Goats for Syrian Refugees in Jordan

Upon first greeting, the matriarch of this family took my by the hands and kissed my face over and over. When I asked her a few questions in Arabic, she didn't seem to hear me. Her son explained to me that the pressure from a bomb explosion in Syria destroyed her hearing and that of one of his daughters. We continued to communicate through kisses on the cheek. 

Upon first greeting, the matriarch of this family took my by the hands and kissed my face over and over. When I asked her a few questions in Arabic, she didn't seem to hear me. Her son explained to me that the pressure from a bomb explosion in Syria destroyed her hearing and that of one of his daughters. We continued to communicate through kisses on the cheek. 

The April 2017 chemical attack shocked us all. But when I heard that it took place in Idlib, it took my breath away. We had just visited dozens refugee families from Idlib who live along the Syrian/Jordanian border on the Jordanian side. Their resilience, kindness, hospitality, in spite of their difficulties. Had they not fled their homes a few years before, they could have been victims of this atrocity. Though they'd been spared this particular war crime, they had endured torture, barrel bombs, point-blank execution, rape, and the constant mind-numbing fear of living in an area that is constantly and violently contested between ISIS and Assad's regime. 

Even after a year of refugee work in Greece, what we saw in Jordan caught us off guard: Several Syrian refugee families living isolated, occupying small corners of Jordanian farmers' properties just two miles from the Syrian border. We saw families and small children living in tent-like structures made of blankets. It pained us to see rashes on children’s faces, nutritional deficiencies, dozen’s of children with developmental disabilities, women in their 90’s not knowing where their next meal would come from. We were introduced to widowed women caring for their children, along with their deceased brother’s children. Each family we met carried such a tragic, heart-wrenching story. Yet, they insisted on making us comfortable and serving us tea, thanking us profusely for taking the time to hear their voices. 

Fatima, 16 years old, is severely disabled, both physically and mentally. She prefers to crawl over sitting in a wheelchair. A few days before our visit, she had injured her foot by crawling over a broken bottle. Her mother carried her to us asking for some medicine. 

Fatima, 16 years old, is severely disabled, both physically and mentally. She prefers to crawl over sitting in a wheelchair. A few days before our visit, she had injured her foot by crawling over a broken bottle. Her mother carried her to us asking for some medicine. 

We were shocked to find that there is no NGO presence along the Jordanian/Syrian border, apart from the occasional aid drop-off. No Refugees drink untreated canal water. They have no mode of transportation into town to visit doctors. After all, Jordan has been hit hard by the crisis -- over 1.3 million Syrian refugees live in Jordan. The need is staggering.   

While our food and hygiene packs go a long way in Greece, we quickly realized they wouldn’t put a dent in the situation in Jordan. What would be a sustainable way to make a difference in the lives of the Syrian Bedouins we were forming a loving bond with? We asked the refugees themselves how we could help them: answer was resoundingly "goats." 

Most of my knowledge about goats comes from social media: they scream like humans, make decent yoga partners, and if ever at a loss for words, a goat emoji does the trick. It wasn't until this visit that I truly appreciated that a goat can mean everything, even survival, to a refugee family. 

Why goats? 

  1. NUTRITION. Goats support nutritional needs of the refugees with milk, who currently lack a stable food supply, especially protein. 
  2. INCOME. goats provide sustainable income for the families who can sell both the milk and the offspring.
  3. LIFESTYLE. Goats support the Bedouin natural lifestyle that they have enjoyed for centuries. We are providing them with their inert ways of supporting themselves and their families. This also brings psychological support, as it is a returning a piece of normalcy, a piece of familiarity.

We are working closely with the organizations on the ground who has identified 400 vulnerable families, each of whom will receive two goats in order to support the families. Each goat costs 300 USD. This means we can support one family with two goats for 600 USD.

The goats will be properly vetted by medical teams in order to ensure their health and safety. No contribution to this project is too small, as every dollar adds up!

We are also taking steps to ensure the sustainability of the goats by:

  1. CONTRACT: Writing a contract with the refugees to ensure they do not sell the donated goats. (They are permitted to sell offspring and milk only).
  2. FOLLOWUP: Providing goats to families whom our partners in Jordan serve, so they can follow up with the families in the future.
  3. ACCOUNTABILITY: Having the land owners sign contracts stating that they will not confiscate the goats, the offspring, or the milk.

If you are not able to donate directly, you can:

  • Like and share this post in order to help us reach more potential supporters.
  • Host a fundraiser in order to purchase even one goat.
  • Write letters to your community in order to ask for donations toward this project.
  • Set up a fundraiser on www.gojanegive.org.

