The difference I might never have made

Lesvos Gabriel Green

A brother, a mom and a dad, living together in a tight-knit suburban neighbourhood in the south of Norway. That is my youth.

Normal to some extent and in many ways sheltered. We were not much aware of what was going on outside the country borders. When we went on an outing, we might go to the capital or, if we were in a spending mood, we would go on a chartered holiday to Spain or Greece. Sure there were beggars and homeless people in our capital, and sure we saw the kids rummaging around the trash for food scraps in the foreign city back allies, but we did not much care. After all, we were there on a holiday, to have fun. If we entertained the idea of helping, we were told that we could not make a difference: “you cannot help them all”.

War, conflicts and starvation was something we saw on TV and the only time we volunteered to raise money for a humanitarian cause was when we were given time off school to do so. This is my story, but it is not my story in its entirety.

I do believe however it is representative of how many young adults of our generation, from similar backgrounds to mine grow up. Safe, sheltered, having never been exposed to war or real conflict, and never truly without enough food to eat. We never had a “real-world” problem. For one to want to fix a problem, one first has to see the problem. Growing up, it was far too easy not to see the problem.


Caught in the wrong direction

As almost a natural consequence of this sheltered upbringing, I went to study Business and Management at the University of Durham, in the North-East England. I believe this is where it all started. Through modules such as People, Management and Organisation, Integrated Marketing Communication and dissertation writing, I was for the first time taught to really think for myself, to question established truths. It did not matter whether Weber had said it; if you could argue your point, go ahead. It was not until a few months after my graduation that I truly understood the value of this.

Graduating from Durham, I was in essence taught how to make as much money as possible in as short a time as possible. I was therefore quick to say yes once the offer of an internship in Berlin dropped into my email. It did not take long however before the words from my lectures came back to me.

Working in Berlin, I suddenly found myself in a world where I was paid to make people consume as much as possible. It took me 2 months to realise; this is not me. I left Berlin, 3 months before the internship was over.

Arriving back in Oslo, having taken on a large amount of volunteer positions, almost volunteering full time – whilst at the same time starting my own company helping green start-ups become visible online – posts about the refugee challenge on Lesvos started filling my Facebook feed. My good friend, and now colleague Charlotte Vestli and I agreed: “we cannot just sit here and watch this”.

Two weeks after the first Facebook post in the beginning of September 2015, and after having raised roughly $9000 we went to Lesvos. I was supposed to be there for 4 days, returning to Norway for another volunteer obligation. I stayed for nearly 4 months.

Lesvos neal Mcqueen

Making a difference

On the very first boat I helped on 14th September, I was handed, to carry ten meters on slippery rocks to the shore, a 2-year-old girl by her mother. The boat had come in on a beach called Lighthouse beach, or locally known as Limantziki. The waters were reasonably calm but the boat carried 60 terrified, hungry and dehydrated people. The mother trusted me blindly, giving up her dearest treasure to a complete stranger, simply because I was there to help.

Lesvos changed everything: my values, my priorities, my need to make a difference. I no longer saw the everyday, easily ignored beggars on the streets of Oslo, or the kids at the trash bins, I saw boats. Boats and lifejackets. Loaded up at the forested coastline in Turkey, in dinghies made for 20 people, up to 70 people would cross the 8km stretch of the Aegean Sea between North-West Turkey and Lesvos. I was there on the beaches, over those four months, along with thousands of volunteers, to help them ashore.

Since then I took in hundreds more boats, coordinated hundreds of volunteers and witnessed thousands of people arriving on the shores of Lesvos: each with their story and each with their own faith.


The point of no return

On the 14th of September I realised that I could make a difference. That even if I cannot stop the war, save them all or be there for everyone, I can be there for that one person. Making no difference to the world, but to that one person, making the world of difference.

This is why I now find myself studying for a Master of International Development Practice at Monash University. I want to make a difference. Having co-founded Northern Lights Aid where we currently work in several refugee camps on the Greek mainland near the city of Thessaloniki in the north of Greece, I am lucky enough to already contribute to making a difference every day.

I want more. After being heavily involved in the refugee challenge for months I want to start working at the roots of the problem. Boats came to Lesvos for nine months before global society started to act. And when they did, well – while many of the solutions I am sure looked great on paper – they certainly made the situation increasingly more difficult for the people in the boats and the volunteers on the shorelines.

Call it a hairy goal, but I want to change existing policies and the inhumane structures blind to the realities on the ground, so that we never see a refugee challenge like this ever again.

Henrik Larsen