23Feb2024

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Category: Human Rights

GreeceHuman RightsHumanitarian AidRefugeesUncategorizedUNHCR

#SCMHelp4Syrians Greece Update

The refugees that had been stuck at border of Idomeni since early this spring have now been in the camps set up by the Greek government for just over 4 months. What you hear are stories of sadness and despair, families torn apart by border closures, depression, and more. The people all want to move on, they want to get their families back together again, and they desperately want out of the dreary, hard, noisy, buildings that have become their homes.

SCM is working in two camps at the moment: Karamanlis and Frakapor. While somewhat similar in size, they couldn’t be more different. They are about a five minute drive from each other, but Karamanlis is located in sort of an industrial park area with other buildings surrounding it, including a building being rented by another group that SCM has partnered with, called Swiss Cross. The warehouse serves as a storage place for all the donations that have come in for the camp, an office space for the two organizations, a community center, and has workshops for a tailor and a carpenter – both Syrians who are putting their skills to use to help their fellow refugees at the camp.

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The Karamanlis Boutique shop where the people can come and pick out the clothing items they need and like.

It also houses the “boutique” and the grocery store where the people can come and spend points they are assigned based on family size to get food, household supplies, clothing, etc. This way, they can pick out things they want and need, and supplies can be adjusted according to demand. There is a falafel stand and a coffee shop that do charge for their wares, mostly sold to the aid workers that are there.

Frakapor is located near what must be a sewage treatment plant in an old warehouse and the odor from the plant is quite noticeable when you first arrive. After a while, you get used to it, and I imagine that the people living there have gotten used to it, but it just adds to the depressing conditions of life in the camp. They don’t have a community center like at Karamanlis, and this is something that would have a positive impact on the people there.  They do have an area for the classes we are teaching and both the adults and children are very happy about the classes SCM is providing in English, German, math and Arabic grammar.

While walking through Frakapor with our team lead Jamal, we were stopped by a man who spoke to Jamal briefly, and with some emotion about something, then we parted ways and continued on our walk so I could see the scope of the camp.  A few minutes later, we ran into the same man again, and this time he invited us to have tea in his tent with this family.

The man, whom Jamal knows and SCM has been helping to get treatment for severe depression, was very hospitable, he had his children there – two boys and a teen aged daughter, but his wife is not with them. With Jamal translating and filling in the story, the man’s wife had left Syria on her own before he did and made it to Germany. The man and his children planned to follow her, but only made it to Greece. They are originally from a city in the north of Syria, and traveled through Turkey, a journey that took them 17 days, then crossed to Greece, and finally they ended up at the border with Macedonia where they were abruptly stopped by the border closure. It has been a year now since the children have seen their mother and the man his wife.

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They fled from northern Syria only to be stuck now in northern Greece, apart from their mother, who did make it to Germany right before the borders closed.

This broken family is just one of many such stories of how this crisis has torn families apart. They have been forced to flee their homes in Syria, in terror for their lives, and now they continue to suffer from separated family members, depression, lack of hope for the future.  And with nothing to do all day for most of the adults in the camp, despair runs rampant.

I met a woman in the camp who is also helping SCM as our teacher administrator for Frakapor. She was an administrator at home in Aleppo, Syria, and fled to be with her sister who is already in Sweden. Other members of her immediate family have also already made it to Europe and are settled in new communities. She is now with other members of her extended family – cousins and aunts. She was married, but her husband left her for another woman, and now she is on her own, and stuck in Frakapor. She is occupying her time, though, by helping SCM administer the education program at Frakapor.

Both of these people that I met at the camp had different stories, but they are both languishing in the camp, and I could see the hopelessness and sadness in their eyes. There are a lot of faces like that in the camp. I don’t want them to give up hope, but I can sort of understand that they don’t see how this is all going to end. Their chances of reuniting with family members already in Germany or Sweden or elsewhere seem to be out of reach, and no end is in sight for the conflict in Syria. They have lost everything, and many are thinking what else is there? The answer, in their minds, is another day in the concrete and steel box of the warehouse at Frakapor. And that’s it.