Our team is incredibly grateful for your support on this endeavor. Together we can make a difference in the lives of those suffering here in Jordan. Thank you from our hearts to yours.

Guest Post: THROUGH THEIR EYES by Anna Maria, age 15

INTRO BY HAYLEY SMITH: Anna Maria was in my 8th grade Arabic 1 class in Boston a few years ago. She has kept in touch with me since I moved to Arizona and started LHI. Ever a champion for the oppressed, she has become extremely passionate about refugee work. A few months ago, she sent me a snapshot of a beautiful piece of art that she had drawn. At first, I thought maybe it had been an assignment at school or something. It wasn't. It just...came to her. Check it out and the story behind it! 

THROUGH THEIR EYES, by Anna Maria, which hangs proudly in the school's Arabic classroom . 

THROUGH THEIR EYES, by Anna Maria, which hangs proudly in the school's Arabic classroom . 

ANNA MARIA'S REFLECTION:

My name is Anna Maria, and I’m a sophomore at one of the few schools that offers Arabic.  I recently made a drawing depicting the truth of the refugee crisis. I wanted to show the journey of the people who are forced to leave their country to escape violence and persecution, only to be faced with fear in the countries they enter. 

After watching the news repeatedly on the crisis, I was presented with the basic facts of the crisis. Syria is falling apart, people are fleeing, panic everywhere. The general idea. I thought about the people who have to make the journey, who risk everything for a hope of a future. I thought about the people who endure the hardships and bad conditions of the camps that they’re forced into.

With all of this going through my head, I took out my sketchbook and pencil, and planned everything out (see above). As soon as I came home, I took out paper and the large board that was sitting in my room and got to work. I still can’t fully describe the feelings I experienced that day. I felt that I had to make it, for everyone. For their voices to be heard. I drew the events that most people know of, Syria and Iraq being ravaged by ISIS, but I also drew individual people, witnessing their homes being destroyed. Witnessing their world being turned upside down. I drew the side of things the media misses. It isn’t just a crisis in some part of the world that Americans can just ignore. It’s a crisis that affects us all, and shows humans in the best and worst way.

Interjection by Hayley: Not only is Anna Maria a skilled artist, she also sent me this lovely poem of hers in December of 2016. Again, not an assignment. Thank you for sharing your talents and passion with us, Anna Maria! 

Lift up their hands

Lift up their hearts

We are the lights in their world, now so dark

We give them hope

We give them care

We do what countries won't even dare

 

The crumbling economies

The world surrounded by corruption

The world afraid for even the slightest disruption

They don't seem to know that they aren't the cause 

They don't seem to get who is really flawed

 

Leaders, you try and leave your homes

Go into a world that you don't know

It doesn't feel the same

When you are in the shoes of the ones you blame

 

The lone fighters

The givers

The accepting and the real

We do our best to help wounds heal

The refugees. They do not steal

They give a reason to have a world that's ideal

They trudge to other boarders

After crossing dangerous waters

They have lived 

They have seen

What you see only on a screen

Guest Blog: Tawna

Well, it has been just over a week since I left my yazidi friends and fellow volunteers in Northern Greece, to do a little traveling and then return to home to the states.  I’m struggling to put to words what I want to say about my time there, but know that I mostly want focus on the people that I was blessed to meet.  They are my new heroes, some of my new best friends, and just all around good people, Knowing these faces as individuals has helped me separate them from just the blanket title of “refugee,” with all its connotations that we so easily glean from the media, and to instead see them as friends.  Though these friends certainly are refugees, and have experienced much of the sorrow and horror that you might expect from one in their circumstance (and usually worse than we’d imagine), I know more certainly that such a title does not define them.   It is an experience they’ve been forced into, and one that is greatly shaping their future, but it is not who they are.  This is something I knew before going, but is something I feel and know more deeply and honestly, now. 

            One of my early experiences in Greece helped me to come to understand this a little more.  A few of us were visiting with a young family there—a man and his wife, two of their children, and an 18-year-old nephew.  We were talking and eating, smiling, and trying to share a nice evening together despite our great language differences affecting communication.  I don’t remember the exact context, but as the nephew and I began to talk, he mentioned that he loved photography.  He began to show me pictures that he’d taken on his phone—of him posing in different settings, of friends and family, and then many of the sunrise, which he’d sometimes wake up for very early in the morning. (He did so with the intention of taking such photos and appreciating the calm and beauty.)    It was such a simple thing—showing me some of his photography—but it helped me to know him more personally, to know him more as an individual, as Hashim.  Hashim and I then had that connection of photography, as jetlag had “helped” me wake up long before sunrise earlier that week, and I too had ended up taking many photos as the sun rising over the sea.  It was so lovely to see that slow, steady reminder of beauty in the world, and of consistent hope despite the chaos that was ensuing around the world.   Starting that day, Hashim and I were becoming friends, and I was able to see and know him more as himself and not just his circumstance.  I’ll be forever grateful for that.

