to these awful situations and how, at their core, they are peaceful. I couldn’t say the same about myself in such a situation.
  • Many of us in Israel and the US are blaming the refugee crisis for terrorism, when we should be blaming terrorism for the refugee crisis.
  • We all have moral obligations to which we must adhere.

And what are these obligations? What are my obligations?

  • My primary obligation: not to remain silent. I can’t pretend that this situation isn’t happening. I have no intention of screaming from the Temple Mount or blasting social media with my thoughts. But I do plan to share my learning and findings with anyone who is interested in hearing them – anyone who is interested in stepping outside our little ghettos for even a few minutes. It’s not all just a bad dream, my friends. As I previously mentioned, while the current situation is not comparable to World War II and the Holocaust, we must be aware that there are some groups such as the Yazidis, Kurds, and various Middle Eastern Christian groups such as the Chaldeans who are even now being targeted for mass murder. Perhaps we need to see how we can help them? Let us not forget the righteous gentiles who helped the Jews. Do we not have an obligation to do likewise?
  • As a Jew, I have an obligation to help — because it is what I’ve been taught to do and what I’ve taught my children. It is what I try to set as an example for my fellow citizens of whatever race or religion.
  • As an Israeli, I have an obligation to help – because, while we continue to (and should) look out for ourselves, we must not forget others, as we have been taught.
  • As an American, I have an obligation to help – because much of my family arrived on the shores of the United States and were taken in, and for that reason I am here. While we need to be vigilant, we need to remember that we can do so in a humane manner.
  • As a human being, I have an obligation to help – because that is part of what makes us human. I can hope that anyone reading this will feel the same. Help can be in whatever form or manner with which each of us is comfortable.

It comes down to this: we need to decide what side of the fence we want to be on.

This is what I strive to live by.

This is what I learned.

This is what was reinforced this week.

I cannot just sit here and pretend it’s not my problem.

I hope you can’t, either.

About the Author
Stuart Katz was born in Panama and grew up in San Diego. He served as National Bnei Akiva Director, is highly educated (for whatever that's worth); managed an airline; made aliyah; traveled to over 80 countries; passionate about reducing mental health stigma in Israel and around the world...he's an entrepreneur and is involved in almost any volunteer project which comes his way
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