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Humanitarian AidRefugeesUncategorized

Lesbos Update

29 February 2016 | Dr. Bill Dienst

I landed here on the Northern shore of the Greek Island of Lesvos on 26 February. Lesvos is the third largest of the Greek Islands, and is the closest to the Turkish coast, separated on its Northern Coast by only 6 miles (10 km). For this reason, it has been the main crossing point for refugees.

It has been very quiet since I came here 3 days ago in terms of refugee boat arrivals on the Northern Coast. The current political situation of the Turkish Government, the Greek Government, the European Union and NATO is an elaborate dance of Cat-and-Mouse with the human smugglers and refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations.

The refugees are intermittently stranded on the Turkish Side. Their goal is to land in Greece, thereby entering the European Union, then making their way to the Greek mainland. From there, they try to travel overland through Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and Austria to Germany and other locations in Northern Europe.

There are bottlenecks and various hardships along the way, (e.g. Macedonia just started building a fence). There is a lot of uncertainty: hurry up, then wait, then hurry up again. For us rescuers, there is a need for flexibility and improvisation. During the past few months, there have been periods of working too hard, and then periods of hardly working. We are currently experiencing the latter, which gives me opportunity to write about this overall situation.

The goals of the Powers That Be are convoluted and confused: on the one hand they are trying their best to come to grips compassionately with the humanitarian catastrophe that endless wars have created in the host countries from whence the current refugees are fleeing. On the other hand, they must deal with the chaos and personal consequences experienced by their own citizens from their host countries, whose lives and economic well being are also being affected.

Here on Lesvos, the economy is based largely on agriculture, fishing and tourism. The tourist season usually starts in the late spring, and lasts through September. The effects of the current refugee crisis have been tumultuous on the local economy. There have been both winners and losers, but the current overall perception among the local Greeks is that the overall effect on the economy will be a loss. Bookings for this summer?s upcoming tourist season are down 80%. Tourists do not seem to want their restful summer escape from their hectic lives in the North of Europe to be interrupted by dead refugees washing ashore on the beach.

On the plus side, hotels and restaurants, usually moribund during the winter months, are currently fairly active, as they are being utilized by humanitarians and health care workers currently here to help the refugees. But these humanitarians do not spend their money as freely as the tourists. Some of the younger ones have been known to misbehave at times as well.

The refugees began arriving in large numbers this past October. Since then, various Non-Government-Organizations have arrived and infrastructures have evolved to provide services to refugees arriving from Turkey. They are based on the Northern and Eastern coasts of Lesvos. These have included the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Medecins San Frontieres (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders, and many others.

Here in the Northern shore of Lesvos, we are divided into 4 zones of responsibility. I will be working in Zone 1 with a Seattle based NGO called Salaam Cultural Museum (SCM). We are comprised of both health care workers and humanitarians. Our members arrive for a week or longer assignments. I have decided to stay here for 2 and a half months.

Our health care workers are aligned with a Norwegian group of Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT?s and Paramedics) known as Medics Bergen. Our mission is largely pre-hospital care, triage and acute/urgent care. We receive refugees at local docks, where they have usually been rescued at sea by the Greek Coast Guard or Frontex, the Border Control service of the European Union.

There is an Italian group called Group Mission, who are currently in negotiations with the Greek government, so that they can deploy a mobile Intensive Care Unit. This would be helpful, as there are currently no hospital services on this end of the Island. There is only a clinic staffed part time by one Greek general practitioner a few days a week about 10 kilometers away in the town called Petra. The nearest hospital is a one and a half hour drive away in Mytilene, the capital city of Lesvos. Medecin Sans Frontieres has 2 ambulance services in our area if we have unstable patients who need transport to the hospital.

In my next article, I will try to explain how the local system of receiving refugees on shore works.

Dr. Bill Dienst is a rural family and emergency room physician from North Central Washington. He has extensive experience in medical exchange programs in Veracruz, Mexico and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He is currently on assignment in Lesvos, Greece

RefugeesSyriaUncategorized

My last few days on Lesvos

One last post from our volunteer Raafia G. Thank you for sharing your experience and photos!


