August 19 is World Humanitarian Day
“World Humanitarian Day is an annual reminder of the need to act to alleviate the suffering. It is also an occasion to honour the humanitarian workers and volunteers toiling on the frontlines of crises. I pay tribute to these dedicated women and men who brave danger to help others at far greater risk.” — UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon
SCM is grateful for all of those who have volunteered with us to provide aid to the Syrian refugees and others, on our medical missions and in the countless other ways you have helped. Without our volunteers, we would not be able to provide the aid we have been able to over the past several years in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and now Greece. Below is a letter from Rita Zawaideh, our President and CEO of SCM, about the situation in Greece.
Continuing the record pace of arrivals in Greece in 2015, more Syrians and refugees from other countries in conflict fled from Turkey and got stuck at Greece’s northern border with Macedonia in Idomeni. The border crossing at Idomeni was supposed to be the gateway to Europe. But in February, Macedonia sealed its border with Greece, leaving the refugees with little alternative but to wait and hope the border crossing would reopen so they could continue their journey north. The refugees camped out in the fields, in the cold February weather, hoping that the doors would re-open and the European countries would reconsider. As cold winter turned to spring, and finally the summer was almost upon them, the border remained closed.
The refugees stayed, hoping against hope that they would soon be able to continue on to countries like Germany to get on with their lives with the hope that some day, maybe one day off in the distant future, they could go home to their beloved Syria. But for now, their focus has been getting to safety where they could support their families and their children could go to school. We tried to tell them that the borders would not reopen and they needed to consider another plan. But what that would be is something that none of us knew.
The Greek government made a decision to clear the area around Idomeni of the refugee tents, and late one day in May the military with buses and started to round up the refugees. They took the refugees to vacant warehouses at several locations between Idomeni and Thessaloniki. This is where the new camps had been established. The refugees had no choice, they had to get on the busses, and many were not even given a chance to collect their meager belongings before being put on the bus.
No one knew what the conditions were going to be like but hoped it would be better than sleeping on the dirt and outside in the cold and wind. Some of the camps turned out to be ok, but not that great. The conditions inside the warehouses where the tents were erected are noisy, and the floor is hard and unforgiving. There were portable toilets outside and some sinks for washing, but no place for cooking so they had to make do with the food the military distributed which consisted of water, pasta and bread. We all know that the Greek government itself has no funds for helping the refugees, and they were not expecting that these hundred thousand plus people would be staying in Greece, but they had no choice.
The Greek government promised that they would help the refugees with their asylum applications and that volunteers from the UNHCR and other organization would come in and register them. The UNHCR is stretched very thin as well, and the registration process is completely bogged down in Greece. The refugees are waiting, and keep asking when they can apply for asylum, and if they have already applied, how long will it take to get an answer and what is going on with their application. The UNHCR volunteers don’t have any answers for them.
Once the Greek government cleared the border area at Idomeni and opened the new camps throughout northern Greece, we realized that the refugees would be staying for a while, rather than simply passing through. SCM changed it’s plan of operation from providing short term assistance services like emergency medical aid, to long term social services such as education, mother and baby care, programs for adults to help them adjust and prepare with language lessons, and more.
Rasha, one of our previous mission volunteers, said she would go to Greece and help set up programs to address some of these issues in the three camps that we are working in. We now have schools set up to teach basic subjects to the children – math, Arabic grammar, etc, as well as classes to teach languages to the adults. They can now learn English, German, and Greek. This has given the refugees something to look forward to each day, and a sense of making some kind of progress, rather than just sitting and waiting for the next move by the governments and the UNHCR. The families are excited, and the children really want to go to class and learn.
Back at our main office in Seattle, we started collecting school supplies and Rasha was able to gather supplies in Greece as well, and she got the refugees involved in building the enclosure for the school room, desks and chairs for the school, and also helping with teaching. If they were previously teachers in Syria we got them to come and help. We wanted everyone to get involved, so depending on their skills, we had them come and use those skills to teach the children – anything that would help contribute to activating the minds of the children, and anyone who wants to learn. From agriculture, mechanics, sewing, jewelry making, etc.
Depression is an enormous problem among the refugees, and this is one way to help alleviate that. Losing hope for a future that does not include living in a tent, seeing no end to the misery in their home country, children who are as old as 11 who have never been to school in their young lives because of the war in Syria, and so much more are all contributors to depression amongst the refugees. We are doing our best to help them as much as we can. So we, as volunteers and a small NGO, have our work cut out for us to keep these people motivated, and give them some hope, by getting them educated so they will be prepared for the new world that is coming to them.
You can help us by volunteering to go on missions with us. But if you are not able to go, please help us keep working by donating to SCM by going to our Donate page: http://www.scmmedicalmissions.org/donate/
We really need your help so we are able to keep helping the refugees.