            Some of those I was able to get to know and love the best, were the students in my Advanced English class.  I took over the task of teaching this class of 8 girls, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Those girls are amazing, and are now some of my best friends.   I could regal anyone who is interested with hours of stories about my time with each of them, about how quick they were to pick up new words and how they begged for homework every day, how deeply they ache for learning, about the poems they wrote, or about our fun and silly walks and inside jokes, or about their deep desire to share and feel happiness.  But because no one will read an entire novel on a single blog, I’ll just share a few random memories that stand out to me at this moment.

            After one of my first classes upon arriving, my student Widian and another volunteer and I decided to go walking down the beach to enjoy the unusually warm day.  Widian immediately grabbed my arm as we walked, and down the beach we went, with Widian laughing at me because of how excited the sunshine and outdoors were making me.  The sunshine was making me a little giddy, and I told them that I was so happy to be outside that I felt like doing a cartwheel on the sand.  Widian did not know what a cartwheel was, so my teammate Leah and I began to teach her.  It was hilarious to see us all trying desperately to do cartwheels in the sand with our heavy boots—and Leah and I’s poor teaching skills.  It led to a lot of sitting in the sand, laughing, and to the building of a strong friendship. Widian may still struggle with doing cartwheels (she tried again just last week), but the memory is something we laugh about when we think of how we first became good friends.  She has become one of my best and dearest, since then.

            Another memory that sticks out to me—perhaps because it is so recent—comes from one of my last nights there with my friends in Greece. As one of my girls and I walked home from a dinner we had attended, hosted by friends from another local nonprofit, we got to talking a little about her experience that led her being a refugee there in Greece.  She said she had only told her story 3 times, because it was very difficult, but she was willing to tell me anything if I wanted to know.  I assured her she did not ever need to speak of it to me unless she felt the desire to, and so we walked down the dark street, watching the ocean waves and trying to hold onto the fun memory of the evening we’d just had.  But as the waves continued to crash alongside us, she began to speak to me about her experience crossing from Turkey, about being shot at by the Turkish military, about her fears of the large waves, and also fear of what would happen if the boat would have to turn back.  I told her how brave she was—to be where she is now, to keep up such a bright hope and willingness to smile and give love and to laugh after all she has seen and suffered.  But she denied being strong.  “I am not strong,” she said, “not strong at all.  I cry everyday. What good does that do?  I am not strong.  Others in the class, they are strong because they can talk about this, and because they smile.  But me, what good does it do that I still cry everyday? Nothing.”  This was coming from a 13-year-old girl who has shared her story with a few media outlets to help try and improve the situation of her people.  And even if she hadn’t?  This is a girl who has seen death and suffering, who has moved from country to country trying to seek a better life while fleeing some of the greatest and most malicious evil in the world today, and yet who I still saw with a smile on her face each day.  This is a girl who wakes up each day and eagerly attends classes to learn English and guitar, who is obsessed with football, who asks for books from Einstein and Stephen Hawking because she wants “to learn everything!!”, who babysits other family’s children to give them a break, who offered me her shower when our hotel’s water was shut off, who laughs daily, who likes to run and wanted to participate as a virtual racer in a race halfway across the world, who dreams of moving to Canada and attending university, and who is fighting everyday within her circumstances to maintain hope and to build a future for herself, wherever she is.  She is strong.  She is brave.  She is one of my heroes.  

            Each of the girls in that Advanced English class could have the same said of them.  Each of the residents I met and associated with each day could have the same said about their amazing resiliency and maintained human decency and hope and kindness and strength.  I am so humbled to know them, and to call them my friends.   Another of these young girls wrote me a paper about herself.  She ended it with these words:  “I don’t hate anyone, and I can’t hate anyone because my heart is full of love of my family and my friends and I don’t have any place in my heart to hate anyone.  Why don’t we love each other instead of hating each other? “

            I’ll just finish with a poem another of my students wrote:

           

They still ask me: ‘how much do you love your friends?’

            And I tell them,

            How many drops of water are there in the sea?

