Volunteer Profile: Holly J, Coordinator

We were lucky enough to have Holly (21, from Scotland) for several months over two different stints, first as a volunteer and then a coordinator. She just graduated from St. Andrews with a degree in International Relations. She plans on working in human rights and atrocity prevention in the near future. Working with LHI in Serres opened her eyes, especially to the Yazidis’ plight. She hopes to visit Kurdistan soon.

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What is/was your position at LHI?
I had various positions. The latest was as coordinator. My responsibilities included overseeing management for both the Female-Friendly and Child-Friendly Spaces, volunteer intake, and liaising with larger NGOs that serve the Yazidi population, amongst other roles.

How and why did you get involved with LHI?
For a while, I was looking to volunteer on one of the islands. While looking for a position, a group called HelpRefugees sent me an advert about a refugee center that works with Yazidi refugees, and my mind went back immediately to news articles I’d read about a woman who’d been taken by ISIS. I remembered that Yazidis had been especially targeted by ISIS.

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What was a typical day of volunteering at LHI's Refugee Center like for you?
I don’t think there’s a typical day in Serres, to be honest! We covered so many things, like emergency aid to picking up medical prescriptions to dealing safeguarding issues to sorting aid in the warehouse. Typically I would spend the morning in meetings, whether that would be check-ins or volunteer orientation, and then I would help intake new volunteers. In the afternoon, I would go to the Center to make sure everything was running okay, or if anyone needed anything I could be on the ground to assist them.

What was your most rewarding experience working at LHI’s refugee center in Greece?
Getting to spend time with the residents. I grew up in Scotland and had never met anyone from Iraq and had never heard of Yazidis. Spending time around people who have endured so much but are so humble, kind, intelligent…they’re just the most incredible people. That has given me the motivation, not only to go home and try to advocate on their behalf, but it also puts our lives into perspective and how much we have to be grateful.

What have you learned since volunteering with LHI in Serres? Has your perspective on anything changed?
Most of us are luckier than we’ll ever know, and that our privilege is mostly based on luck — where we were born, what religion we were born into, and we should always be aware of that. It’s taught me that despite how much evil there is in the world, meeting the Yazidis and meeting the other volunteers has reaffirmed my faith that there are really good people out there. It’s also made me more aware of how people feel about refugees at home. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people since getting home that I would’ve have had otherwise. Volunteering gives you that platform to demystify a lot of the things you see in the media.

THANK YOU, HOLLY! We sure miss you and wish you the best of luck!

Not your everyday teacher training!

Language teacher training for Yazidi camp residents!

 Our wonderful resident language teachers!

Our wonderful resident language teachers!

Language teacher training for Yazidi camp residents in Serres, Greece
by Ally Shepherd, LHI Refugee Centre Education Manager

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anguage classes are a popular and in-demand service here at the LHI Refugee Center in Serres, Greece. Camp residents know how vital language is for integrating into a new country and communicating essential information with others, both in official and social settings.

We’ve had a traditional teaching program for a while, meaning around five volunteer teachers come to Greece to teach for a fixed period of time; however, a recent development has seen Yazidis themselves volunteering to teach basic language classes. Some already spoke German and English before they fled their countries, but some have been stuck in Greece long enough that they’ve learned the language proficiently.

 Blurry but goody! We now run up to 25 classes a day in English, German, Greek, Arabic, and Kurmanji (the Yazidi’s native language).

Blurry but goody! We now run up to 25 classes a day in English, German, Greek, Arabic, and Kurmanji (the Yazidi’s native language).

Whilst this is amazing in terms of what it means we can offer incoming resident students, as well as for the sustainability of the project, all but one teacher had no experience teaching and – as any teacher out there will know – teaching is difficult and involves thinking about several different things at once! As a result, we ran a two-day language teacher training ‘crash course’.

Fourteen people came to the course; nine were current volunteer teachers and five other aspiring teachers. The course was interactive and split into one day of theory and one day of practice.

DAY ONE:
Day one involved dynamic activities to discuss the purpose of education; common features of communicative language teaching (getting students talking rather than the teacher talking all the time, as is common in many traditional classroom settings worldwide); and common problems and solutions in the classroom (such as low-resource teaching). We looked at adapting donated Western textbooks for Yazidi learners and adapting textbook activities in general if they are too short or boring, for example. We also looked at how to structure a lesson plan which, although seemingly intuitive, was good to think about in a structured way. The residents were engaged throughout the session; asking questions, translating for those who hadn’t understood, comparing ideas, and participating with enthusiasm in the different activities. It would be fair to say that at the end of the first day they were pretty brain-tired and ready to rest!

