24-year-old volunteer wants to help Lithuanians better understand refugee crisis

Island of Lesbos
AP/Scanpix

Marija has already been to Lesbos, where she spent over a year. After graduating from school in Alytus in 2007, the Lithuanian decided to take time off from studying and try out some independent living. Joined by a friend, she picked Lesbos as the place to go. Now the island just off the coast of Turkey has become the hotspot of refugee migration to the European Union.

“Our parents were not very happy about it, but we went nonetheless,” Marija starts the conversation lightly.

How and where did you find a job?

At one point, we did not have jobs, but usually worked at bars. We made coffee and served drinks.

And then you decided it was time to go home?

No, I decided it was time to go to university! I spent three years studying European and international law at Groningen University in the Netherlands and graduated in 2012.

Why did you want to volunteer with refugees?

This is a very topical issue in the world and Europe right now and, moreover, I find it very interesting. I want to contribute to helping refugees and see from up close how this is done.

Although my efforts will be only a token contribution, since I am going there for a week on my own – or, rather my parents’ – funds. I want to talk to refugees who come in rubber boats in thousands each day to Lesbos, which is very close to the Turkish coast and is the first port of the European Union.

I also plan to write about the situation in the Island of Lesbos and the refugees there in order to explain to people in Lithuania what refugees are – many Lithuanians still think that these foreigners are coming to our country to take our wealth and ruin Lithuania.

I have seen many well-educated people among the refugees, doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs who lost their homes and families to war. Their situation is very similar to that in Lithuania during World War Two, when many fled to the West in order to escape both the war and the Soviet occupation.

I wish above everything else that Lithuanians would look at the refugees who will soon come to our country and see people with dignity and worthy of our sympathy. They are just like us. So what that their religion is different?

Where do refugees in Lesbos come from?

Mostly from Syria, but also from Iraq, African countries and other places where life is tough.

Clearly, Syria and parts of Iraq are currently in an appalling humanitarian situation.

What are the attitudes of local Greeks in Lesbos regarding the newcomers?

All the relief for the refugees on the island is provided by local people. The Greek government is assisting very little, simply because it doesn’t have any resources.

The local people have built camps for the refugees, they are supplying food, raising funds. The good thing is that there are currently many tourists from Denmark, the Netherlands, the UK who donate willingly and some even do fundraising of their own at home.

Some airlines allow extra luggage on board if it’s assistance for the refugees in Lesbos.

I must note, though, that for many of them, the Island of Lesbos is just a temporary stop while looking for connections and relatives in Germany, the UK or other EU countries.

How do the refugees reach Lesbos?

Some are brought by intermediaries, but most simply set sail in rubber boats. Their entire possessions are fitted into one plastic bag.

Are you not afraid to be among the refugees? Are you sure there are no terrorists?

I do not think that terrorists or criminals would sail in rubber boats to Lesbos. They probably enter Europe much more conveniently, without risking their lives, as refugees do.

Are you planning to work with refugees once you’re back in Lithuania?

I would like to. If we help refugees from Ukraine, we can also help refugees from Syria.

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