            They say, ‘That is not an answer,” and I tell them

            My love for my friends is like this:

            All the words in the world are not enough to express

            My love for my friends.

                                    --Shirin K.

 

I love these, my yazidi friends.  I hope to never forget what they have taught me.  I hope the world will start to see them as people, just like you and me, and that we reach out to help them, like our brothers and sisters that they are.

An update from Greece

Hi all. This is Hayley. I've been back in Europe for a few weeks, first visiting Syrian family newly resettled in France, and then on to visiting the Yazidi group that LHI helps provide aid for, and popping over to Lesvos to check out the conditions on the island and see where we can fill some gaps. Refugee work is kinda like an energy drink -- it gives you the highest highs and the lowest lows. It's pouring rain outside here in the port town of Mytilini, which is both lulling me to a restless sleep and also making me crazy worried about the 8,000 refugees living in flimsy tents and abandoned squats around the island. More on Lesvos soon (I haven't quite processed the desperation I witnessed today to write it down yet). So, in the meantime, here's an update on our main project in Greece.

Serres camp, the camp we normally are based in and provide aid/services to. Currently home to 500+ Yazidis from Sinjar, Iraq. 500+ survivors of a horrific genocide. 500+ people who are full of grace and gentleness. The actual camp has been temporarily closed for much-needed improvements to infrastructure. Where are they now that the camp is closed, you may ask? They have been moved to various hotels in a small, sleepy seaside town in Northern Greece where locals don't actually obey the one traffic light in town. They've finally got heated rooms, hot water, and actual beds, which is so necessary, as it has been an extremely cold winter. The transition back to the camp will naturally be tough, but let's not think about that right now. 

We've rented a space from a sweet Greek couple in the town, where we continue to provide hygiene and food distribution, as well as hosting English practice, music sessions, and trauma-informed yoga for children, men, and women. Yes yoga. And yes, men's yoga. In fact, men's yoga is one of our most in-demand classes. As survivors of genocide, I can only imagine how soothing mindfulness can be to them. And it's not just that -- waiting and waiting to find out where you will be assigned resettlement without knowing when is enough to rattle anyone's cage.

We are so grateful for all of the residents. They are beautiful, gentle, patient people. They've become like family to us. Every time we try to help them, it's actually they who are helping us. I am in constant awe of their kindness. 

We host an advanced English group to a handful of interested teenage girls. We can't believe how much they've improved since LHI started working with this group of Yazidis in early August of last year. They are legitimately becoming fluent in English. Every time I visit, I'm shocked at their progress and passion.

Tawna F. is one of our current volunteers who runs the advanced English sessions. Here are some of her pictures and thoughts:


"Teaching these girls is a ride. (A good one.) They are so full of energy and excitement and they just want to eat up anything I can teach them. They are the best part of my day.  We did a picture scavenger hunt for fun (and to test vocab comprehension) and these girls probably ran a full mile just to get an authentic photo of cheese and a boat. :) They were incredibly into it."

"Teaching these girls is a ride. (A good one.) They are so full of energy and excitement and they just want to eat up anything I can teach them. They are the best part of my day.  We did a picture scavenger hunt for fun (and to test vocab comprehension) and these girls probably ran a full mile just to get an authentic photo of cheese and a boat. :) They were incredibly into it."

"After class one day, my Advanced English students and I decided to take a walk. Seeing these girls run so freely, laughing as they kicked up the sand behind them, was an image I never want to forget."

"After class one day, my Advanced English students and I decided to take a walk. Seeing these girls run so freely, laughing as they kicked up the sand behind them, was an image I never want to forget."

"One thing I love about this work is the people it brings together from all over the world. In this photo we had 3 Iraqis, an American, Mexican, Frenchman, Egyptian, and an Irish lass, jamming out to an Iraqi Saz and a Bolivian guitar. All in one small room in Greece. :)"

"One thing I love about this work is the people it brings together from all over the world. In this photo we had 3 Iraqis, an American, Mexican, Frenchman, Egyptian, and an Irish lass, jamming out to an Iraqi Saz and a Bolivian guitar. All in one small room in Greece. :)"

 

 

Room in the Inn

’Tis the season of giving and serving, of watching your kids cry on Santa’s lap, of shopping for gifts for loved ones, of getting together with friends and family to eat good food. For believers, ’tis also the season that reflect on the birth of Jesus Christ, the redeemer of the world. The story of His birth is pretty harsh, no matter what you believe: What if Mary and Joseph hadn’t been turned away from the inn? What if the Savior of the world didn't have to be born in a filthy stable surrounded by farm animals? Every time I hear the story I think that the inn keeper is kind of lame. Surely, there was room in the inn for a woman in labor. 

