The Moment Syrian Refugees Became More than a Newscast

 In Europe, Travel Logistics

For over six years we have heard about the war raging in Syria; even longer we have seen images in the news from Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Afghanistan, as sects, communities, rebels, students, Muslims, Christians, Kurds, and other groups rise up against something in their land that they don’t agree with. Who is right? Who is wrong? What is the solution?

Sadly, there may not be one.

Even worse, only a few are causing the destruction that has caused well over four million Syrians to flee their homeland. This doesn’t even count the millions of Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern refugees seeking shelter from conflicts in their homelands.

Syrian Refugees Athens Greece

If you lost everything tomorrow, would you want to be treated this way?

DID YOU KNOW: We are currently in the middle of the largest refugee crisis since WWII. For many of us, this was our grandparents’ generation. We have never seen something so horrific, and I hope we never do again.

Watching the news, you see the people. You know that something horrific is happening, but it is half a world away. These are not YOUR friends and family. You are safely tucked in your bed at night, while a family dodges automatic gunfire on the Turkish border that tries to keep them from finding a safe place to rest. All we see on this side of the world is the terror attacks in our own backyard and those of our European brethren. We aren’t seeing as much of the conflict hitting those closer to the war zone; the innocent men, women and children who just want to live their lives in peace.

Syrian Refugees Athens GreeceRefugees are not just faces in the news

In March 2017, I stopped seeing random images in the news. My eyes were opened to my fellow men, women, and children who have been directly affected by the wars raging in the Middle East.

I held their hands. I refilled their tea. I made origami paper cranes with their kids. I experienced humanity in limbo.

While Syrian and Iraqi refugees are still labeled as war refugees seeking asylum, the UN does not recognize that Afghanistan is still at war (at least not at the time of my visit). Afghani refugees were no longer war refugees and were stuck in Greece until they could receive asylum from another country, one who was probably already overwhelmed by Syrian refugees who actually had war refugee status from the U.N. and took priority over those just seeking political or religious asylum.

Syrian Refugees Athens GreeceThere is joy and fear in meeting refugees

I’ll be honest. I was wary about this trip. One part of my brain thought it was a big adventure. I’d get to see the Acropolis and help people. The other part of me knew that I might hear about horrors my ears weren’t prepared to hear.

Both turned out to be true.

Refugees feel forgotten

Every refugee we met was ecstatic to meet anyone from another country who actually cared. They weren’t looking for a hand out. No one asked to come home with me. They just needed to know that they were loved and valued as human beings.

Many refugees feel forgotten by the world at large. Syrians did not get the world reaction they expected when civil war was declared after (from what I understand) several school children were arrested (read full story here) for graffiti they painted on their school wall. Unfortunately, even though they didn’t understand what they had written, it was about the President. There were tortured in horrific ways. This incident was the catalyst and last straw for many in the nation primed for their turn at revolution after they had seen the uprising in Egypt.

The world at large did not feel the same way. While millions literally fled their homes to flee this conflict and seek safety for their families, the world watched, shut their borders and pushed people out who had already been traumatized in ways I still can’t wrap my head around, even after talking to women and seeing the physical evidence of the horrors they had witnessed and been subjected to.

Not everyone shut their border though. Greece kept theirs open, and NGOs have tried to help in many different ways.

Syrian Refugees Athens Greece

How NGOs are helping in small, but impactful ways

It’s hard to hold onto your pride when you have nothing, not even a place to pee in safety. Imagine living your comfy, middle-class suburban life, your husband coming home, telling you to grab your jewelry and the kids and telling you that you had to leave that night with a backpack and that’s it. You were crossing the border and not coming back. No one wanted you. There would be no home, no family, nothing to go to. You either leave or die.

Basic human necessities aren’t something many of us have to think about on a daily basis. But when you have nothing, you now have to think about those mundane everyday tasks. Suddenly refugees had to think about things like– where will I wash? How will we keep warm and dry?

What it means to work with Syrian Refugees in Athens GreeceFAROS and UNICEF

FAROS and UNICEF are trying to give a bit of human pride back to these families who have lost everything. Refugees are already living on the streets, in camps or in The Squats (apparently anarchists had squatted in abandoned school buildings- Greece has squatters rights—and had opened their doors to refugees). Refugees have no home, no privacy, no reprieve from life. Women’s centers (the FAROS Hope Center and the UNICEF Blue Dot Center) offer small necessities like toilets and showers, as well as a sense of community for women and children.

These centers were set up soon after the first wave of refugees flooded one of the squares of Athens. Over three hundred families set up camp in what was essentially a very small park. There were no facilities and women had nowhere to relieve themselves. These were well respected, modest Muslim women. In no way would I want to relieve myself in front of 300+ strangers. Eventually I would figure it out I’m sure, but it wouldn’t be fun.

I am not Muslim. I can’t imagine how horrifying this prospect would be to a woman of devote religious faith and modesty, and my heart grieves for her.

FAROS rented a building down the street solely to help these women. They opened the building at first just to let women use the toilet. It evolved from there.

UNICEF soon joined FAROS by renting a space around the corner. They had toilets, three showers, a laundry machine and a children’s play space. The two NGOs coordinated hours and programming so a doctor and social worker could offer services to refugees. More needs were met, and soon a community center was formed, as well as tea service.

Syrian Refugees Athens Greece

How tea can help

Tea is a big part of Middle Eastern culture. You take tea together to gossip, catch up with friends, find out the latest news, etc. By going to the center for tea, even if you don’t need to use the toilet or take a shower that day, women are given a little normalcy in their every day.

This was my main job while volunteering with refugees for a week in Athens, Greece in March 2017. It may seems simple. To you, it may not even seem impactful. To the women I meet, it meant everything that an American showed up and cared. By the time they get to Greece, they feel forgotten by the world. For the staff, it was a relief to have extra hands available to help, especially since their children’s program coordinator was on vacation that week.