Please continue to help us help them. We want to continue to be able to supplement their food rations and get more educational materials for the classes. We also want to help support the craftspeople that are working in the camp to fix things, repair things, and more by getting them the supplies they need.

Thank you!

~Brenda

GreeceHuman RightsHumanitarian AidRefugees

Perspective

From Sarah Hassasine, one of our volunteers to Greece:

I want to put some things into perspective.

Imagine you come home one day and as you pull your car into your home, you silently register how both of your neighbors have left. Many of your friends in the neighborhood had been talking about leaving as well. You go home and close the door and sit down to dinner with your family, silently registering the lack of meat, less bread and no fruit on the table. The streets are deathly quiet outside. You miss the honking and the voices that used to make up the streets. No one goes out anymore.

You drive to work the next morning and drive by large hordes of people trekking with their families across the highways. Little kids on their fathers’ shoulders, and toddlers trying to keep in step with their parents. They look wide and lump shaped, and you note how they are wearing as much clothes as possible to take with them on their journey. How long will they walk for? Where are they going? They are leaving everything behind to start over. You glance back in your rear view mirror and look back at them wondering, “Should I leave?”

That is how it began for so many Syrian and Kurdish refugees that sit in the camps in Greece today. They had a normal life like the majority of us, they too would get up and go to work, go to school, go to the market, etc. And as the conflict worsened amidst their own borders and bombs were getting dropped, families had to make difficult decisions that would impact their lives forever. Do we stay and risk dying in our own homes here in Syria? Or do we leave and take the risk of a long journey to go somewhere safe and find a new home and opportunity for our family?

That is, and still is, the reality for the people in Syria.

Perhaps you remember media outlets flooding our living rooms and handheld devices with images of thousands of people trekking from across Syria, Turkey and Europe. They sat in snow and rain shivering – hungry and exhausted. But they were resilient and persistent, driven by the hope of reaching safety and security. They left one state of adversity to unknowingly enter another one.

Those images haunted me daily as I went about my life and I made silent promises to myself as I sat in my cubicle that I would extend a helping hand one day.  I saw these people as nothing but brave. It takes a lot to leave your home, your comforts and your belongings for the unknown. It takes faith that things can only get better. Ironically, nowadays we greatly struggle with not knowing. We have to know our path and define our future and we feel insecure and depressed if we cannot guarantee the outcome. That is why everything we purchase has a warranty, we want to rest assured knowing that our TV is covered for at least two years. But there are no real guarantees in life. And these people face this reality daily.

People in the camps today in Greece have been shuffled around numerous times. The Greeks come at 5 am, disturbing their slumber and make them pack and move. There is no sense of belonging and there is nothing but uncertainty every day. When they sleep at night, they know tomorrow they may end up sleeping in another camp. There are over 20 camps just in the north of Greece alone and Greece has over 55,000 refugees from Syria.

I want to share with you what I experienced when I finally fulfilled my promise. The opportunity arose this past summer and I was able to dedicate one full week in three refugee camps.

Flying into Greece’s second largest city, Thessoliniki, I suddenly found myself anxious, what was I getting into? I had a huge suitcase of medical and school supplies with me and a lot of baby clothes to donate. I brought activities to do with little kids, but all of this did not mean I was really ready for what awaited me.

What does being a refugee really mean? And what is a humanitarian crisis? We throw words around daily in the news but there is a complete disconnect on the state of their actual existence and the politics on the ground.  And going forward, I will not coin the people refugee as I want to humanize them to you because that is what they are, people like you and me, who are currently struggling to find their home again.

To start, we all like our habits and our comforts. Some of us have our favorite restaurants on certain days, we prefer to only go to the bathroom at home, or perhaps shower at a particular time of day. We satisfy our cravings and desires relatively quickly. We have cultivated our identity, our lifestyle and relationships through our routine, our city and our culture. You pop into Starbucks for your usual grande drink and debate whether you will gym it or not and what happy hour joint is best for each day of the week. Now imagine if all of that is stripped away. Nothing is familiar anymore.

Every day you are only given a piece of bread wrapped in plastic and a juice box. That is it every day. On good days, you are told to go line up for some tuna, or noodles, or eggs. One donation per tent.