Fast forward a few thousand years. The global refugee crisis has now become a local one, whether we like it or not. It was bound to hit the USA, and now it has. In a strange twist of events, we are now the inn keeper. We have the power to decide if we want to help or not. A record number of refugees have been assigned to the Phoenix Valley and we have some of the most needy, humble people at our doorstep. So, we can offer our various talents and services to help welcome them, or we can shut the door and let them figure it out on their own. It’s kind of a no-brainer, guys.

Don’t take the metaphor too literally — you don’t have to actually house refugees. There are so many simple ways to help them directly or indirectly, and we will tell you how. But first, let’s set the record straight on refugees and why we need to do the right thing.

  • Refugees are not economic immigrants. They have been forced to choose between fleeing their homes or death. Big difference there.

  • They get very limited services upon arrival. Think everything is taken care of for them? It’s not! $925 per person ONCE is not a lot to cover rent, which is not free or even subsidized. Small families especially suffer.

  • They do not drain our resources - the USA has always taken in refugees. Hundreds of thousands in the last 30 years alone. In fact, The USA has consistently taken in half of all refugees who get resettled. 

  • Refugees are heavily vetted via a long and difficult process.  

  • There is no reason to be afraid. No refugee from any country has committed an act of terrorism in the USA. Statistically speaking, driving down the road with your seatbelt on is more dangerous than allowing the world’s most trodden people to enter our borders. 

So, back to how you can help: the Federal agencies that resettle refugees are overwhelmed. They need our help to take care of some of the more time-consuming and non-essential tasks like locating furniture, so that their case workers can actually focus more on the families' immediate emotional, medical, and temporal needs. That’s where we come in.

Furnish an apartment. Pick a family up from the airport. Run a drive for certain needed items. Donate needed items. Volunteer at our warehouse. Run a fundraiser. Open the doors to the inn and find refugee families some room. Use your unique talents to bless those who have literally lost everything. It will be the most meaningful bit of service you've ever done.

Visit www.liftinghandsinternational.org/phoenix to sign up. 

An insufficient thank you

A lot of nonprofit organizations actually hire people whose full-time job is to thank donors. Be it a clever marketing strategy or earnest attempt to thank (or a bit of both), I’m totally a believer. In fact, I’m kinda jealous of those orgs — LHI is a too little and grassroots to even flirt with the idea of hiring an official-thank-donor-person (or anyone at this point), but goodness is it a tempting thought. 

It’s incredibly hard to do much, including thank donors these days. Our volunteer teams hardly have time to go to the bathroom or eat, let alone answer emails, locate aid, identify and vet volunteers coming to our camp in Greece, take care of their own children and spouses, and so on and so on. Funny story since we’re on the topic: LHI’s team leader at our Yazidi camp in Serres barely had time to go back to the States to get married! It’s like, “Congrats Molly and Kyle! NOW GET BACK TO WORK.” Kidding, not kidding. 

But in all seriousness, WE ARE SO GRATEFUL FOR YOU. In fact, we’re not just grateful for you — we depend on your love and support in order to continue serving refugees, because let me tell you, it is not easy. It is heart-wrenching, soul-crushing work to witness so much suffering day after day. And we’re not even the ones who have gone through the trauma of losing literally everything but their lives. I can’t even imagine. 

Photos of children of Serres by Shannon Ashton

We obviously need to find a solution to this whole “we don’t have the time or resources to thank you properly” thing sometime soon because caps locks and blog posts only go so far. It’s only common sense and good business practice to recognize and acknowledge donations, especially given that money is hard to part with these days when life can be super expensive and budgets tight. We haven’t been so great at doing that on an individual basis, and we are sorry! We really, truly are grateful!! WE ARE GRATEFUL! 

The only way we at LHI can sleep every night with all the craziness going on in the world, in Greece, in our camp, and in this crisis in general is knowing that so many of you are sending love to our beloved refugee brothers and sisters around the world. At the end of the day, your donations directly go into the hands of refugees in the form of nutritious vegetables and other food, diapers, educational materials, and clothing. It’s not really about any of us, is it. 

We will find a way to thank you individually, and properly so. In the meantime, we send our love and gratitude to you from the squats of Athens, the dirt floors of Serres, the newly furnished apartments in Phoenix, AZ, and from our hearts. 

Love, 

The LHI team

I get asked this question a lot. People know that I travel a lot and that LHI helps refugees, but what are the specifics?

