Boundaries and Borders by Dawson Stout (A’21)

by tuftsigl
Aug 24

The search for some post work-out fuel led our ravenous collective of volunteers to the falafel shop down the road from home. The food is cheap, delicious, and the Lebanese owners, previous residents of the camp, offer a friendly welcome to refugees and volunteers alike. As we finished the last bites of our Tzatziki-covered pita, the idea of a late-night swim – a good chance to enjoy the full, July moon - was floated and I instinctively turned to Jean in extension of the offer.

“We are going to head to the beach near the hospital! You’re welcome to….”
My voice trailed off as I realized my mistake. He continued, professional and with a smile,  knowing how he must respond.
“Thank you, but I can’t. I need to go back anyway.”

We said our goodbyes and parted ways: Us to the beach and him back up the hill toward the florescent lights of the camp. Jean is from Cameroon and has lived in a tent for the past eight months. He is the fitness instructor for nightly sessions run by Samos Volunteers. He dances to Afrobeats like no other.

He nearly drowned coming to this island.

I work with Jean every day, but our relationship, along with every other aspect of my time on Samos, is complex. We are here because of borders – the reduction of humans based on geopolitics - so you would think boundaries are the very last thing that would be further implemented. But very quickly into my six-week stay, I discovered that navigating power dynamics and the accompanying nuances has been by far the most difficult part.

Samos Volunteers institutes strict boundaries to regulate relationships between international volunteers (non-camp residents) and community volunteers (asylum seekers) with the idea that we do not want to contribute more harm than good. Professionalism is a paramount expectation. This, of course, means no romantic relationships, but also no lounging on the beach during our day off or joining in the goodbye meals before we fly back to our homes. It is a policy born out of many past mistakes and hurt, but this makes it no less difficult to follow.

I still struggle to understand this rule. I had read about this as a “best practice” used in other hotspots in Greece and always scoffed at how degrading and cold it seemed. Why should we treat “them” any different than we treat “us?” They have corrected my English on multiple occasions. They hold PhDs and speak five languages fluently. They laugh and cry and sing (evidenced by the karaoke at the monthly pizza party) just the same as us. It hurts me to treat them any differently than I would a volunteer from Germany, Spain or the States. But as I continue to work, to listen to stories from longer term volunteers, and to better understand the difficulties of camp life, I can better understand the necessity for this rule.

After a particularly difficult and jarring day of work, I call home. I facetime my friends and family. I tell them funny stories; I get the updates on relationships and hear about trips to Vermont. I let them know I miss them and make plans to hang out when I get back. And in those instances, I understand the reasons for these rules. When I go home, I am met by a network of people who love me and a life of stability. That rarely holds true here. Many who came here, came alone. Others will never see their childhood friends again or fled home after escaping the deaths of their families. When a newfound friend returns to Australia, I might be sad. This could be devastating and destabilizing for an asylum seeker. When saying goodbye could mean suicidal ideation, can you really say your support was beneficial?

Yes; the people I’ve befriended here are some of the most incredibly strong, interesting, intelligent, and kind humans I have ever met. But their situation is not reflective of that reality and we cannot pretend that is not the truth.

On Samos, injustice is persistent and suffocating; ignorance only emboldens its power to do harm. One of the most important things I can do is recognize that inequality, that privilege which I benefit from, and attempt to dignify those around me as well as my situation allows. And that is why I have found that rule and that dynamic of power so difficult.
Unflinchingly, you must look inequality in the face and acknowledge it.

It is uncomfortable - twisted and ugly - but that discomfort is nothing compared to its actual danger otherwise.  Whatever side of the spectrum you choose to side – boundaries or none – there will be harm. But transparency and recognition hold the potential to mitigate and empower.

When I say goodbye to Jean, I go home to a house with four walls and am welcomed by my family. He goes back to a tent alone, but in acknowledging that reality, it becomes clear his situation is not what defines him. Rather, despite everything seeking to push him down, divide him asunder, amid all the boundaries and borders, the quality of his character stands resolute, generous and whole.