Tag Archives: Syrian refugees

The Human Spirit

Christmas message from December 2015, as relevant today as it was then, perhaps more so.   

World leaders have spent the last three years building walls, metaphorically and legally, to stem the tide of refugees. Donald Trump is demanding Congress cough up the money for his wall along the southern US-Mexico border, and now he’s closed down the U.S. government until they do. (Remember his campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the wall?)

The absurdities are limitless. We (meaning the colonial Western powers) preach free trade and no economic barriers, knowing the benefits flow primarily in one direction — ours.

We export our military and new-fangled weapons of hideous destruction to countries and people who have no means to resist our “gifts” of democracy.

We lock people up for years behind economic, political and cultural blockades (occasionally dropping cluster bombs and white phosphorous on them) because they don’t behave as we tell them they should. They refuse to obey.

Meanwhile, we continue to shop for the latest fashions, attend the posh parties, gush over every theatrical production, and toast to the New Year.  The hypocrisy of all hypocrisies is that we believe we can live our lives free from the mayhem and chaos WE have spread throughout the world; that our selfish, malevolent actions have no consequences!

Until our leaders grasp the “cause and effect” of our exploitations abroad, we will continue to see desperate people fleeing desperate circumstances of our own making.

The human spirit seeks life.  I also believe the human spirit seeks to help those in need. 

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Mural in Patras, Greece

That’s why Somer Sood, a California mother, created a nonprofit to bring backpacks to refugee children in Greece, along with some joy and dignity.

That’s why an American lawyer from Hawaii founded Advocates Abroad to provide legal assistance to refugees in Greece.

That’s why Sayrah Namaste, a New Mexico mother, regularly goes to the US-Mexico border to help refugees there.

And that’s why Judy Werthein, an Argentinian artist, created a new brand of shoes in 2005. (Brinco means jump in Spanish)  She distributed the trainers free of charge to people attempting to cross the border in Tijuana, Mexico. At the same time, just over the border in San Diego, she sold the shoes as ‘limited edition’ art objects for over $200 a pair. Wertheim donated part of the money she raised to a Tijuana shelter helping the migrants.

Today, they are on display in London at the Tate Modern Art Museum.

 

The trainer’s design includes eagle motifs inspired by American and Mexican national symbols, and an image of Saint Toribio Romo, the patron saint of Mexican migrants. The shoes also feature a torch, a compass and pockets to hide money and medicine. Printed on a removable insole is a map of the border area around Tijuana.

Werthein had the Brinco trainers produced cheaply in China. Many global companies manufacture products in countries where labour is cheap and often poorly regulated. The artist hopes to draw attention to how easily goods move between countries, compared with the strict regulations around the movement of people. The same governments that allow the import of cheap goods from overseas often strictly control, and actively discourage, migrants from entering the country in search of better living conditions.

Lora Lucero’s spirit wants to help refugees. Today it may be as little as purchasing and donating a cot to the shelter and shipping it to Las Cruces. Here is the address for shipping: Project Oak Tree 1280 Med Park Drive Las Cruces, NM 88005.

Tomorrow?  I hope I find the answer I’m searching for in 2019 — how can Lora best help the refugees seeking safety and security?

 

 

 

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One Ferry + 100 semi-trailers

 

I truly didn’t know what I was in for when I rode the bus to the ferry terminal in Brindisi, Italy.  I had a reservation and knew the time of departure and the destination. Patras, Greece.

brindisi map to patras

The ferry terminal is surrounded by a large industrial zone, and all I could see when I got off the bus were lots of semi-trailer trucks, very large semi-trailer trucks. Hundreds of them. I couldn’t see any passenger terminal. I was the only passenger on the bus and I wondered if he’d dropped me off at the wrong location.

I found a security guard and asked him “Grimaldi?” as clearly as I could.  Grimaldi is the name of the ferry company.  Late afternoon in southern Italy is hot and everyone takes a siesta.  I was lucky to find the security guard.  He pointed in one direction so I started walking.  Lots and lots of pavement and enough semi-trailer trucks to fill many football fields several times over.

Well, the reason I didn’t spot the passenger terminal when the bus driver dropped me off is because I’m short and semi-trailers are tall. I couldn’t see past them, but indeed there was a passenger terminal off in the distance.  (Why didn’t the bus driver drop me off over there?)

There were a few other passengers inside the terminal, mostly Italians I think.  And a couple of families.  We were allowed to embark at 6 pm.  I asked the clerk where to find the ferry because I hadn’t seen it in my hike across the sea of semi-trailers. He smiled, and spoke good English, and said “It’s the only boat out there, and it’s really, really big. You won’t miss it.”

Again, it’s all a matter of perspective.  If you’re a small woman, and everything around you are tall trucks, you won’t see the horizon or any large boats.

Maybe I should have just waited for the handful of other passengers and followed them. But they seemed to be more interested in sitting and talking (Italian? Greek?) so I started walking again in the direction of the water. The ferry had to be somewhere near the water.