You share 15 porto-potties with 500 people. The toilets are emptied daily but the odor is putrid and overflows into the camp. You learn to hold your nose at first, but then the smell becomes normal. And they are not clean. You carry toilet paper in with you each time you go. They do not flush. Imagine if you are a woman on your period or you just don’t feel well and have to throw up or have an upset stomach. Everyone knows your business.

You share 10 showers with 500 people. The showers are in a large crate with curtains to “separate.” But there are no windows inside and so it is very steamy and hard to see. The water does not drain so dirty water gathers at your feet. Forget about properly shaving and grooming. And the women share 5 shower heads with all the children. It is never empty and there is no privacy.

Where are the sinks?

Outside in the open air as well. One row of sinks for the men and one for the women. There are no mirrors, just sinks.  The same sink you use to rinse a cup, wash your underwear, wash your baby, get your drinking water and wash your face. You share those 10 sinks with 500 people.

Afterwards, you have your living conditions. The refugees were all given tents to live in per family. Most tents have 7-10 people in each.  They sleep on the floor on blankets. Usually families of three generations are all in one tent. I also saw some tents of just young boys, they were sent on their own by their families. They always sit together and sprawl out busy on their phones. Waiting. Everyone spends every minute waiting. There is nothing else to do. I saw a teenage boy crying in a corner and that image stays with me daily.

The refugees cannot just leave the camps. Most are controlled by the Greek military and are in remote locations where there is nothing nearby but warehouses, farmland, and sadly even sewage facilities that emit God-awful smells. One camp, Frakapur was on the border of the sewage land, flies were everywhere, you get tired of swatting them away and they just become normal. And yet the people of Frakapur mill around the camp, play soccer in the field and make it work. That is the beauty of survival, you keep going and create norms despite the conditions.

Some camps are closer to big cities and more open and so you will find young men who go and come back throughout the day, restless and yearning for a change.  Those that do leave will try to barter with the gypsies to buy vegetables. They try to exchange their plastic wrapped bread for tomatoes and other vegetables. Some come back with olives, excited for something familiar, yet foreign in their setting in the camps.

“We Syrians know food, we have the best food in the world, and now all we eat is this bread every day,” said one lady to me sadly. It is not the kind of bread they are used to. These people are used to pita bread, not croissants or bread rolls. However, my greater concern was the lack of nutrients in their diet. Right now, all the food that the camps are getting are through donations. Donations go a long way and allow organizations to buy protein like tuna and nuts. The organizations also purchase bananas and watermelons and whatever else is in season. When I was there we distributed pita bread daily and also gave each tent a bottle of olive oil. Given that the people are in tents and cannot really cook, we gave them foods that are easy to eat and do not require real cooking. And even with so little the people would see me and always invite me into their tents for tea and bread and watermelon. It brought them joy to host and I experienced such gracious hospitality sitting on the hard floor of a tent listening to stories sipping tea than I have in most 4-5 star Yelp rated restaurants.

Some camps are putting in community kitchens so that families can prepare some dishes to share because the people cannot cook in the majority of the camps. While I was visiting Karamanilis camp, a young boy came by with a tray of hot donut hole falafels that he had just fried in the community kitchen. It was the best falafel I had ever had in my life. It dissolved on my tongue within seconds, leaving me to reach for a second, third and fourth. Syrians do know food.

We all joke about being hangry and how no one should talk to us til we eat. Imagine 55k people like that, every day, all the time. I worked in camps of 500 people and the level of despair, depression and defeat thickened the already hot summer days. Hunger spills over into irrational acts and pure frustration.

Every day when you walk onto a camp you see the same sadly stricken faces in the same outfits, it is like ground hogs day every day. It was the kids though and their energy that makes the camps so lively. The adults carry sadness, but kids run around and play and they bring an element of light to the dismal reality.

In just one week I witnessed a protest in one of the camps towards all the families that were pregnant. The standard treatment was that if a woman was pregnant she would get extra eggs as protein. But other families got jealous and demanded equal treatment for families regardless of a pregnancy. Therefore, in the end, no one got extra eggs and the pregnant women remained in the same category as everyone else, increasing the risk of malnourished and sick new born babies.

