A letter to young Sofia

Hi Sofia,  I hope all is well in Colorado.  My name is Nathan and things here in Ecuador are good, and HOT!  My wife Suzanne edited and added to this letter.

Im not sure if you were assigned to do a report on the refugee crises or if you chose to do it your self, but either way, I think its worthy and admirable that you are.  I imagine your life in Colorado being a good one, just like mine is here in Ecuador.  A life full of peace and safety.  We’re not worried about someone dropping a bomb or hurting or killing us tonight. 

But as you know, only a 10 hour flight away from where we both live, in the Middle East, there’s very little of those things that you and I take for granted. Whats happening there is truly horrific, and I believe its THE most important thing going on in the world right now.  

You might think that you can’t do anything about it.  But just thinking about it, learning about it, and talking about it means a lot! Thank you for doing that.  The refugees, people without a  home, feeling lost and totally forgotten, I KNOW that they appreciate that you’re thinking of them.   

You asked some great questions, I’m going to try my best to answer them.

“How did you communicate with the refugees?”   

We communicated and greeted them with Peace.  No, for real, we really did.   Our “hello” in English is so boring.  When people say hello in Arabic and in the Middle East in general, they say, “As-Salaam-Alaikum” which means “Peace be on to You”. Isn’t that cool?  See, I told you we communicated with them with peace:)  

But if only it was that easy.  For the majority of time in the news they only talk about the Syrian refugee crises, but in reality, there’s people trying to get to freedom and Europe/North America

from all over the Middle East, and Western Africa, and Northern Africa, and Eastern Africa, and South Asia… and they all speak different languages.   Many different kinds of Arabic, Urdu, Farsi,… As you can imagine, this makes things difficult when trying to help them.  So we used translators, who were usually refugees themselves.  We would go out everyday and walk thru the camps and ask for volunteer translators.  Some refugees were very educated.  Some doctors, some lawyers, some teachers, shop owners, young teenagers who watch Hollywood movies,… and those people spoke some English, and we so appreciated their willingness to assist.  They wanted to help us help their own country men and women.  Some even stayed longer  than they needed to in the refugee camp because they wanted to help us help others!  Imagine that.  After they were free to maybe go from Lesvos, the Greek Island that we were on, to say maybe Germany and finally have freedom, some decided to stay longer in a dirty difficult refugee camp to translate for us.  I found that amazing. Some times there were no translators and we used the tried and trusted method called…charades.  But when it comes down to it, love is a universal language, and my wife and I and other volunteers from all over the world were there to show that.  Love has no language barriers. 

“Did any of them share with you about what their lives were like in Syria before the left?”  

Yes, lots of them.  They would tell us about their ordinary lives, about their jobs and their kids and their schools.  Then how things changed so badly that they would rather leave their family and home, sell everything they have so that they could…well, just live.  

They would tell us about bombs being exploded right out side their school.  They would tell us of bombs dropping into their neighbors house, killing their friends or even on their houses, killing their family.  Finally having had enough, they would tell us about their weeks or months long  journey, of walking across countries and borders.  Before they would arrive on Lesvos, they would spend weeks to months in Turkey, trying to find a smuggler to assist them in getting a raft so that they could try and float to supposed safety (the Greek Islands are the closest European Union land from Turkey, that’s why they cross there).  They would tell us about how some of the smugglers would steal all that they had, which wasn’t much to begin with.  One man we assisted showed us his stomach where he was stabbed while being robbed only 3 days earlier in Turkey.   One woman gave birth on the beach in Turkey the night before.  She and baby were both healthy.  Many people had their whole, or most of their families killed.  Not just from Syria, but Afghanistan and other countries too. Too many sad and heartbreaking stories to count.  

“What was an average day like for you while you were volunteering?  What did you do? What is the refugee camp like…and where do these supplies come from?  

How long do refugees generally stay at the camps ad where do they go afterwards?”

There were no average days.  Every day was different.  Some days, there would be thousands of vulnerable/lost/refugees headed from the Middle East to Europe in rafts.  Some days, only a hundred or so.  These rafts would arrive 24 hours a day, onto cliffs, rocks, sides of mountains, beaches, small towns, larger towns…  Some wouldn’t make it, averaging about 2 dead kids per day from drowning, many parents too. There were volunteers trying to help direct the boats to land in safe places but it was difficult, especially at night.  The refugees didn’t know how to steer the boats well and no smugglers would travel with them to help.

We usually started our day by going down to the beach, a beautiful beach where during a “normal summer”, European vacationers would enjoy the beautiful Mediterranean Sea and beach.  These beaches are now full of red/orange life vests that these people (coming from a desert )would wear because most of them don’t know how to swim.  (No water in the desert and …lots of these smugglers would sell them fake life vests, filled with things that would actually make them sink, not float, like leaves!)  Early mornings, Suzanne and I would meet them and help them get off of the rafts.  They would be so scared as they didn’t know what was on the other side/“freedom”. Would they be welcomed?  Would they be turned away?  Would they make it? Would they be attacked, again?   We would help them get off the rafts on rocky beaches, and greet them with a “Salam” (peace). Their moods would change and smiles would come out.  It was such a pleasure to meet these desperate people and even for a second, be a good and small part of their journey.  When touching land, some would cry with joy, some would pray and praise God for helping them, some would kiss the ground, some would kiss us, some would even faint.  An awesome sight and experience.