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DAY TWO:
Day two was teaching time. The participants had been asked to prepare something to teach for 15 minutes the next day to their peers. After teaching (and preferably trying something new they’d learned the day before) we reflected as a group on what had gone well and what could be done differently if we were to teach the lesson again. The atmosphere in this session was so supportive: teachers were cheered on and off their teaching ‘stage’ and comments were kept polite and encouraging and – importantly - useful! It was a great exercise of ‘two heads being better than one’.

After another long but productive day, I asked the teachers to reflect on what had been the most important thing they learned on the course. Answers ranged from the general to the specific and the thoughtful:

“The most important thing I learnt was good ideas about how to teach students because we have [a] teaching plan in the future.”

“The most important thing I learned was eliciting answers because this helps students use their thinking skills and involves them in the lesson more.”

“The most important thing I learned was that education can change society for the better because everybody wins, teacher and student.”

And when asked what they would try in their classes in the future, most said asking more questions to their students, making sure students got enough speaking practice, as well as: “I will use more games because I want to have fun in our classes!” It’s hard to argue with that.  

The next day we concluded with a well-deserved certificate ceremony for completing the short but intensive course. As people received their certificates and hands were shook, the others clapped and cheered and took photos. It was a great end to a great couple of days, marking the beginning of some teaching careers at LHI and something we would love to repeat in the future to provide further support and training to these residents to continue teaching as many others as possible in their camp community.

Thank you, Constance!

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We'd like to share a massive, deafening shoutout to Constance for her several months as the Child-Friendly Space manager at the LHI Refugee Center in Serres, Greece! While we’re sad to see her go, we’re excited to see how she will make the world a better place in the humanitarian realm. Her many months of dedicated experience in the field will only make her future in humanitarian sector even brighter.

The role of managing the Child-Friendly Space is a challenging one. Constance ran meetings, planned activities, managed volunteers and facilitators, helped establish a culture of respect and order in the space, etc. But that’s not all she did -- Imagine taking on that role, knowing that the Child Friendly Space project was new, requiring a lot of growth and development. Thanks to her tireless efforts and a small army of facilitators, the space is now very established, with several dozen children coming for daily fun and enriching activities.

On a personal note, we will miss Constance’s infectious laugh, loving heart, brilliant mind, great taste in music, and ability to spot a fellow Frenchman from afar! It’s fair to say that everyone is much better off because of her gentle soul and sweet, considerate nature. Constance, we so appreciate you!

GOOD LUCK, Constance!

Meet Danny*, an engineer, stunt master, and humanitarian extraordinaire! 

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Two years ago, Danny raced down a mile-long trail at ThreeRock in Dublin, Ireland. Not on a bike or rollerblades, mind you. This kid reached speeds up to 50 km/hr in a roller suit that he designed and built himself. Danny used this *completely safe* event (right, Danny's mom Jessica?) to fundraise for Lifting Hands International and raised over $700 using GoFundMe as the fundraising platform! A lot of 10 year-old kids do crazy stunts, but not too many of them turn them into a fundraising opportunity!

What inspired Danny to fundraise for refugees?

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His mom Jessica explains: “Luke [her husband] and I had just come back from helping set up the Ritsona camp, like ten mins from Oinofyta, which is where I met Lisa Campbell. I got back to Ireland and started giving presentations and doing drives to send stuff back. Our next door neighbors were resettled refugees from Libya and connected us with their mosque and the Islamic cultural center in Dublin. We started collaborating for book drives and all the local libraries pitched in.Danny wanted to do something, but he felt powerless, as most kids do. He did have the one skill, though...”

Danny, we will never forget your amazing feat of human strength and that you did it for the benefit of others. See tons more pics and videos of the event HERE.

*This post is part of a series highlighting supporters who have run peer-to-peer fundraisers (P2P) for LHI. We want to recognize their efforts, and hey, maybe it'll inspire some of you to come up with your own cool fundraiser to benefit refugees!

Volunteer Thank You: Jesús Ramírez

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We want to send a HUGE ¡muchas gracias! to Jesús Ramírez for several months of rockstar-level work at the LHI Refugee Center in Serres, Greece. Like the picture says, Jesús had quite a demanding role to fill as the Summer Child-Friendly Space facilitator (In other words, helping to manage dozens of young, restless children everyday for several weeks in relentless heat!) You would never know it was a more difficult role considering his always-positive attitude. 🙌🏼

Jesús is incredibly diplomatic, funny, kind, hard-working, and loads of fun. He kept both the team and also the kids of Serres camp in a constant state of sincere laughter. 😊

Jesús, we wish you the BEST of luck and success in your next role! Enjoy time with your family in Spain! You’ll need the rest for when you go out to change the world! 🌍

(NOTE: Why no pictures of him with kids if he worked for months with kids? Totally reasonable question!! We don’t post pictures of refugee children in Greece, per our photo policy that protects the identities of minors without written consent of their parents.)

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Serres, Greece: Sewing Workshop Heaven!

