A Life-Changing Experience, Sparked Unexpectedly

Past Lighthouse Relief volunteer Marwa Bakabas stands in front of "the life jacket graveyard" in Lesvos, where hundreds of thousands of discarded life jackets used as refugees crossed the Aegean Sea have been collected. Photo: Anna Tascha Larsson/Lighthouse Relief

Past Lighthouse Relief volunteer Marwa Bakabas stands in front of "the life jacket graveyard" in Lesvos, where hundreds of thousands of discarded life jackets used as refugees crossed the Aegean Sea have been collected.
Photo: Anna Tascha Larsson/Lighthouse Relief

“I was supposed to be on Lesvos for two weeks. There came a time where the two weeks reached and I cancelled my return ticket… I stayed for three-and-a-half months with the intention of returning to Lighthouse Relief in the future.”

Marwa’s first experience of Lighthouse Relief was a happy accident. Arriving on Lesvos in November 2015, she shared a ride with a doctor heading to volunteer for the young organization. Arriving at camp in Skala Sikamineas late in the evening, Marwa decided to stay with the small team of emergency response volunteers for one night before heading on to her original destination the next day.

Then boats started to land on the Greek shores - the first in 48 hours.

“Everyone joined together, brought cookies; people arriving were cheering,” she says, remembering how the volunteers greeted the arriving refugees with a warm welcome.

“It was a very surreal first moment! From there I decided... to stay with Lighthouse.”

Staff, volunteers and Lighthouse Relief's Board Chairman pose with actress and activist Susan Sarandon in Lesvos.

Staff, volunteers and Lighthouse Relief's Board Chairman pose with actress and activist Susan Sarandon in Lesvos.

At the time, Lighthouse Relief was working towards becoming a registered non-profit organization in Greece, which would enable it to work in coordination with the Greek government and other actors.

Watching the organization's growth from “just a camp, with maybe three tents” to a more structured non-profit organization in such a short time was impressive, Marwa recalls.

“More tents were built in the Skala camp, and more structure was created, both physically and internally as an organization.”

In January 2017, Marwa returned to volunteer with the organization while on semester vacation from university, spending the month in the Female Friendly Space (FFS) in Ritsona Refugee Camp.

“I can’t believe how much the organization has grown! Even before I arrived, I saw on social media how far it has come, how much structure it’s developed - being able to focus on children, on women, and even on maternal health,” she says. “And still on Lesvos, being loyal and cleaning up, focusing on the environmental aspect which I really respect Lighthouse for doing.”

Since returning to Greece, she has also noticed that “the care provided [today] is different.”

In November 2015, the organization was focused on emergency response and looking at how it could respond better to new arrivals, for example with more tents and access to medical care. However, Lighthouse Relief’s response in Central Greece now largely focuses on more sustainable programming for the residents - all the more important since changes in EU refugee and resettlement policies mean that people often spend over a year in camp.

“The difference now is that there’s more structure in the sense that there’s programmes for the females since it is a longer terms stay for them. We’re trying to provide psychosocial support and activities for the women; seeing what their needs are, what the women want.”

Marwa with other staff and volunteers in Lesvos, where she served as Lighthouse Relief's Volunteer Coordinator. Photo: Florenz Schaffner

Marwa with other staff and volunteers in Lesvos, where she served as Lighthouse Relief's Volunteer Coordinator.
Photo: Florenz Schaffner

The experience with Lighthouse Relief’s response to the ongoing refugee crisis also had a wider impact on Marwa’s life.

“I applied to university at 3am on Lesvos because I couldn’t imagine anything else. I said I'm either going to return to Greece or go move somewhere and advance my education to be able to do this type of work.” She is currently studying Anthropology in Beirut, focusing on aid provided to refugees in camps.

As the refugee crisis in Greece continues to shift and evolve, Lighthouse Relief has adapted and innovated, looking for new ways to work in tandem with community members on new programmes. Like many Lighthouse Relief volunteers, Marwa’s investment in the fate of LHR and our beneficiaries did not end when she left Greece.