After passing a row of semi-trailers, I spotted the water and the ferry, the very large ferry. It was gleaming white and I counted 6 or 7 floors (or decks). How could I have missed it?  It was huge.  As I got closer, the ferry got larger and larger, and noiser and noiser. I found my way onboard all by myself. The other passengers were still in the terminal I guess. I was directed to the 6th level up an elevator, and put my suitcase against the wall.  Then I went out on deck. (I never leave my backpack anywhere …. that stays with me!)

For the next 3 hours, I watched the crew direct traffic, loading the semi-trailers onboard one-by-one. It was carefully choreographed, each driver following directions from the crew, except for one who wanted to cut in and promptly got chewed out. They were very tightly packed together. It was amazing to see.

The passengers watched on deck with me but shortly after we got underway at 9:30 pm, most of the passengers disappeared.  Undoubtedly, they had reserved cabins. I peaked inside one of those cabins — pretty swanky furniture and beds.

I’m traveling on a shoestring (a single shoestring) and there are no cabins in my budget. I went to the bar and found many of the truck drivers. These guys come in all sizes, but mostly large, like their semi-trailers. Loud voices, Italian and Greek I suspect. Gruff appearance but acting like big teddy bears. And most of them were glued to the soccer game (futbol) on the television on the wall.

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I took out my book (Carlo Levi’s “Christ Stopped at Eboli”) and started reading. There were a couple of other women in the sea of men, but they looked like wives or girlfriends of the truckers and no one was speaking English. I was definitely a fish out of this water, but I enjoyed the sense of camaraderie and cheering. Their team was doing well.

About 11:00 pm I went up to the bar, waiting for my turn to buy a beer.  I asked the trucker next to me “How much?” … not sure if he would understand me. He spoke broken English, offered to buy me a beer because truck drivers get a good discount on the ferry. I thanked him and we clinked our bottles with a “salud” before retreating to our chairs.

Ferries aren’t the best place to sleep, unless perhaps you have a cabin. I dozed off in my lounge chair for about 4 hours until the loudspeaker announced at 4 am that we were arriving in Igoumenitsa, Greece. I went out on the deck and watched the activities as the ferry came into dock. Some motorcyclists and trucks disembarked, along with a few of the passengers.

I suspect one of the truckers overslept because they kept announcing his name over the loudspeaker and telling him to go to his truck immediately.  (In 4 or 5 different languages!)

We arrived in the port of Patras, Greece about 4 PM Sunday afternoon.  Very hot and bright, bright light.  I disembarked from the garage level along with the semi-trailers, a very intimidating experience.  I walked alone across a sea of pavement again until I arrived at the passenger terminal. (They really should designate a pedestrian path to the terminal at least instead of making us compete with the semi-trailers.) I wouldn’t be surprised to learn about pedestrian fatalities at these ferry ports.

Outside, sitting at the bus stop with two young men (an Italian and an Iranian), I saw a group of 4 or 5 young men run past. They were very thin, drenched in sweat, looking in every direction as they ran across the yard in front of the terminal. A few minutes later, I saw another group run across.  My companions at the bus stop confirmed for me, they were Syrian refugees hoping to find a way onto the ferry.

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Lora  & Iranian young man & Italian young man sitting on bus with curtains in Patras, Greece

Within 15 minutes of landing in Greece, I’d met my first refugees.

 

 

 

 

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A drop in the ocean

 

I’m sitting in a small loft in the old city of Brindisi, in the boot heel of southern Italy. Brindisi is a very old port city. The famous Appian Way from Rome ends here. The ferry will take me to Patra, Greece on Saturday. I’m going to Greece to learn about the plight of the refugees arriving there.

I don’t speak the language (any language except English) and I don’t know where I will end up. Trying to put myself in their place, which is impossible of course, I can sense the feeling of fear, isolation, and desperation just below the surface. If I had no home to return to, no U.S. passport to give me some measure of legitimacy, and no resources (credit card), I would panic. I don’t think I could be as brave as most of these refugees.

Thousands of refugees are dying in the Mediterranean Sea trying to make it to shore in Greece or Italy. Why? Why must men, women and children run such risks in this 21st Century instead of getting on a plane and flying somewhere safe? [I’m looking for the answer; haven’t found it yet.]

In April 2016, Pope Francis visited the Moria refugee camp on Lesvos Island. He returned to the Vatican with 12 Syrian refugees from 3 families, all Muslims. He acknowledged it was only a drop in the ocean, but “the ocean will never be the same again,” he said.

I met a newly-wed couple from Germany last week on their honeymoon in Rome. We talked about many things, including the large numbers of refugees coming to Germany. They believe Angela Merkel’s intention’s are good, but she hasn’t followed up with good planning or organizing to fully integrate the new arrivals into life in Germany. They told me about refugees setting fire to their camps out of anger and frustration. Germany has accepted more than a million Syrian refugees, a staggering number compared to the rest of the EU and certainly the US.  [Migration to Europe explained in 7 charts.]

The United States has accepted only 3,127 Syrian refugees in the past 5 years. Although President Obama promised to accept an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, only 1,300 have made it through the tight screening process in the first half of 2016.