Written by Iona Turner, LHI Refugee Center Women’s Safe Space Program Manager.
(She’s been with us for almost a year. She’s incredible!)

 One of the Yazidi women sewed these two dresses for her baby in one sitting.

One of the Yazidi women sewed these two dresses for her baby in one sitting.

BACKGROUND: One of the three main programs at the Serres community centre is the Women’s Safe Space. This is a welcoming space for the women to study, participate in yoga and fitness, and, for three hours a day, attend open facilitation sessions. During this time the volunteers facilitate activities with the aim of providing psychosocial support, re-establishing peer connections, creating a safe supportive network, and alleviating some of the stressors of camp life.

The primary focus of this time is to provide psychosocial support to the women, however with some activities, the workshop goes far beyond that. This was something we experienced at the end of July when we threw out our usual timetable and dedicated a whole week to sewing workshops. This was made possible thanks to the donation of sewing machines, supplies such as elastic and thread, and the tailoring expertise of one volunteer.

 Such a lovely way to turn discarded or unwanted material into a dress.

Such a lovely way to turn discarded or unwanted material into a dress.

The effects of this week went much deeper than simply receiving fabric. The more experienced sewers got strait to work crafting beautiful dresses for their children, or long skirts for themselves. Those less confident sat in small groups, taking their time and enjoying a more social approach to the activity. Two ladies would sit on either side of the machine, feeding the fabric through, a third would turn the hand crank, and often a fourth would sit by offering instruction and advice. Some family members chose to sew their pieces together in order to create a larger item of clothing, teenage girls collected their material, then left it in a bag with their name on so their mothers could come sew it for them later, some women turned away from clothes completely, instead creating table covers or bed linens.

 This dress is MAD SKILLS (Girl’s face covered to protect identity)

This dress is MAD SKILLS
(Girl’s face covered to protect identity)


Women who did not know how to sew could be taught by those who did, in turn empowering the teacher. A mother made a beautiful princess dress for her oldest daughter, an item which will in turn be passed down to her two younger sisters. Older ladies sewed long skirts with elasticated waists, something harder to find in the markets and at distributions. For many women we met that week it was their first time attended the LHI community centre, and several have continued to attend. In the month since sewing week we have seen an increase in attendance overall, and a daily demand for the use of the sewing machines.

We are so grateful to those who donated sewing machines and supplies, those who donated fabric, or the funds to purchase it, and the volunteers who facilitated this busy week! This includes Dolls of Hope, Carry the Future, LDS Charities (Tim and Dorothy Carroll, specifically!) and many individuals.

Interested in donating funds for fabric or sewing machines? We’d be delighted! Please contact us at info@liftinghandsinternational.org and we’ll get working together.

Volunteer Profile: Traci

My name is Traci Parson. I am a mother of 5 with a Bachelors Degree in Speech-Language Pathology. I worked at a school for children with special needs and then at an early intervention program before becoming a full-time mom!

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WHAT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY AT LHI?
I am the Assistant Director for the Utah program. I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to run the Utah warehouse where we receive and then prepare all donations for shipment to various countries to help refugees. I see all of the contributions that come in from all over the country and it never ceases to amaze me the generosity of people. We are sending more than just humanitarian aid. We are sending a message of love, hope, and peace.

WHAT IS A DAY OF VOLUNTEERING AT LHI LIKE FOR YOU?
Well, I spend a great part of every day on emails, texts, phone calls, and in person contacts with everyone who reaches out to us to help accomplish this great effort to show love and support to refugees across the sea. This is one of my favorite parts of my day because I love connecting with people and seeing their desire to help and their love for others. I’ll also spend time coordinating with some of our 31 outstanding drop-off location volunteers throughout the state as they bring in donations. They are the ones who help make our Utah program successful and far-reaching. I’ll also go over to the warehouse and spend the day with our incredible supervisors and volunteers who work tirelessly sorting and boxing donations. There, we make sure our shipments are packed carefully and accurately to get through customs. I love being in the warehouse, the work we do there, the people we meet who come in to volunteer with us, and the feeling you have while you’re there.  Then I’ll work on paperwork for our shipment. I work closely with our amazing HHRD partners to work out details regarding the shipment (lists of items to ship, procedures, documentation, etc) to make sure everything runs smoothly from the time items are donated and boxed up, to the time they reach the hands of those receiving them. I am so grateful to have such a wonderful, dedicated team of volunteers here in Utah and across the country that makes this all possible.

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WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO GET INVOLVED WITH LHI?
I found myself with time on my hands during the day so I began to volunteer in my community for Meals on Wheels, local food banks, etc. which was awesome and I loved it! Then one day I saw a picture of Aylan Kurdi, a young Syrian refugee child, lying dead on a beach, and it shattered my heart and forever changed everything for me. I knew I needed to help refugees in some way. I searched for an organization near me that helped refugees but struggled to find one until I finally came across Lifting Hands International. I have been volunteering for them ever since. I had been lamenting all the evil and darkness in the world, and I came across this quote that said, “Do not despair…Never forget that amidst
all the awful circumstances that you may see, if you look, you will always find the good. Where suffering shows its persistent face, heroes always rise.” LHI were those heroes. And I wanted to help them.