In one week, there was a girl who died because she felt sick and the ambulance took over an hour to get to the camp.

And another girl was attacked by a man as she brushed her teeth and her throat was slit open. She survived but was hospitalized.

In one week, I met the Mayor of the neighboring village who joined my team for lunch to learn about the camps and how the people were living.

In one week, the learning center was ransacked at night and supplies were stolen from the cabinet. The next morning when we opened the “classroom” all the little kids huddled around me to tell me who of the older kids did it.

What I experienced and learned felt like three months. I could only imagine three months on the field. I would collapse in bed emotionally exhausted after long 12 hour days. But it was the most fulfilling 12 hour days of my life. I felt that my energy was going somewhere positive.

I went in as a humanitarian volunteer, planning to help with the schools and help teach English. My first day alone I taught English to 5-7 year olds, 7-10 year olds and adults. Then in the evening, I led yoga and salsa for the children. There are so many kids everywhere and they loved it.

Every day was different though, you never know what will happen when you wake up and what the political climate amongst the camps, the Greek military and the other international organizations will be. My second day I go downstairs to breakfast and find out the Greeks banned volunteers for the day because they wanted “a break” so we ended up going to the warehouse to sort through clothes donations to hand out to camps. The warehouse was hot, spider webs were everywhere and we even saw lizards slither between boxes. I tied my hair up and rolled up my sleeves and worked with the team to divide piles for children, men, women and babies.

Babies are on the rise. Sex is a coping mechanism, how and when people make babies is beyond me but it makes perfect sense. They have a lot of time on their hand and they need a release. But the concern is the nourishment of the mothers and babies. Already while walking through the camp I had two pregnant women come up to me separately desperately asking for food and for a change of clothes.

“I will deliver any minute and I have nothing else to wear but this outfit and nothing for the baby…” this Kurdish woman is tugging at her shirt and pointing at her huge belly and I empathetically take note of her tent number and document her needs: clothes and food. The basics. Can I really help?

Even when on the ground helping, you feel helpless. That was the overall feeling that I carried for seven days. I taught English to the kids, I translated in the medical clinics, I painted a library (a shack-like building), I did food distribution, conducted camp surveys by going tent by tent and just made it a point to talk with people and sit and listen, and yet I felt helpless. Because I was seeing it and living the dire crisis. I was smelling the odors. I felt their hunger and I sat in their tents on the hard surfaces. I got to leave at night, but they stayed.

The days I worked in the clinics were the most exhausting and the most rewarding. I would mentally shut down for at least an hour after we would leave the camp giving myself time to process the day. In the clinics, people were coming in with problems that were a result of living in the camps. Often times, I gave up translating the doctor’s orders and talked about how their malady was due to the camp and it was temporary. People came in with full body fungal infections (head to toe), bug bites all over their legs and arms, malnourishment, dizziness, PTSD symptoms, bed bugs, UTIs, eczema, shortness of breath and headaches. Those that came in with heart and chest pain needed to go to the hospital, but even ordering labs or prescriptions was trying.  Who would pay for it? Who would take the patient to the hospital?

I remember we asked one young mother to remove her clothes to see her infection and she was covered head to toe in a full body infection. There was not enough cream for us to give her. I hid my own tears as she sat there sobbing. I ended up sitting next to her hugging her and suddenly it became about her life in Syria and how she had never gotten sick before and since she left it has been nonstop between hair loss, fungal infections and bed bugs. What can you say?

Most doctor’s appointments became a therapy session. “Who will ever marry my daughter!?” one mother frantically whispered as her young daughter showed us her full body eczema. While I understood the cultural concern my heart went out to the young girl terrified in the corner. I knelt down and took her face in my hands, “You are so beautiful, so so beautiful. This makes you more beautiful.” Her mother wept.

Each camp is run by a different volunteer and different international organizations are on the ground. The majority of the volunteers I met were German, Spanish, and Italian. The main camp that I worked in – Iliadis –  was run by an American woman who was not being paid, she was just devoting 100% of her time, 7 days a week to running a camp. No easy feat when you have 500 people asking for food, hospital runs, favors and asking daily when their situation will change. I don’t know how she slept at night. She was on call 24/7.