On September 20, 2016, Obama will host a Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis and urge “significant new global commitments to: 1) increase funding to humanitarian appeals and international organizations, 2) admit more refugees through resettlement or other legal pathways, and 3) increase refugees’ self-reliance and inclusion through opportunities for education and legal work.”  I’m curious how he can call for such action when it appears the U.S. is not stepping up to the plate. [I want to research more about the U.S. actions on the Syrian refugee crisis, particularly since the U.S. is responsible for so much of the devastation forcing Syrians to leave their country.]

As with climate change, it appears that the frontline in responding to the refugee crisis is at the local level, and cities are taking the lead.  The March 18 EU agreement with Turkey is abominable and is evidence (at least to me) that answers will not be found at the state-level (whether in the European Union or the U.S. federal government).

At its core, the agreement aims to address the overwhelming flow of smuggled migrants and asylum seekers traveling across the Aegean from Turkey to the Greek islands by allowing Greece to return to Turkey “all new irregular migrants” arriving after March 20. In exchange, EU Member States will increase resettlement of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey, accelerate visa liberalization for Turkish nationals, and boost existing financial support for Turkey’s refugee population.

There is hope.  Even before arriving in Greece, I have learned of two examples which might be the bellweather for successfully responding to the refugee crisis. [I will know much more after I visit Greece.] Both examples come from the individual, not government.

Somer Sood

Somer Sood – Operation Refugee Child

Operation Refugee Child was started in 2015 by a small group of mothers in Orange County, California, USA. Since then, they have achieved the following:

  • Created an organization run entirely by a team of five volunteers.
  • Developed a network of local contacts throughout Europe and the Middle East.
  • Received in-kind donations from corporate partners including Nike, Patagonia, ClifBar, CubeBot, Happy Baby and LuminAID among others.
  • Raised over $250,000 for purchase and delivery of supplies to refugees.
  • Distributed 5,080 lbs of aid supplies in 2016 including:
    • 2,480 backpacks
    • 800 thermal underwear and wool sock sets
    • 311 winter coats
    • 192 LuminAID solar pillow lights

I’m hoping to meet up with them in Athens at the end of the month, visit the camps with them, help them distribute backpacks to the children, and learn.

Pooya

Pooya volunteering with Emergency Response Centre International on Lesvos Island

The second example is a friend of a friend from California who is currently volunteering on Lesvos Island.  Pooya is a rescue team leader with Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI).  Check out his gofundme fundraising site here.  I hope to meet him on Lesvos Island and learn.

My friends ask me why?  “Why are you going to Greece?”

The short answer is the same answer I gave when they asked me “Why are you going to Gaza?”

I want to see with my own eyes, hear with my own ears, feel with my heart, and learn about the refugee crisis on the ground. What I learn may only be a drop in the ocean, but the ocean will never be the same again.

 

 

 

 

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Civil society in Amman

An invitation to meet the teachers and volunteers at the Syrian Women’s Association (SWA) in Amman was a golden opportunity to see the Muslim faith in action — thanks to Eman (from Gaza) and Maryam (from Malaysia).

My friend in Amman braved the crazy city traffic, including a fender bender, to take me to the center and translate for me.

This was a special day at the SWA — they were celebrating the good work of the many volunteers who teach Syrian women how to sew, style hair, or cook — all with the goal of learning skills that can be used to earn a living to support themselves and their families. They also teach English lessons.

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Volunteers at the Syrian Women Association in Amman, Jordan

The SWA’s model is a very smart way to make a big difference in the lives of many Syrian refugees fleeing to Jordan. The women learn how to sew and make new garments on an electric sewing machine. When they finish, each refugee can keep her sewing machine. Later, she returns to the SWA with the clothes she’s made at home. The SWA pays her for each item she has made and then turns around to sell the hand-made clothes in Amman to support the work of the SWA.

It appears to be a very solid, sustainable model that gives each refugee new skills, independence and self-respect — a much better way to help than the model of dependency and donations that many larger NGOs use. (I heard whispers about the corruption that exists in some of the foreign NGOs.)

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SWA founder shows her appreciation to Maryam, a volunteer from Malaysia.

The SWA is run by a woman who fled Syria many years ago because she was facing imprisonment there. I think she traveled alone to Jordan, studied religious teachings and ended up marrying another Syrian she met in Amman who is now a doctor. She started the SWA ten years ago before the current fighting but now, of course, there is a much greater need for assistance.

She runs it with a few employees but most of the teachers are volunteers. In addition to the women who receive training, the SWA provides an after-school program for Syrian orphans. My friend from Amman, a retired teacher, was so impressed with the organization that she offered to volunteer!

 

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Hadith on the wall – teaching the children how to read the Qu’ran

I was reminded again how small and interconnected our world is when a Syrian woman at SWA asked me where I’m from. “New Mexico, USA,” I told her, half expecting that she might confuse New Mexico with Mexico. She smiled and told me “My Uncle lives in Gallup, New Mexico.”

The take-away message for me — after my short visit at the SWA — is that small organizations run by big hearts can make a huge difference in the lives of many. The world needs to look closely at the model used by SWA — local, hands-on, self-sufficient, respect and sustainable. Women helping women — one stitch at a time.

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Wedding dresses for young brides from Syria

 

 

 

 

 

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