Here it goes: The ever-changing refugee situation in Europe keeps us on our toes, and has kept our nonprofit business model evolving and changing, too. When we began in January, our goal was to fill a shipping container with humanitarian goods. We thought it would take about a year to fill. 

Some social media posts went viral in April, and we ended up filling the shipping container in 2 months! Those goods went to a large camp in Lebanon. The momentum didn't stop there.  

We also started getting enough funds to provide emergency purchases of humanitarian goods for refugee camps abroad. We bought six weeks worth of food for the Hellenic Red Cross's camp in Lavrion, for example. We purchased 350 pairs of shoes for refugees arriving via rubber boat on the island of Chios. We bought 200 backpacks for children going to a makeshift school inside a camp. We bought food and hygiene supplies for refugees living under a bridge at the port refugee camp in Athens. 

We also started running some operations here in Phoenix, Arizona. I'm not sure if people realizehow many refugee families are getting resettled here in the Phoenix Valley. The four resettlement agencies here are incredibly overwhelmed. We help by furnishing apartments for new families so that they don't have to spend a big chunk of their resettlement stipend on furniture. We also do it so they feel more at home during an incredibly difficult transition where they experience the wild highs and lows of culture shock. We have a warehouse and everything. A generous donor has paid warehouse rent for an entire year. (By the way, want to volunteer? Have housewares to donate?? Email volunteer@liftinghandsinternational.org). See images below of our latest apartment set-up. ALL furniture you see was donated, even a hospital bed for one member of the family who is paralyzed from the neck down due to a war injury. 

And FINALLY, the latest news: LHI has a team of AMAZING long-term volunteers working at a refugee camp in northern Greece. This is no easy feat now that the Greek military has cracked down on independent volunteers and nonprofits. It is very, very hard to get a position in a camp, so we are very lucky. The camp started unexpectedly about a month ago when the urgent need for it arose. There were 400 residents in the camp until yesterday, when another camp flooded from the rain, sending an additional 100 more refugees our way. What do we do at the camp? We translate. We run a women's safe space: no men allowed! Inside, we teach yoga, languages, and provide social hours every day. We also distribute humanitarian goods. We have a warehouse ready to be filled with goods, once they start arriving by sea. Until we get those shipments, we have to buy everything. It's pricey buying hygiene and vegetables for 500 people, let me tell you. We also provide children's activities outside of school activities, such as screening educational films using a donated projector and speaker, games, and kids yoga. Why yoga? Mindfulness promotes recovery from trauma, and Yazidis carry a lot of trauma.

So, in other words, we do a lot! We help run a camp. We furnish apartments in Phoenix. We provide aid for refugees in other camps. I (Hayley) do this full-time now. I divide my time between our refugee camp in Greece and our local operations here in Phoenix. It is an absolute honor to do this work. And it's all thanks to you. It's stressful, I'll admit. I lose sleep over donor fatigue. It's a real thing, despite a sharp increase in refugee need. But I have faith that people will heed the call! I mean, the only way to keep LHI going is donations. The VAST majority of donations are spent on refugees directly, in the form of food and hygiene. Wanna help our camp? Buy an item off our AMAZON list. It goes to a location in the USA where we are collecting goods in a shipping container that will come straight to our camp. 

 

You can also do a recurring monthly donation of $5 or $10, or more HERE. That way you can put in your info once and be done with it! Thank you in advance!

Nabil Morad was born in Syria, studied medicine in Bulgaria, where he met and married his Greek wife. He practiced medicine in Greece for several years before he became mayor for several terms in a row. He speaks 5 languages and is clearly brilliant. The town and the refugees who live nearby adore him, and after meeting him, it is obvious why.

One of the reasons why he is so adored strangely has to do with a beachside resort in his town going bankrupt, mostly as a result both of the Greek economic crisis and also its isolated location. Mayor Morad saw an opportunity to house some of the 55,000+ refugees in Greece -- who are indefinitely stranded in Greece due to the recent EU/Turkey agreement -- at the abandoned property. The resort is consists of several semi-detached villas has recently become home to 300 people, the vast majority of them families, thanks to this man. Although living here is still less than ideal, that is 300 less people living in squalor in overcrowded camps.  

