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.
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.
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