 

My last few days on Lesvos have been even more overwhelming than the firsts. I’ve learned that for most, it doesn’t get any easier any step of the way. It’s made me really think about how horrible their lives must have been in their homeland to pick up everything they ever knew, some leaving their families behind, to come start over enduring physical and emotional pain and anxiety every step of the way. There have been several children sent with their aunts and uncles or relatives in hopes of a better life. I’ve seen families both caring for relatives’ children like they are their own, but also those who have abandoned and robbed them. I’ve seen children who have witnessed their parents being taken or killed in front of their eyes. I have heard stories that boats were trying to be drowned. I have seen wounds and bruising that have made them want to escape so badly that don’t even care if they stay in Greece forever.

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Children waiting for the bus to Oxy Camp.

Every story pains my heart and I feel lucky I have had the opportunity to meet some of the refugees and hear their stories. I’ve met doctors, lawyers, teachers, regular people just like me and you. I have learned a lot from them, about how little one needs to really survive and be content and what really is important in life.

They have taught me the power of prayer. Some of them, especially the elderly come off boats soaking wet and freezing, but praying and thanking God for protecting them and their family and keeping them alive. They have taught me that faith, family, freedom, food, and shelter are basic human rights and all one really needs.

I have learned that children are very resilient. I will never forget the children I have met, the smiles on their faces, and their laughter as I’ve played with them. I will never forget the faces of the children I had to ration food with and turn away. I will never forget the feeling of hope they have as they arrive from Turkey.

The faces of helpless exhausted families who have been robbed or beaten will forever stay with me. I pray that they all will be taken care of and that they make it to their final destination easily and safely. I have seen prayers answered and the joy of families’ faces when their registration is complete and they are allowed to leave to their next destination. I hope they find peace and happiness in their new life.

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Life vest hill. About every week they get buried and then thousands more re-collect. Hard to believe every one represents a person.

Although my time here is over, I am already trying to plan my return. There is so much to be done and so much help is needed.

I’d like to thank all of the volunteers across the world that really have been working for humanity. People putting their lives on hold for weeks and months, people quitting their jobs and selling their homes to help this cause. It has truly been a beautiful experience with wonderful selfless people. I will never forget the friends I have made and the bonds that were created in the most vulnerable times. My team has been remarkable and has done great things that the most critical times. I’d like to thank my big sister Rayesa, the best travel buddy I could have asked for, and without whom my experience wouldn’t have been the same. Thanks for taking care of me, for being the mom of the team, and being my sanity through it all.

Peace out Lesvos. Until next time…

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Some of the children helped to distribute food at Moria camp.

GreeceIraqJordanRefugeesSyria

A Whirlwind

Here is another post from Raafia G. 


 

The past two days have been a whirlwind and have felt like weeks. Every time I thought I heard the most heartbreaking story another family would arrive with there’s. It’s hard to stay strong for these refugees as they come off the boats from Turkey, but it’s amazing how your body can turn into overdrive and not let your emotions take over.

It’s hard to differentiate who has it worse, because we only know half the story and no idea what else they need to endure. Many of these people have been beaten up, robbed, and have had guns and knives put to them or their families. They have been cheated and lied to in every way. They have been given boats with not enough fuel to last the distance across and given life vests that aren’t even real. They are so desperate to flee their countries, they are buying raft boats from gyro shops in Turkey. They have been told their journey should take twenty minutes, and begin to worry when it’s been hours. They are freezing cold, soaking wet, and terrified. Some have been separated from their families or their families have been killed or died at sea. Everyone is in shock.

We have seen thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan and migrants from Pakistan, Iran, Somalia, and the Congo. The one thing they all have in common is their sincere gratitude. Each and every one has been constantly thanking us and sending us prayers. They have said that the volunteers they have encountered in Greece have been the kindest people they have ever encountered. They offer to give us any leftover jewelry off their body as tokens of appreciation and love. One grandmother even said to me and my team in Arabic, that if she could give us her eyes or hands or heart she would because that is all she has now, all while sending us constant prayers. The NGOs have been remarkable and I am truly blessed to have this opportunity to be a part of them. ‪#‎SCMHelp4Syrians

GreeceHumanitarian AidJordanLebanonRefugeesSyria

End of the Year Message From SCM

11080607_809866319089173_4273504412661129460_oYour home country is all that you know — it’s where you were raised, where you’ve loved, and where you’ve lived all your years. So what happens when one day, without warning, or without cause, that sense of security is ripped from you? War, violence, persecution for who you are or what you believe; your home has become the crucible for your greatest fears, a place you no longer recognize. You’re afraid for your life, for your family — you don’t know where to go but you know you can’t stay. You and your family are forced to flee into an unknown future and the unknown peril it may hold.

