Today I participated in poverty tourism…

And I don’t feel good about it.

[Disclaimer: I have to get this off my chest, but I am very nervous about how it will be received. I don’t intend this to be a diss at our program. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else on this trip. This post is more of myself than I am typically comfortable sharing, so I hope you won’t judge me, though I really can’t stop you if you do.]

Since getting back from Chios two days ago, I’ve been experiencing a crisis of conscience.

I went on the reporting trip to the refugee camp thinking that these stories need to be told. I knew that it would be difficult hearing refugees recount their harrowing tales of escape and describe their living conditions inside one of the most overcrowded refugee camps in the country. But I was comforted by the thinking that I was doing this for the right reasons. We all went in with good intentions, wanting to report on the situation in hopes of raising awareness and inspiring change or donations.

But the situation was more dire and dark than I ever could have imagined. The living conditions are not just bad, they’re inhuman. Nearly everyone we spoke with had either tried to kill themselves or said they wanted to die. I’ve reported on and volunteered in tough conditions before, but nothing like this.

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A map listing the number of refugees in each city or island (in red) versus its capacity (in blue). Chios has nearly three times its capacity. / Courtesy UNHCR/UN Refugee Agency

I’m left wondering now if it was all worth it—to film desperate people revealing their most painful memories, potentially re-traumatizing them, and for what? An article that will be read by a limited audience in the United States, where our president has quashed any hopes of our country stepping up to help the most egregious human rights crisis of our generation. Besides, there have already been dozens of articles written by highly-esteemed publications documenting the miserable conditions in refugee camps—and truthfully, people either don’t care or still vehemently hate refugees.

The uncertainty over whether what I did was ethically right has been somewhat of a haunting thought, sticking with me just as much as the stories of the people we interviewed.

So I was already sensitive going into today’s trip to Dendropotamos, one of the most impoverished areas of Thessaloniki where the practically invisible Roma population of Greece (commonly known as “gypsies”) resides. There, we were received by local priest Father Athinagoras, a towering figure with a jolly spirit, who led us on a tour around the community. Father Athinagoras is a prominent figure in Dendropotamos, running a youth center for the disadvantaged children in the neighborhood. He knows everyone in the area, greeting them each with a cheerful Kalimera (good morning) as he walks by. The people, especially the children, seem to love him.

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Our group with Father Athinagoras (you can’t miss him). / Photo courtesy Kristina Babali

Father Athinagoras is wonderful, and I’m grateful for the kindness and hospitality that he showed us. But multiple times throughout the tour, I was left wondering what our purpose was for being there. We weren’t volunteering at the school or youth center. A couple students were filming Father Athinagoras for a story they are working on, but there were nearly 20 additional students there just to take part in a guided tour around a destitute neighborhood for the sake of gawking at destitution. That’s poverty tourism in a nut shell.

Perhaps people will think I’m being overly sensitive, but it didn’t sit right with me at the time, and it hasn’t since.

Featured photo courtesy Creative Commons 

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3 thoughts on “Today I participated in poverty tourism…”

  1. Just want to chime in and say that gawking at destitution isn’t exactly the whole story. That being in an area where people are enormously impoverished and discriminated against and being an onlooker in that does not necessarily equal negative. Poverty tourism is a term that strikes me as more calculated, more exploitative, than what I saw from us—though I really haven’t encountered the idea much. Really I’m just taking you at face value in assuming that it is something that has a negative effect on the people of the impoverished neighborhoods. And if poverty tourism doesn’t need to be negative for the name to apply, then I don’t clearly see what the issue with it is.

    In that neighborhood we were enormously out of place, and most of our purpose in being there was to see it. But that doesn’t invalidate being there. A lack of purpose does not inherently make things malign. If we choose not to write about it (though our audience may be small and unfocused), or to be informed by it, that’s sort of on the individual. There doesn’t need to be a clear purpose in seeing something—or visiting an area, or talking to a person—for it to be meaningful. That’s sort of the idea behind tourism, and really the idea behind any museum. People don’t know they want to know about ultra-specific historical artifacts, not until they see them and read the plaques.

    The fact is that the neighborhood we visited is a fifteen minute bus ride from Aristotle Square. The Roma people really aren’t doing that well, and this is sort of their designated area. We’re a group of journalists, whatever else we might be. I fail to feel an ounce of regret for being in that area for a couple hours.

    That doesn’t mean you’re wrong in having this idea, that being a sightseer of that neighborhood is a more accurate description for most of us than reporter in that situation. I do however challenge the despair that creeps along beside that assertion. If the problem is that there’s nothing we can do to help, that’s not quite true. Writing about it can (possibly) help, potentially more than most things, or it might not. And Dendropotamos with all its problems and the societies that created it will still exist, whether or not we see it. Whether or not we write about it.

    But isn’t it worth pointing out? How there is a section of Thessaloniki, which in many other ways is an uncommonly pleasant city, that is almost exclusively destitute, and almost exclusively Roma? How such a population can be so easily cast out of the working world of Greece? Where the children playing accordion that come up to tables at restaurants and stare down tourists—where they are expected to live according to the status quo? Doesn’t the setting tell more stories than simple poverty?

    You start out this post with a disclaimer. Thank you for that context, and thank you for sharing. I don’t intend to be overly negative, but I do disagree with your premise here (that we should feel uncomfy about going to that neighborhood). To feel bad is not something that I’m condemning here. I’m more trying to say that the feeling of discomfort you have is not the only thing that there is to feel about yesterday.

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  2. I love and appreciate your honesty and vulnerability. Even if you educate or move just one person to action, telling these stories is worth it. If you don’t know the story of the starfish, it’s worth looking up and certainly applies. So proud of you and the courage & independence you embody. Xoxo

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