This article originally appeared on Medium.com on May 9, 2016.
My volunteer travels to places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Palestine, India, and China have, throughout the years, given me heartbreaking exposure to the global human and moral crisis for far too many people.
There are proverbial glimpses of goodness represented by many non-governmental organization (NGO) workers and volunteers, and by local people who want to help those in their communities. Their stories share a common thread; each person feels compelled to act, in their own way, to belie the abyss of inhumanity.
My recent journeys to Jordan and Greece to learn about some of the individuals who have been forced from their homes in the largest wave of migration to sweep Europe since the Second World War afforded me the opportunity to meet people whose sole attention is focused on the refugees’ plight.
Samar, a 30-something Jordanian lawyer and Human Rights specialist, was disbarred because the Jordanian bar association does not recognize pro bono services, especially for refugees. For 15 years she has worked with refugees, and in 2008 she established a legal aid society. She manages 35 pro bono lawyers who are facing her same professional issues. One of their offices is in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which was originally designed to accommodate 3–4,000 refugees and now holds close to 40,000; down from a crushing 160,000 at it its height.
Alkis, a Syrian refugee who co-owns a restaurant, Damas, in Mytilene, the capital port of the Greek island Lesbos. Damas is a favorite among the many volunteers and workers for its delicious food, decent prices, personable service, and warm ambiance. Alkis’ personal journey is displayed in his business approach. He employs other refugees and, provides a free meal, at a table in the restaurant, to those refugees en route to the Athens- bound ferry. For many refugees, this is the first meal reminiscent of their former lives in days if not weeks.
Alison, an Australian, now living in London, spends a lot of time on Lesbos. She saw the mounds of clothing being discarded as the refugees had nowhere to launder their wet and dirty clothes. Alison approached local laundry services and together, they created Dirty Girls. They recycle the abandoned clothes and blankets and employ local people who have had little or no work. Once cleaned and sorted, the clothes and other goods are sent to distribution centers so that the refugees can receive culturally appropriate and properly sized clothes. Over 100 tons of materials have avoided the landfills. The United Nations Humans Rights Council (UNHRC) has saved over one million euros by not having to replace discarded blankets.
Rebecca, a beautiful young businesswoman from Sweden, whose partner died leaving her suddenly lost, read about the migrant crisis. She and a friend went to Lesbos to learn more and within hours, they created an all-volunteer organization to alleviate some of the myriad of issues the refugees faced. Their nonprofit, I AM YOU, fought the chaos in the Moria camp of Lesbos with its 3,000 plus refugees by establishing a 24/7 housing program and enlisting volunteers from all over the world. They now operate in Athens and will open in other refugee camps where their services are desperately needed.
The volunteer Spanish lifeguards at Lesbos rescue refugees from boats that are always too crowded and all too often sinking. They lift people out of the water who are wearing reconditioned life vests that have been refilled with water retaining materials which pull them under the sea. The Spaniards have had to make choices that they shouldn’t have to make; which boat do they save when they can’t save them all, which person do they carry on their emergency jet skis when they can’t carry them all.
Negia, originally from Cuba and now living in Athens, is a retired banking executive who was stationed all over the world. Takis, is a 60-something year old Greek businessman from Athens. When the first few hundred refugees came to Piraeus, the Athens shipping piers, from the refugee camps, they and other Greek citizens volunteered to provide food, clothing, medical care, and coordination of services. The Greek government provided empty terminals. As the lead volunteer manager, Negia has gained the refugees’ trust through her empathy and integrity.
Piraeus now houses more than 6,000 refugees in three buildings and numerous outside areas covered in tents with limited sanitation and protection. Every day, more refugees arrive needing all the services attempted by this team of volunteers. Only in the last few weeks have NGOs arrived to help.
These people and the many more I had the privilege to meet and work alongside, reinforced the human connection that is often overlooked. These multinational groups of individuals have sought ways to make the stranger not a stranger.