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Volunteer Diaries: The Aid Workers Paradox and Other Moral Injuries

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

“Moral injury refers to an injury to an individual’s conscience or values resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression, which produces profound emotional guilt and shame, and in some cases also a sense of betrayal, anger, and profound moral disorientation.”

We don’t have enough shoes.

We have to stick to distributing for people 16 and older even if 13-year-olds come to us with sandals and freezing toes because nothing from the children’s distribution fits them.

We can’t do exchanges for one person because then all 2,700 people would want to exchange, too.

We can’t give you shoes from the bin or else the whole camp would believe one rumor or another- that we’re either favoring you by giving you free shoes, or how dare we give you shoes from the bin.

We don’t have specialty shoes if you still have shrapnel in your legs or crippling chronic pain from fleeing a war zone. You have to pick just like everyone else.

We can’t give you shoes for your wife. Or your children.

I can’t let you come early because you leave for Athens tomorrow night, or because you’re going to the city, or because you’re in school. You need to wait like everyone else.

I don’t give tickets here.

Please stay in the line.

Please follow the rules.

Please stay out of the road and don’t face the cars. Some locals come through and film us; I want to protect you.

Please leave from here if you do not have a ticket for this distribution.

Please don’t fight.

It is not a store. These are donations. We hand-sorted and scrubbed all of them clean. We have been up since 5 am. I know they aren’t fashionable. I know they aren’t comfortable.

I know that this sad display is simply an extended metaphor of a message of ignorance and apathy from the rest of the world. We are here, we are trying. I am sorry.

I am sorry.

I am sorry.

— — — — — — —

I straighten to my full height and put on my best brave face before the small steel door to the jail cell is opened and hands of all sizes and colors reach out to hand papers to me and the lawyer; psychology reports, medical records, phone numbers. “Please call my family.” “Please call my lawyer.” “Please call my doctor.” “Madi- I need your help.”

I reach out to take the familiar hand clinging to the side of the door. Time is precious and I already resent the fact that a life-altering decision will have to be made in a matter of moments.

“Qalbi, my love, listen to me. You have two choices.

One choice is to sign the self-deportation papers. They will send you first to Turkey and then back to your country of origin. Probably by the end of next week.

The other choice is to get a lawyer and appeal. With the new law, this means you will be in jail for a very long time. The conditions are not good but we would do our best to take care of you. At any point in that process, if you decide it is too much and not worth it, you can sign the self-deportation papers.

Don’t worry about the lawyer or about money, don’t worry about me. Just make the best choice for you. Do you understand?”

The policeman hurriedly tries closing the door to the dimly lit cell but I put my hand out aggressively to stop it. “I’m not done yet.” “You need to hurry.” “I am not going to hurry with a decision that could cost someone their life.”

“... and sister, what is my third choice?”

“There isn’t one, qalbi. We have two ways we can go right now and both of them are not good. I am so sorry. This time we don’t get to win.”

— — — — — — —

I am sorry.

My heart has been broken.

I have seen things I will never be able to put into words. I have felt things many simply have no context for:

The neat paper folds of a jail cell note pressed into my hands.

The sting of smoke in my eyes and nose and the tangible tension of hotspot humanitarian zones.

The way your stomach drops when you call for help but nothing comes.

The apprehension and then surrender of placing your life in the hands of someone else.

The hot rage that creeps up your entire body and consumes you when injustice slaps you in the face.

The ways your soul shatters every time you see someone robbed of their humanity.

I have been torn from people I love and forced apart by borders and visas.

I have had tearful goodbyes for what could be the last time.

I will be short.

I will be antisocial.

I will be lost and confused.

Your enthusiasm and excitement will not likely be mirrored by me.

I am tired.

I am scared for my friends.

I am grieving those I have left behind.

I am carrying infinite amounts of guilt and slowly healing from the bitter wounds of moral injury.

I am struggling with being physically present in a sterile bubble where people seem to have chosen to shut the world out and live their lives largely unaffected by the vivid despair and chaos that was my reality just days ago.

I understand that it is hard when this situation is so distant from our daily motions here.

I understand that it can be agonizing to see such suffering and feel powerless against it.

I understand that me and my shell shock are not convincing examples of why we should lean in and help rather than shy away from these painful vignettes that play out on borders and in refugee camps, but if we all stepped up to do a little, there wouldn’t be a need for just a few of us to go and give a lot.

I understand that it is easier to shut it out rather than learn how to carry the inevitable burden of guilt.

But ignorance hurts. The ignorance of others hurts those of us who do not get to turn a blind eye and it destroys me to have to straddle two extremes: a world where people scream in agony for help, and a world where most people simply plug their ears and go about their business. I belong to both, yet I belong to none. This hurts. And I am sorry it breeds such resentment.

It goes above and beyond apathy; the ignorant nature of the privileged western world is gross negligence and it is further perpetuation of a colonial system we claim to have dismantled decades ago. This mindset is still alive and well, and “The Other” suffers the consequences.

It’s not that I don’t love you.

It’s not that I don’t care.

It’s not that I do not know that all of us have earth-shattering experiences and carry layers of trauma; I see that and I validate that. Even in this sterile field, you have problems that are real. I do not hold complaints against you, and I wish I could help...

I wish I could do better to support my people here at home, but my resources have gone to a cause that needs my voice and my attention and my love.

I no longer belong here in this world of passports and privilege even though I am immensely thankful that it is where I have come from, and try as I might I will not fit back into the space I left behind.

I have changed and grown and I have broken and rebuilt.

I do not regret repressing and compartmentalizing to get the job done.

I do not regret the toll that loving openly and giving my humanity takes on me.

I do not regret forming deep and intimate relationships with people I will spend a majority of my life missing.

I do not regret giving it all to fuel fires of hope in places of darkness.

I have learned new ways to love, how to give grace, how to forgive... but I will never be able to forget the injustice I have seen, and I don’t think forgiveness will ever come. For that, I am sorry.

— — — — — — —

The northern Aegean islands have been in a state of crisis for years, but it is somehow continuing to get worse. Additionally, new actions from Turkey are putting even more pressure on Greece to shoulder a massive burden of the refugee crisis with a system that can’t even sustain Greeks.

My time in Chios was eye-opening and I can’t yet adequately articulate the needs. I will also struggle to fully comprehend the horrors I saw there- it just doesn’t seem real. The moral injuries I acquired on this trip will haunt me for the rest of my life.

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