You are a refugee.

This is the all-too-common experience of millions of innocent men, women, and children across the globe who have been driven from the place they once called home. And right now, the world is witnessing the human suffering of the thousands of families fleeing the conflict in Syria — their personal tragedies spotlighted on the front pages of newspapers around the world as they risk their lives to find safe haven.

What we at SCM have done to help

At the beginning of 2015 year we were coordinating medical/humanitarian missions every few months.  Our volunteer teams would be based in Amman helping the urban refugees and also the refugees that are in camps.  During this period we handed out over ½ million dollars’ worth medicines.  We shipped 5 containers to Jordan filled with clothes and medical supplies, teaching materials and games and stuffed animals that have been distributed.

IMG_1174We had food drives in Jan, April, July and Oct that fed up to 1000 people each. The food was distributed in packages containing food staples such as cooking oil, rice, beans, cheese, salt, tea, sugar, etc.  The cost of this package is $31 and could feed a family of four for one month. You can still donate to this program as we will continue it in 2016.

With our partner Direct Relief we were able to supply King Hussein Medical Hospital with a total of $250,000 worth of medicine to be used for the local communities.  This was shipped every three months to the hospital.

snow-lebanonDuring the winter months we worked with IHR in Lebanon and helped them purchase oil heaters and fuel and firewood to distribute to the refugees in the Arsal region. This is the very mountainous region near the border with Syria. We will do so again this year and into 2016.

In August as we heard about the situation in Greece getting worse, we sent an assessment team to the Greek island of Lesbos to check out the situation and see what we could do there.  The assessment team sent us their report and we decided that we needed to begin organizing missions right away. We began asking for mission volunteers and the first group went out in late September. Teams go every week and will do so through February 2016, at least. We are constantly reevaluating the situation there and determining our effectiveness there.

10422156_10102494704978039_5960911848601686534_nThe island of Lesbos is receiving about 3,000 refugees per day. At the beginning we were fighting with the local government, trying to make things easier for the people arriving, but it was hard work.  Basil Sawalha, SCM’s Regional Manager in Jordan, was brought in to set up the arrangements and make the needed contacts with the locals.  His son Jamal soon joined him and was in charge of logistics – transportation, getting the people off the boats and into clinics and to the camps, and whatever help was needed.  For the last two and a half months they have been there with our teams and have seen the tragedy unfold before their eyes, including the deaths of numerous refugees from capsizing boats, including children. They have also seen the smiles on the face of the refugees as they arrive and are welcomed by the volunteers. These missions have been very hard on everyone that is there, and they never return home the same.

Since 2011, almost 12 million people, equivalent to half of the Syrian population, have been displaced by the conflict, including 7.6 million displaced inside Syria. Their homes and schools have been bombed out of existence by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s merciless regime. Their lives have been imperiled by ISIL and terrorism. They are fleeing to neighboring countries, but they cannot work there and they are stuck in camps, simply existing. They make the journey to Europe in order to rebuild their lives, get their children back in school and work to support themselves. Many of the people seeking refuge are teachers, engineers, doctors, business people, business etc. There is nothing for them in the camps in the surrounding countries, so they make the decision to move on, make that dangerous sea crossing.

We thank you for all your support for 2015, but the tragedy is still ongoing and we still need you.  We have extended our missions in Greece until the end of February for now and will continually evaluate the situation and extend the missions as needed. We will be there with your help to help the people that need us the most.

What can you do to help

Get involved and help relief agencies, like SCM, help the refugees.  Please donate what you can at this time.  If your company does matching let us know as we are a 501c3 charitable organization.  If you have not yet decided who to give to before the end of the year please do so soon – time is running out and the cold weather is upon us both here and in Greece, Jordan and Lebanon.  Open up your hearts and give.

Click on the Donate link at the top of this page to contribute.

Thank you!

~Rita Zawaideh, President of SCM

Humanitarian AidRefugeesSyria

The first few days

The post below was written by one of our volunteers, Raafia G. Thank you for sharing your experiences and photos Raafia!