The visit was surreal. Upon arrival, the place looked like it could be a set for the Walking Dead. There was no soul in sight. The sun was overwhelmingly bright and hot, steam was rising from the pavement, and the cicadas were out in full force. The basketball and tennis courts are webs of tangled nets. Empty swimming pools collect muddy rainwater that turns into smelly sludge. And its location, 4 hours away from Athens by car, places it in the middle of nowhere. I was expecting to see endless movement that you see at other camps, but here, there was just silence and stillness. A small child walked across the pockmarked basketball court dragging a toy. Pulling in past the main office, we finally saw signs of life -- some refugees sitting together under a tree sipping coffee while a young man filled a small fountain with water from a hose. One teenage girl was braiding a British volunteer's hair. An older man counted his prayer beads.

The mayor visited that day, so we got to meet him. We also got to meet a number of families who live there. One family of 12 (including relatives) share in a villa that accommodates 3 people, maybe 4. "Yes, it is beautiful, but we cannot truly enjoy it," said Faris, the father, a cheerful man who cracks dad jokes whenever he has the opportunity. I can see why they can't enjoy: It is hot and humid, and there is no A/C. They can't cook, because the town is 90 minute walk away and they don't have money. The food is provided by the Greek military's catering company and is admittedly quite terrible and repetitive. They get 10 days worth of prepared meals that get put in a big fridge. By the second day, the food is stale and tasteless. Kids don't have anywhere to go to burn their energy. There is a school, *IF* they have volunteers there to run it, which is not always the case. There is very little to do but sit outside in the sun and attend the daily established beach/swim time, which provides some major relief from the heat and boredom. 

After spending about 6 hours at the resort, I was completely exhausted, sunburned and hungry. I even had to take a nap on the office couch just to make it through the day. If I lived there, I think I would actually go insane. Yes, the residents try to get creative about problem-solving (gardening, building clay ovens, petitioning the government for changes), but no one knows how long they'll be there. It's just a waiting game. They can't leave Greece. They can't live in the camps. They can't rent apartments in the city. So they just wait.

The danger in posting these particular pictures and video is that they don't portray the difficulties in living here. Yes, the resort is obviously better than the refugee camps. (and trust me, almost anything is better than the refugee camps. Some refugees live on the streets of the larger cities because that is better than the camps), and no, they're not being bombed. But the residents still yearn for their former lives, or at least the opportunity to build a new one, where they had control over even the most trivial things like choosing what to eat, going into town, visiting family, owning a couch, and getting medical help when needed. Mayor Morad does what he can to make a difference, but most of the decisions ultimately are not up to him. In the meantime, they try to make the most of it. 

Meet Jude from Syria

4 hours outside of Athens, in the middle of remote agricultural land dotted with small villages lies an abandoned beach resort that is now known as Myrsini refugee camp. 

One family we met there shares a tiny little villa that sleeps at most 3 people with another large family. They invited us in, and we squished into the bedroom (there is no gathering space) to talk. They brought us some water to drink and apologized that they didn't have any food to serve us.

And then in comes Jude, a feisty and smiley 5 year-old girl. She was really upset at first (she's really shy) and tried to run away screaming, but she calmed down the second her aunt came into the room and scooped her up. This is her story:

Jude's parents and all of her 3 siblings were killed by a bombing in Syria about three years ago. The explosion rendered her deaf except for very high frequencies that don't naturally occur outside of a hearing test. She doesn't remember her parents or siblings. She knows her aunt and uncle as her parents. They communicate using homemade sign language since they don't have access to deaf education. It is clear that her family loves her very much.

Her family make up some of the 50,000 refugees indefinitely stranded in Greece since the borders closed in May of this year. It will take about 1-2 years for the refugees in Greece to get resettled in other countries. This family hopes to go to Germany, where they can try for cochlear implants to restore Jude's hearing. It will be some time before this happens. 

When I was down at the beach a few hours later filming some footage of swim time, Jude ran up to me, her little body in a swimsuit, a mess of wet hair dripping water down her face, her eyes laughing as she showed me a handful of sand she'd just picked up. She threw a handful towards the water and looked back at me and laughed. I leaned down and gave her a big kiss on the cheek. I told her "Ana bahibik" (I love you in Arabic). I know she couldn't hear it, but I said it anyway. :) She turned around and ran into the water, pumping her little legs as much as she could. Keep on going, Jude! What a special girl.

Meet Mahmoud from Iraq

Piraeus Port in Athens, Greece is one of the biggest cargo and transportation hubs in Europe and has been since ancient times. Every day, hundreds of cargo ships and ferries come and go, either dropping off or picking up shipping containers and transporting tourists to and from Santorini.

No one would ever know that tucked away behind a few older abandoned buildings at the port, lies large refugee camp with more than 1,000 people, mostly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They live in camping tents right on the tarmac underneath a highway bridge, the only protection from the overwhelming combination of summer heat and humidity. Rats are a constant nuisance. The dozen outhouses are dirty, and unless you have your own toilet paper, good luck. 