I was extra hands on busy days. I was an added source of entertainment to children who had been out of school for over a year. They were bored and just wanted to learn.

Syrian Refugees Athens Greece

Daily life at the Refugee Centers

I would see a few of the same women and children each day, but many didn’t come in daily. Where they were at, I don’t know. Language was always a barrier, but nothing speaks louder than holding a woman’s baby or showing her 11-year-old daughter how to make origami jumping frogs (thank you YouTube!) and paper cranes for hours on end so she has a new toy to play with.

I always had a photo of my boys readily accessible on my phone to show women so they knew I was a mother just like them. Just like in the states when we can chuckle and give other moms’ a little encouragement when our kids are melting down at the grocery store, showing off your kids is an instant bonder for mothers across the globe. It also gave women a little encouragement when I wanted to hold those cute chubby babies! I am very much done having kids, but oh boy do I love some baby snuggles and I got my fill that week. The mothers got a break too, which their arms needed after carting their babies in from the Squats outside of town too. Just like we do at home, sometimes its just nice to pass your kid off so you can get some peace and quiet!

The women who I would see everyday would always have smiles for me, and after a day or so of getting to know each other, I always had a hug or arm squeeze for them. Human touch is powerful and can lift a spirit up. It shows you care, but please, make sure it is a welcome interaction. Always let the ones you are serving in these situations be the ones to initiate it. Trauma is real and can manifest in many psychological and physical ways. I always made myself available to these women, but let them initiate contact first if they needed it.

Syrian Refugees Athens Greece

The refugee story you will never hear in the news

One family in particular impacted my time in the centers, as well as my friend Karrie who was on my team. We met the eldest daughter first. I guessed that she was 16 or 17 years old. No. She was a mere 13 years old, and yet looked much older thanks to the many things she had already seen and experience. We pieced together a little of her story after we met her mother and with the help of a translator. Please forgive me, as I will need to be vague to protect this family as well.

All of her uncles had been killed in the war. She was lucky to get out alive with her mother, father, brother and sisters. They did not get out unscathed though. Her mother had been burned and assaulted by soldiers. Her husband could do nothing but watch as his wife was groped until the soldiers found the money she had hidden on her person. It was all they had.

We still aren’t sure exactly what happened to the eldest daughter. She experienced massive trauma that left her with damaged kidneys, deafness in one ear and being hospitalized for almost a year. Due to translation difficulties, a lot of details were lost, but I look at my 13-year-old neighbor and imagine her sweet face. How would she react?

This girl cried with us, as did her mother as they shared their stories. As I squeezed both mother and daughter’s hands, the younger sisters chattered at me nonstop, as their English was much better, which was pretty common in the centers as the kids had been exposed to English at a young age and had been learning it in school.

Our last day it was hard to say goodbye.

Syrian Refugees Athens Greece

Not letting the refugee crisis end there

Did I want to take this family home with me? Of course! I had plenty of room in my house. But even more, I wanted them to be able to go home. I wanted to visit them in their native land, learn more about their culture, teach myself Farsi and dive into the food of their hometown.

I hugged this family goodbye, happy in the knowledge that we were now connected on WhatsApp, but sad that I couldn’t connect on social media, even though we all wanted to.

Note about social media: Although we all wanted to connect with each other on social media, our contract with our NGO forbid us from connecting with refugees via any public social media platform. This was solely for the protection of the refugees we were meeting. As innocent as social media communication may seem, family members and government officials back in their home countries can be looking for refugees. Even a year from now a simple mention of a name or a posted picture can put a refugee in danger. Our ultimate goal when working with refugees was protecting them, not putting them in more danger. No photos were taken during our trip and no public social media connections were made at all. 

Syrian Refugees Athens Greece

There are happy endings… with time… sometimes

I hope this family stays in touch and has a happy ending. One little girl and her family were headed to Germany while we were there. They had finally gotten their paperwork approved and were headed over to start a new life.

I prayed that another mother I met and her infant daughter would soon be headed to Germany where her husband and her mother were waiting for them. All too often families are separated in this process, and it makes no sense. Why wouldn’t governments help families be reunited? I don’t know. My common sense gets in the way of politics all too often. It is easier for family members to be reunited than to be relocated and find asylum where a refugee has no connection, but it still takes time.

Syrian Refugees Athens Greece

You can’t change the world, but you can change hearts

The greatest benefit of a short-term volunteer trip is not necessarily the work you do on the ground, but the heart you bring back home. The experiences my team and I had changed our hearts and minds. While we thought we already had love and compassion for the refugees, getting on the ground and so personal with those still in the first stages of relocation brought it to a whole new level.

These hearts and minds went back to the U.S. We are spreading our stories and experiences to our friends, families and all of you reading this. It’s the small tweaks we have felt in our mindset that will make the difference. It has also renewed a passion to get even more involved locally with the relocated refugees in our own community.

Not everyone can go to Athens, Greece to work with Syrian refugees, but there is a very large chance you have at least one Syrian refugee or a group of relocated refugees in your community, no matter how remote you live. Start digging. I bet you find them. Search out the local non-profits in your community who are already working with refugees and find out how you can help. Even if you do not go to church, start calling the churches in your area to see if they are helping refugees resettle and if there are any supplies you can help collect. There are a number of ways to get involved. Just don’t sit still. Jump up and get moving.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Mom

    Proud of you and grateful for this post. Hoping hearts are changed by what you wrote so people can do more to make a difference.

  • Tamara

    It is so important to humanize refugees and make people understand that these were regular people, leading good and many times prosperous lives and now they are treated with fear, disdain, and worse. It is awful. Thanks for bringing this to light and for volunteering your time.

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