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From Greece with Love: A Researcher’s Journey into the Refugee Crisis

By Hanne Viken, November 26, 2015, Heroism Today

I remember the day I challenged myself with the thought:

– Is it really possible to study heroism without being a hero myself? Can I be a heroism researcher choosing not to be a hero myself?

The scary answer was of course – No.

It was this troubling question I had asked myself that made it impossible to look back. If I didn’t do more for humanity, I would feel like a joke preaching about heroism. I actually felt I had no other choice, if I am about to believe in myself as a researcher. It’s not enough to read and write about it –I need to live it.

This was a thought that I didn’t really like. It was uncomfortable for mainly two reasons:

  • Being a hero often means stepping out of your comfort zone, knowingly risking something. Meaning if it is not uncomfortable, you are not trying hard enough.
  • I personally have problems with the term “hero”. I am Norwegian, and Norwegians live by the rule: “Don’t believe you are anything special: Fit in, don’t stand out”.

Oh well, I decided to take a big step outside, as I ordered a trip to Lesvos, Greece. The world needs me. Millions of people are fleeing their homes and there is more than enough work to be done for anyone who is considering becoming a hero.

I am telling you: I stepped far out of my comfort zone. The days before departure, I couldn’t sleep or eat, as I was afraid of what I might see. Would I manage to meet these people, comfort some of them, knowing I couldn’t save any of them? Knowing that the child I would be warming probably would start freezing as soon as I left to feed and comfort another child? Is it meaningless? Would I be better off staying home? Donate money?

I was terrified. Would I be able to look the world in the eye, knowing there was too little I could do to change it?

So what is heroism anyway? Is it heroic of me to go on an aid-charter to Greece and getting to know the world as it is? Is it heroic not to? Is “effective altruism” the way to go in order to save lives? Should I donate money to The Malaria Foundation instead? Does heroism have anything to do with the situation I put myself in?

I argue that I learned a lot about heroism the week I spent in Lesvos.

The first thing I learned was:

Proximity matters. As I got close to the humans entering the island, the more empathy and love I felt for them. And I still do now, from my home in Norway. So in terms of the “effective altruism” question: Yes, it is more effective to donate money to Bill and Melinda Gates, whom I admire greatly. However, I suspect that by just donating money to humanitarian organizations, you may lose something I believe is important in a heroic life: being close to others by sharing both fear and gratitude.

Then I asked myself another uncomfortable question:

Could it be that this closeness to others suffering was basically a kind of exotic experience to me? Could it be that this was just a cheap adrenalin-heroic-charter-experience? I knew in all the horror I saw, that I was safe. I had food and shelter, and my baby boys were home in their warm bed – safe. How could I know which one was real?

And I found that the most interesting question to ask in this matter was:

– Who are we here for?

I remember when I thought, “Now, it is real”. I was on the shore of Lesvos looking at hundreds of cold people with no guarantees for the future whatsoever. Immigrants are risking their lives to get away from Syria, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. The journey from Turkey to Greece is extremely dangerous. The boats are nearly floating – plenty of motor problems, leaking boats made of rubber, too many people. Desperate people. Rain. Wind. Confusion and desperation. 150,000 people reached the shore of Lesvos in October. Imagine that.

The question “Who are we here for?” occurred to me as I watched volunteers operating at the beaches. Some volunteers seem to forget who they are here for – pumped full of adrenalin. They are the ones “playing heroes”. The poor immigrants and refugees are traumatized; they have just come out of the boat. They are trying to comprehend that they are alive. That their children actually live.
And a few, very few of the volunteers are shouting and grabbing their children further into the shore to rescue them. The parents panic – of course. They forget who they are here for. They see themselves as rescuers and heroes as they report home in newspapers and Facebook smiling in pictures with traumatized children in their hands. I figured that their intentions are good, but in the way they behave, they are here for themselves – forgetting about the actual needs of the victims.

One the other hand, some volunteers of course are here for others, and forget about themselves. They work all day and night, forgetting to eat and sleep. They are disturbed that they can’t save them all. Many of us had a breakdown as we experienced the hopeless situation we were in. Despair. These volunteers forgot that they are also here for themselves.

As I concluded Alisha Keys has concluded before me: We are here for all of us.

I understood this as a baby was about to freeze to death. A doctor with tears in his eyes asked me very gently to “please save this baby”. I walked with her away from the chaos at the beach towards the car while I was singing her lullabies. I didn’t know if she would die in my arms or not. The only thing I felt was love.

And I realized that the reason we are here is exactly what Alicia Keys sings about: “We are here for all of us”.

When I came back, a woman with baby-twins and no man, 9 months pregnant – was about to give birth. I helped her out of the boat into shore and laid her on a broken boat. Naturally she could not walk. Luckily, she is now in hospital.

And I really, I mean really don’t feel like a hero. I truly feel honoured. And I feel lucky to understand that there is no “they”, there is only “us”.

While I worked there, I experienced a collective love. In Eftalou, we kiss all day long. Everyone loves – even the refugees. Here is relief.

And over the sea from Greece, in Turkey – people are treated like animals. I hear horrible stories.
Over there they don’t know that we are here for all of us – and I truly feel sorry for them.

So going back to my problem about trying to be a hero in my own life. I have a problem with this because:

  • To be a hero is uncomfortable; and
  • Being a hero means you have to stand out from the crowd.

When I came back from Lesvos, I said: I will never be the same person again. I believe it was because of the lessons I learnt about stepping outside of my comfort zone and standing out.

It hurts to grow – remember the growing pain at night as a kid? It hurts. I believe this is what happens when you are stretching your own ability to make a difference. It is certainly scary to dare to ask yourself uncomfortable questions, to get to your own true intentions on why you are choosing to live the way you do – and if you could live differently, if you actually did what you preach, as I did as a heroism researcher.

As for the other problem, I finally freed myself from the fear of standing out. Because I found that it is not for the sake of the ego, it is for the sake of all of us, for humanity.

And I chose to believe that living a heroic life is a matter of daring to ask yourself uncomfortable questions about your true intentions – to dare to stand out, speak up and make a difference for the sake of all of us.

About the author:

Hanne Viken is a Norwegian heroism researcher and promoter. Her recently completed Masters thesis “Experts’ view on how to foster everyday heroism: A delphi study” was an innovative survey of leading psychological research and emerging conceptions of heroism. Using the Delphi Method and open interviews, Hanne captured and collated the perspectives of leading heroism science researchers, contemporary heroes, and heroism activists, producing a mind-map that identified key action areas for future research and promotion of heroism to the broader community. Hanne is extremely passionate and dedicated to spreading and teaching everyday heroism, and developing methods that are appropriate for the Norwegian cultural context in particular.


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