It isn't totally unlivable -- There are portable showers, though access is extremely limited. There is running water from portable outdoor faucets. Nonprofits bring food every day. There are enough volunteers wandering around to keep the mood light and friendly, despite the growing sense of hopelessness of refugees who have been living here for months and have no idea where to go.

Mahmoud ask that I don't show his face, since his family is still in Iraq.

It was at this place that I met Mahmoud, a handsome, intelligent 22 year old from Anbar province in Iraq. We at LHI had pulled up with a carful of items requested by the volunteers who run the camp, such as shampoo, soap, and toilet paper. Mahmoud was nearby and saw that we needed some help. He immediately came and helped us unload, even though it was hot and he was fasting for Ramadan. He even stayed to help us distribute the items, catching sneaky children trying to get two rolls of toilet paper instead of one, and making sure the lines were calm and organized. Afterwards, he refused any sort of payment for his vital assistance, adamantly repeating that it was simply his duty to help. I was able to catch up with him afterwards and get a bit of his story:

Mahmoud fled Iraq after his 26 year-old cousin was executed for refusing to join ISIS. His family only had enough money to send him. Mahmoud did not want to leave, but his family insisted. Like so many others, he fled to Turkey, where life was so difficult that he decided to take the dangerous journey to Lesvos, Greece, on an overcrowded inflatable boat. He hasn't seen his family for 2 years. He rarely hears from them, as both parties have limited access to the Internet.

Mahmoud at the port. He says he was trying to do something silly so he could forget his despair.

Why is he living in a camp and not working, some might ask. The very simply answer is that refugees aren't allowed to work in Greece unless they are granted asylum there, which is a lengthy and undesirable choice for most. And because the border is indefinitely closed, he has no choice but to sit and wait in the camp. He doesn't have any money, and tries to find ways to entertain himself, like jumping into the sea at the port to cool off, despite the visible water pollution.

Like the 56,000 other refugees currently stranded in Greece, he is awaiting resettlement. His dream is to go to Norway and become a lawyer and eventually return to Iraq. He speaks decent English. He told me he is aware that there is a fear of his demographic -- young, single men -- becoming radicalized. For him, though, he says he only thinks of a happy, peaceful future for him and his family, and that he thinks it's crazy that anyone would ever want to join ISIS. (In fact, I've never met one refugee who doesn't absolutely hate ISIS. People almost avoid saying the name because they detest them so much).

When Mahmoud does have Internet access, he sends me friendly updates on Facebook,  updates on what is going on in Iraq, his status in Greece, his family, and his dreams. He constantly talks about his family back home. I hope that he will be reunited with them soon. 

est of luck to you, my friend!

Resettlement process

Only 1% of refugees worldwide get resettled. Half of them end up in the United States. 

Refugees who get settled in the USA have been through the ringer. It takes an average of 2 years of interviews with the UNHCR to find out if they will be resettled. Once assigned to the USA, they must go through another 2 or so years of interviews with a handful of government agencies, such as the Dept. of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the NSA. 

Once assigned to a city in the USA, 1 of 9 national resettlement agencies will help get them set up with the basics -- an apartment with minimal furnishings (any furnishings come out of their stipend), food stamps, insurance, orientation classes, and a one-time stipend per family member.

In Phoenix, refugees tend to get placed in Glendale, since landlords there generally don't require a credit check and also look the other way when it comes to the state law requiring no more than two tenants per bedroom. That's why we have large families with 7 kids in one room, for example.

Families are required to wait 6 months before they can even apply for government subsidized housing. Once they do apply, there is an extremely long waiting list. Rent in Glendale runs around $750-$900/month, so most of their one-time stipend goes towards rent. Hopefully by the time they run out of their stipend money, they will have procured jobs and are self-sufficient. 

This is where we come in: Resettlement agencies give Lifting Hands International referrals for families who especially need help obtaining furniture, getting settled, etc. so that they can save their stipend for other costs. We then collect donated furniture and have volunteers 1. set up apartments for incoming smaller families (smaller families = less money), or 2. fill in the gaps for all families who could just really use some help. Furnishing apartments not only saves them money, but also helps so much with the difficult transition to America. While America is the land of the free and the home of the brave, culture shock is alive and well. Everything is different. We try to make it a little easier for them by providing safe, warm, and beautiful space for them. 

Live in the PHX area and interested in helping out? Sign up at volunteer@liftinghandsinternational.org.