….But their already long journey isn’t nearly over…

Once on European soil (island of Lesvos), we would get them some hot tea, maybe a sandwich or some crackers, try and find some clean dry cloths for them (they would’ve been wearing the same cloths for a long time by now and so excited to arrive, jump in the water instead of waiting for dry land) and tell them the next steps that they’re going to have to do.  The next step was to walk for many miles (again) to a refugee camp where they would get registered and “processed” depending on which country they were from.  We would try our best to drive the elderly, wounded, and women and children to these camps even though it was illegal (transporting them was considered human trafficking), .   While working on the island of Lesvos, Suzanne and I rented a very small 4 passenger car.  One time I packed a Syrian family of 10 into this little car and drove them to the camp. 11 stinky (me included of course) dirty and wet people who could barely talk to each other cruising around trying not to be caught by the police was a thing I will never forget.  

Once in the “refugee camp” things get nasty, dirty, confusing.  The refugees have to get registered through the Greek authorities, and this can take a couple of days up to a couple of weeks. The Greek police were only in charge of the registration process, not how people will live while they wait to be registered.  In this camp, there was very little shelter, only a few metal boxes for families and a few more for “vulnerable” people.  It was very difficult to get into one of these boxes as there were thousands more people than there was space.  There were only a couple of “bathrooms” for thousands of people that were disgusting, and very little food and water.  Most people pooped and peed outside.  You can imagine this was very difficult, especially for women, especially when having their periods.  There was no place to bathe. Random volunteers from around the world tried to provide basic necessities.

Suzanne  (your teachers sister) is a doctor and she and a couple of other medical professionals started up a free clinic in a tent.  You can imagine the many different ailments these poor people have after being on the run for many weeks/months. Many had normal small problems like colds and injuries but some had very serious infections and also serious chronic problems and weren’t able to take their medicines with them.    For example there was an older woman who recently had a heart attack and needed to take some strong medicines she was not able to take with here.  There were also a couple people who were paralyzed from bombs and they were not able to take their wheelchairs, their families or friends carried them..Suzanne would work long hours assisting these people in whatever way needed.  

I would try to help with whatever they needed, like finding them like  a tent, or a sleeping bag, or a phone, or some food.  Sometimes for one person, sometimes for a group of 20.  This refugee camp (Moria) was a very difficult place to live, as many people from many different countries were crammed together into one small rural hill.   People were sleeping next to families from different countries and at times, back home, these two countries are at war.  Once the sun went down, this camp would show its teeth, as in it would be dangerous to walk around with wandering “gangs” from lets say, Pakistan, getting into fights with guys that are from Afghanistan.  There’s thousands of children traveling alone, separated from their families or having no family left.

Fortunately, some good people from all around the world would donate things like tents, sleeping bags, clothes, and food. Without these few donations, these refugees would be totally screwed.  

Once a refugee’s registration number is called, (maybe a couple of days of waiting, or a couple of weeks, depending on which country one is from) they would pay $60 to get on a boat to Athens.  Once in Athens, depending on where they were from, the United Nations and the European Union would try to disperse the refugees throughout  the world, but mostly to Germany.   Germany and our neighbor Canada have really stepped up in assisting these lost people, where as other countries like the U.S.A. have not.  

If you were from Syria, you would have a good chance of getting into mainland Europe. If you were an uneducated young boy from Pakistan for example, you might be sent back to where you came from.  Imagine that, after selling everything you have and enduring a long journey to try and find safety, then being turned away and literally sent back to the war zone you came from.  This is too sad for me to comprehend.

Things have changed a lot on the Greek Islands since we were there.  Now the camps are being cleared of people and all refugees are being sent to mainland Greece, then on to resettlement around the world if they are lucky, or back to Turkey or back to their home countries, depending on where they are from and when they arrived.  I’ve read that some of the camps they are being sent to in mainland Greece are pretty terrible without much supplies but some are better.

“What do refugees generally arrive with?”

Not much.  If they bring a bag onto the raft, the smugglers would charge them for an extra person.  Most people basically had the clothes they were wearing, a picture or two of their loved ones, and if lucky, a phone.  Some people would take one or two special small things in their pockets.  Some people were even forced to throw overboard whatever they brought when the boat was too full. 

“What do the refugees do all day at the camps? Do children play games, go to school?”

They try and survive.  

They try and make ramshackle structure to stay and sleep in. They would try to find more tree branches for beams, or a garbage bag for a roof, or if lucky, find a volunteer who has a couple of tents and a sleeping bag.  

They wait till other volunteers show up with food, which would basically be oatmeal.  I saw a line once of about 1000 people waiting for a single orange each.  

At this camp, there were no schools, or toys for the kids to play with.  They would just sit there and be miserable and scared and worried.  Sometimes kids would find a stick or a can or something like that to play with.  People usually stayed in or near their tents because they were scared. Sorry to sound so glum, but that’s the truth.

Well Sofia, I’ve blabbered on too long.  I hope this helps at least a little in giving you an idea at what a truly horrific situation this is.   I think that being a refugee is the worst thing in the world.  The worts thing. Imagine not being able to stay in, or not being wanted in your own home country because of many different reasons.  Then fleeing, and then not being wanted in other countries too.  Right now, 1 in 10 people in the world are refugees, a staggering statistic.  Mean while, rich countries like America are not accepting any of them.  On our National Icon the Stature of Liberty, it says…”Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breath free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”  I hope the USA can actually do that.  

Like I said at the beginning, thanks for taking this seriously Sofia.  I appreciate it, and so do millions of helpless people.

Peace be onto you Sofia.


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