The Greeks assigned organizations to each camp. I went with Salaam Cultural Museum (SCM) who is doing amazing work on the ground setting up learning centers for kids and adults and distributing food and clinic services. They are Seattle based and have two full time staff on the ground in Greece that are impressive and amazing hustlers. Everyone I met was so kind and so selfless, the driving mantra was “refugees first.” In my group alone were Americans, Germans and British. I made lifelong friends.

With that said, it is not all kumbaya because there are politics between the international organizations. The reality of international development is so frustrating when it comes to collaboration. Larger organizations try to push out smaller ones or take their projects and claim them as their own. I personally saw that with SCM and the learning center they built for the kids. Three weeks after they opened it, they were suddenly instructed to stop classes and that another organization will take over. There was no debate and they could not contest it. It came from the Greek government. That organization had friends on the inside. So even when helping, you hit wall after wall and you end up being part of a whole new socio-economic-political reality. The world of development is frustrating. You need resources and power and the right allies, it is never about good intentions and often, the cause is overlooked.

It was amazing to land in Thessoliniki and within minutes shed the skin of Sarah in the US and just be humanitarian Sarah in Greece. I forgot my comforts and my priorities. Suddenly my priorities were what tasks would I be able to do that day in the camps? Will they get eggs and other protein delivered? What activities will I do with the kids in classes?

I had a lot of guilt leaving, I felt like I was abandoning the people. But the sadness was one sided. They are a people that are used to loss and used to people coming in and out. For one week I had had kids tugging at my arms and always on my hips, but when I said I had to leave their eyes were void of emotion and I could only see emptiness. There were no constants in their life. No guarantees. Their camp could get moved tomorrow. One little boy drew me a good bye picture…it was of a heart crying and he was holding balloons of hearts that were crying.

Leaving the camps leaves you a bit jolted for a few days, everything you see or hear after you relate back to a person you met and conversation you had with a person in the camp.

As I grab my coffee at Starbucks I think of the Iraqi refugee that popped into the clinic as I was translating with an iced coffee for me with a smile.

As I listen to my salsa music in the car I think of the little kids learning the steps with me and jumping around to the beat.

As I get ready to go out, I think of the woman who joked with me about finding a husband that will make me happy and “kiss me over and over” to quote her verbatim. Despite it all, the humor and love for life is there.

As I shampoo and condition my hair I think of all the women that asked for conditioner because their hair was getting course.

As I watch fathers with their kids here in the park I think of the father I met who started crying to me telling me that he is tired of being strong for his kids and that he is weak. That he is losing hope. I wonder how he is and what he is doing.

As I go to work in the morning I think of the father of four beautiful kids who told me that he has been working since the age of 7 and had a huge restaurant and catering company and now has been sitting restless in a tent for 8 months. “I left Syria because of the kids, because I want them to go to school and learn. Now we sit everyday doing nothing. If I had known this would happen I would have stayed in my country.”

And that is the repeated sentiment I heard time and time again. The people “stuck” in Greece don’t know what is next. They want to go to Germany. But Germany already has 1 million and won’t be taking in that much more for a while. Other countries most likely won’t open up. So what is next? How long can people live like this?

A refugee is a person with an identity, with a passion, with an ambition and with a home. They had to leave that home not because they wanted to, because they had to. Ideally, Syria would stabilize and they could go back and rebuild in a land and country that they know. In my opinion, that is the best option because having to move anywhere now and assimilate and learn the culture after months/years in a camp would be a huge adjustment. They would have to learn another language, culture, land and adopt new norms. They already struggle with a lot of PTSD. Sure they are resilient but they have also been beaten down due to their journey and this long wait.

What can you do? Good question. Donate so that international organizations can buy food. Volunteer your time if you can, but most of all, spread the word about the refugee crisis. The reality is that people can know there are refugees but they don’t really know what that means and how bad the situation is.

