Volunteering, the Refugee Crisis and Christmas: Returning Home

December 25, 2015 ~ Demetra Szatkowski
 bye to beautiful lesvos

bye to beautiful lesvos

I don’t know how to adjust to being home. 

I just don’t know; I’m simply at a loss. It’s been a week and I still can’t understand. How can I feel so differently when it’s only been a month? Why do I change so quickly? How could I have expected myself to stay the same?

How could I have expected myself to stay the same?

My inability to handle anything began on my way home. I had finally just hit overload with my thoughts and emotions, and that compounded by physical illness was literally too much for my brain to deal with. 

I boarded my final flight, my head pounding, so congested that I couldn’t hear anything, my throat and chest burning, my body hot with fever. I curled up in my seat; my legs folded up on my tray table. I pulled my eye mask down and finally, finally prepared to rest. 

A few minutes later, a lady two seats down reached over and tapped me. I pushed up my mask. I saw her mouth move but couldn’t hear a word she said. I shook my head at her. 

“Put your feet down!!” She shouted. 

I looked at her, not comprehending. “Why?” 

“We are about to eat, and I don’t want to have to look at your socks,” she said, as if it were obvious. 

“This is my table,” I said, dumbfounded that she was trying to control how I was sitting in my own seat. “That’s your table.”

“Yes, but you’re offending me,” she said. “It’s very rude.”

I had just spent a month with people who were often forced to sleep on the cold ground in the rain. People who ate sitting in the dirt. People who didn’t get to take showers. I hadn’t even really had time to shower, or to wash my clothes. I literally couldn’t comprehend the idea that my feet being in somebody’s view were preventing them from eating their own meal. 

She called the flight attendant over. He talked to me. I told him I was very sick, had no sleep, and was in the only position where I felt comfortable. He agreed, the woman got fussy and annoyed, so he went to get another flight attendant. 

I didn’t even have enough energy left to feel defensive. I just didn’t feel anything. And when I heard her complain about me for the fourth time, and the new flight attendant crouched down and said something gently like “well, you know that’s not really what they’re built for…” I just burst into tears. 

Honestly. I couldn’t react anymore. It felt like everything from the past month just hit a wall and the only thing left to do was to cry, in the middle of the plane. And once I started, I couldn’t stop. The unfairness of it all. The unfairness that this woman was mad because she had to look at my socks when I was exhausted and had been helping people who were nicer than her but who didn’t have the privilege to even get upset about something so stupid. 

“I…just want…to sleep,” I sobbed hysterically, and long story short, they moved my seat and I luckily ended up comfortable for the rest of my flight. 


Before I left Greece I wanted to come home. I got sick and I missed my mother, I missed my bed. I was just really, really tired. 

So I landed in the airport at JFK and I expected to feel relieved. 

And then everything was in English. And I saw my mother, who took care of me on the way home. And I cried. And I slept the most fitful, unsound sleep ever and I woke up panicking, dreaming of Greece and feeling way too hot. And I kicked the covers off and I was freezing. And I knew I had a fever but somehow I was back in my room and it felt like the past month should have just been all a bad dream but it wasn’t. And all of the people flashed through my head. People whose country wanted to kill them. People who said my country killed their family. People who had nowhere to go. 

And I didn’t feel relieved. I felt wrong. Like everything was wrong. 

And my breath was too fast and out of control and I tried to tell myself to calm it down but all that did was transport me back to February, back to the hospital with my grandfather who was getting heart surgery. I heard the monitors beep. “Just count,” he said. 

“Inhale one.. Two.. Three..”

And then a few days later he was dead and that vision made me panic all over again and I laid in my bed and cried because the world was so awful. And I didn’t know how to deal with the world being so awful. 


I went to the hospital the day after I came home and they were like, “You’re fine.” Nobody really looked at me but they did a bunch of tests and they said I was fine so I was probably fine. 

I couldn’t stop coughing and my head was all clogged but I was fine. “Sore throat,” they said. “You’ll be fine.”

Most of my problems were psychological.
I didn’t know how to talk to anyone so I stayed in my room. I felt awful, too, so it was a good excuse to stay in bed. But I didn’t know how to relate. I still don’t know how to relate. 

It’s really hard to go from being surrounded by people who have nothing, who have had everything taken away, but who still find reasons to smile, songs to sing.. To people who have everything but don’t know it. To come back to a world where everything is functioning smoothly and houses are covered in Christmas lights. A world where people are worrying about presents and their arguments with their families. 

It’s strange to go from being surrounded by people from all over the world who are just like you, who care about the same things you do so much that they are also willing to act on it.. Back to Pennsylvania where people are really fine and they just don’t realize that yet. Back to news of Trump and businesses opening and closing and people shopping for holiday food in the giant grocery store. 

It feels so comfortable, so easy. It freaks me out because I feel like it wants to suck me back in. Complain about what you look like, it says. Worry about school. Stress about your family and people not getting along and where you’ll go and who you’ll see. Worry about the fact that you haven’t done any exercise in a month. 

And I shut that out, all those thoughts coming back from a month ago. And I try to focus on the people right in front of me, but I don’t know how to do that either. I don’t know how to describe what is happening and nobody seems to ask the right questions or wants to talk about it nonstop like I do and so instead I simply don’t talk. I shut everything out and don’t talk. And I obsessively check posts from Lesvos on my phone. And I stay in my bed. 

My plans now are in total upheaval. I was going to go back to school in January. I had a plan, structure, set ideas. Now they’re gone. I can’t organize any of the new desires floating around through my head. They’re all too big, they require too much thought at the moment. Do I leave everything? Do I leave everybody? How am I most useful? What matters the most?

And it’s supposed to be Christmas but it’s warm outside. And I read another post, “16 people drowned today.” And it doesn’t feel like Christmas. 

I was talking to a therapist, someone I’ve never spoken to before, and I talked about the last 4 years of my life. “Wow,” she said when I was done. “Just, wow.”

It felt good to have someone acknowledge that because I usually don’t acknowledge it myself. I start to brush things off, to think they’re not such a big deal. There are bigger losses, bigger problems around.

Sometimes when it gets to be too much and then someone just looks at me, astounded, and says, “wow..” that feels nice. 

The answer I’ve been giving everybody now is “I don’t know.” What am I doing with my life? I don’t know. What should I do next? I don’t know. 

The best advice I was given was that I won’t have any room in my head to make decisions until I spill out some of what is taking up so much space to begin with. So I talked a lot today. And I’m writing. And I can feel those new ideas starting to take shape, shadowy, hesitant shapes in the back of my mind. 


If you donated money to me, thank you again, so much. Unless I told you specifically what I used your money for (I did for some people because I made some smaller purchases earlier on), the donations ended up going to the tea tent, run by a group called the Wild Lemon Team. The tent provides warm chai and snacks to people throughout Moria. It has a constant flow of refugees and is needed and popular. I worked a night shift one night and I was super busy – there wasn’t a lull, ever, at all. The sugary tea provides a much needed sense of comfort and boost of energy. The tent is run by a man named Juval who is incredible – so giving and kind and helpful. The tent costs over $1000 a day to run. Moria is very overcrowded right now and they put out an urgent call for help, so that is where the money went. Money is needed everywhere, but that is somewhere I felt good about. If you donated and would like proof of that donation I can send that to you. Thank you for your support. 

I’ve lost this sense of trust I used to have, this sense that everything will be okay. But along with that loss has come a new sense of empowerment. It’s more of a, everything will not be okay, but it is what it is and I can do what I can to make it better. It’s scarier but more real. And I’d prefer that, to be honest.