 

10422156_10102494704978039_5960911848601686534_nMy first few days here have been a mix of emotions. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the ongoing crisis and am witnessing firsthand the struggles that the refugees are enduring every step of the way.

The city of Molyvos is a beautiful romantic honeymoon destination with quaint charm on every street. It has now been infiltrated with NGOs from all over the world volunteering to help. It is the first point of entry for thousands of refugees. Before I got here, I was trying to prepare myself for what I would witness, but words don’t do justice to the emotion that is felt for each and every individual. Every person, man, woman, young, old, has a story and has their dreams. Some want to head to Switzerland, some Sweden, and some don’t care where they go as long as it’s better for their family. Even still, most are living day to day.

The island is split into four sections and different NGOs have different responsibilities in their assigned region. As the raft boats filled with people come to shore, the lifeguards help pull them to safety. Then a NGO, Starfish works to register all of them dealing with exhausted people and language barriers, while Drop in the Ocean and Team Humanity are responsible for providing clothing. SCM is the primary medical group, but we currently only have one doctor who’s doing an amazing job attending to everyone in need. We have quickly learned that everything is a group effort.

The refugees have been mainly from Damascus and some from Afghanistan. As we help pulled the boats to shore, almost everyone was crying. We formed a chain of volunteers to help the children off first, to change them into warm and dry clothing. Once the adults came off, we rushed to help them change, provided food and water, and handled any medical issues. They were hypothermic, weak, in shock, and some even had injuries. What broke my heart today was seeing grown men sobbing, happiness that they made it with their family to Greece alive and safe, but filled with sadness and anxiety for the rest of their unknown journey.

1937132_10102494705601789_6408154004723682817_nEvery single person that I helped was grateful. They were hugging me and kissing me and sending me prayers and love. The language barrier has been an obstacle, but once I smile and say Salam, a level of trust if built and they become attached just as much as I do. All of the children are beautiful with smiles that melt your heart. Their giggles ring in my ear as they player with the local cats, or from excitement from the toys or lollipops we gave out. Mothers and father and grandparents hug and kiss you like your own when you help them or their family. The teenagers wanted to take selfies and keep in touch via Facebook. There is an indescribable bond.

“11 year old Salwa became my best friend as I helped her and her two younger brothers change into dry clothes and calm their anxiety and tears. Before she left for the bus she came and gave me a huge hug and kiss and said that she wished she had an address so I could write to her.”

But not everything went smoothly. There was a 8 month pregnant woman who came off the boat having contractions. She, her husband, and in laws thought it was better for her to risk all of their lives on the boat then to stay in Syria. Just think about that. Would you put your pregnant wife, daughter, or sister on a dinky raft boat through treacherous waters through the night in hopes for a better life. Would you spend thousands of dollars for your family to take the boat ride over, knowing that they could die at sea, in hopes for a better life? Would you leave your home, your friends, your pets, everything you’ve ever known, to come to a whole new country, not knowing your next move? Is it worth sleeping outside in the cold, eating one meal a day, and spending your life savings in hopes for a better life? This is happening and I am witnessing it every day with my own eyes. All

I can do is help them make it a tiny bit less burdensome, make them feel human and welcome, and pray.

I think about myself, my family, my friends. We have been so lucky and are so blessed. But these people are just like us. Their life is not fair. They have worked hard to provide for their families, only to flee in the most tumultuous circumstances. Mothers and fathers worrying about their children. Babies attached to their parents. Children singing songs and saying they can’t wait to go back to school. They ask for so little, yet are so appreciative when we provide basic human needs.

In this short time I have already seen a need for Arabic and Farsi speakers and translators. They will feel more welcome speaking their own language and will be provided quicker medical and humanitarian care if we can understand their needs. If you can help with that in any way, please do so. ‪#‎SCMHelp4Syrians

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The lifeguards and volunteers made this heart to welcome the refugees.

Humanitarian AidRefugeesSyriaUncategorized

Greece Missions Extended

A quick update to let everyone know that our missions to the Greek island of Lesvos will continue through January 17th. Please contact Brenda@salaamculturalmuseum.org in the office for more information. You can also download our registration forms on our Dates and Registration page.

We are in particular need of doctors and first responders. The boats are still coming, people still need our help.