“Did you come for us? To help us?” An old lady asked me as she sat outside her tent, “yes,” I reply kneeling down to sit next to her cross legged, “They know about us out there where you are from?” “Yes,” I reply, hoping I am right.

EducationGreeceHuman RightsHumanitarian AidRefugeesSyriaWomen & Children

It’s easy to feel deeply from 6,000 miles away

A post written by Rita a few days ago~

I was talking to my daughter this morning in the Carolinas as they were weathering tropical storm Hermine and as always we got onto the subject of Syria. We talked about the continued humanitarian aid that SCM is involved with in Greece and Jordan and she said, “As much as we take care of the fallout, the cause of the violence continues. It feels like a bottomless pit of suffering.”

It’s easy to feel deeply from 6,000 miles away. It’s harder to do something about it. Governments and people globally should beware: If we don’t do something to address the situation in Syria and save the children from their current fate, then we won’t just undermine the future of these children, but we’ll be hurting our own as well.

What’s to become of the Syrian children? The lucky ones will move to Europe or the United States, where they’ll eventually learn the local language and attend schools and universities. They’ll dream of returning home, as most refugees do, but in the interim, they will become an integral part of our societies, contributing to our economies and cultural diversity.

Unfortunately, this future is for the select few. The vast majority will remain displaced and will miss years of education — if they ever return to school. According to the United Nations, 4 million Syrian children are currently not in school. If we don’t address this harsh reality, these children could face one (or more) of three likely outcomes: they could become professional beggars; they could be abused and trafficked as child labor or sexual slaves; or they could be recruited by terrorist organizations.

Please support any NGOs and churches taking care of children and educating them while war ravages their lands. Meanwhile, we can get involved in the public discourse on refugees and argue for their fair treatment and human rights.

Laila, my daughter, talks about her friend still in Aleppo and how she is working to just barely support her entire extended family of 22 people; but how long can she do that? How long will her job there be viable in the midst of such an insane war? We talk about how to get her out, which might not even be possible at this point, but then if we could get her out, would she be able to get a job – could she get a job to support herself and to send money back to the family that is still there? How do the Syrians make these kind of decisions, how do they leave their families behind, knowing they might never see them again?

Where is there a light at the end of this tunnel? We need to do more. More work with our governments to stop this war and the fighting. We especially need to invest in creating opportunities for the children. We, the people of the world, need to open our eyes and not only when we see a picture of a little “Omran” that makes us cry. We need to continue to ask, ‘How can this keep happening?’ and not just go back to our lives after a week goes by, until the next picture gets noticed. We need to pressure our governments to do something to Stop This War. We need to give the Syrian people a light at the end of their tunnel, so they can see where they will be going and what they will be doing and that they will be able to go back to their homeland, not just interminably stay in flex, living in temporary camps in Greece, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey.

Most importantly, international governments and the people who elect their governments need to understand that if we remain complacent, the effects of the conflict on Syrian children will haunt us for years to come.

~Rita


Please consider donating to help SCM in our work in Greece and Jordan and our education programs to help keep the Syrian children from being left behind in this world. Education will help keep them safer from the dangers of terrorist group recruitment, allow them to go back to Syria someday when the war has ended and be a part of the rebuilding, and keep their futures full of possibilities and opportunities that would be lost if they are not able to continue with their education. Thank you for your continued support!

Human RightsSyria

Syria Deeply: My Syrian Diary: Part 1

As part of a collaboration between Syria Deeply and Rookie, we’re publishing the memoirs of a teenage girl living in the midst of Syria’s war.

Marah, as she’s chosen to be known, lives in a city under siege. She was 15 years old when the uprising began. This is the first in her series of articles.

My city was once magnificent. In spring, it bloomed. We used to wake up to the sound of birds chirping and to the fragrant scent of flowers. Today, spring is here again. But what kind of spring is this? We now wake up to the sound of falling bombs.

To read more, please visit the Syria Deeply web page.

Human RightsRefugeesSyria

Walking to The Children of Syria

Walking to The Children of Syria – يحيى حوى l لاجلك يا شام – Lajlek Ya Sham l Yahya Hawwa

Please watch.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0SBphaU6UU]