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED SINCE VOLUNTEERING WITH LHI?
I have learned that there are so, so many loving, generous people in this world who are ready and willing to give what they have to serve their fellow man. Individuals, families, children and adults, businesses, school groups, organizations, scouts, and members of many different religious groups. I meet them every single day. And it is an honor.

THANK YOU, TRACI!

Volunteer Profile: Carlissa

Carlissa Pugh Larsen is our dedicated and fiercely intelligent Director of Utah Operations. Under her expert management, the Utah program and army of volunteers has collected, packed, and shipped off 5 shipping containers bound for refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. 

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1. Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a 36 year-old native of Utah. I have an Associate degree in science and a Bachelor's degree in Geography from Brigham Young University. I am currently considering getting a degree in marketing management. I'm a devoted wife and mother to 3 young children.

2. What is a day of volunteering at LHI Utah like for you?
My volunteer days vary greatly -- Some days I drive a moving truck to pick up empty boxes for packing. Other days I'm organizing financial documents or meeting with partner organizations. My favorite days consist of helping to load shipping containers with all the desperately need supplies we've collected over several weeks or months.

3. What inspired you to get involved with LHI’s Utah program?
I wanted to help refugees and heard about LHI through a friend. Once I got involved with a one-off event, I saw that an immense number of fellow Utahns and others wanted to help but didn’t know how. LHI provided the how, and I proposed to establish a Utah program. I recognized that if I put my efforts into organizing a lot of people to do just a little, we could create a whole lot more good than I ever could have provided by myself.

4. What has been your most rewarding experience volunteering with LHI Utah?
I love watching our volunteers lives be blessed through their service -- from someone needing to do community service hours to elderly in nursing homes that need something productive to do to keep their hands and minds active. I started with LHI because I wanted to help refugees, but in doing so we've created a program that has blessed the lives of so many others as well because they've been given opportunities to serve.

5. What have you learned since volunteering with LHI? Has your perspective changed?
I've learned that humanity still exists in this self-destructive world, that there are people who are still kind and tolerant and humane despite the scenes of horror displayed on news sources and social media.  While we should never turn a blind eye to inhumanity, we must also acknowledge that good still exists and that is where we find our hope and courage as we strive to create a better world.

Our warehouse in Pleasant Grove in Utah is run by an army of dedicated volunteers who collect, sort, and pack critically needed items for refugees. We are always looking for groups to donate items and kits. Since needs are constantly shifting due to the ebb and flow of donations, please email traci@liftinghandsinternational.org for current needs. You can also provide critical aid with a few clicks by ordering an item off our Amazon wishlist

Volunteer Profile: Roos

Roos taught music at the LHI Refugee Center in Serres, Greece in February through April of this year. She's released an EP on Spotify, all lyrics and music based on refugee stories she's heard first-hand. 

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1. Tell us a little about yourself.
I am from the Netherlands. I am 24 as of today and just graduated from the Conservatoire of Amsterdam in music direction and vocals, with an emphasis in pop. My life goal in life is to bring people closer together.

2. What is a day of volunteering at LHI like for you?
I had 5 classes per day, each group determined by different levels or ages. Each class had their own focus based on their interests. For example, with the little ones I would mostly playfully make music with rhythmic instruments. The teenage boys liked to use the time to jam together. The teenage girls were dedicated mastering the guitar so they could play their favorite Justin Bieber songs. Every group and every day was different; always so fun and magical!

3. What inspired you to get involved with LHI?
In the summer of 2016 I went to Nea Kavala Camp in Northern Greece to volunteer there for a couple of weeks with my mum. I started giving guitar and English lessons there. This is how I met a lot of wonderful Yazidis. When I decided to go back to Greece in February 2017 (this time for a couple of months), I wanted to see these wonderful people again; so I did some research and found out that they were in Nea Vrasna - later Serres. I heard that LHI was organising music lessons there, so I immediately contacted them.

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4. What was your most rewarding experience volunteering at LHI’s refugee center in Greece?
Oef... That's very difficult to say. Every day was a new experience that taught me something...There were so many special moments! I remember this one moment that I sat in on a language class of about twelve girls ages 7-13 years old, and they decided to sing their traditional Yazidi songs for me, because they knew I was the music teacher. That was absolutely magical.

There were so many raw emotions. Some kids were so happy singing the songs reminding them of home, but there was also one girl that started crying because she missed her home so much. This feeling of community, already at such a young age, was very extraordinary and inspiring to me.

5. How has your experience LHI influenced you the most?
Well, it influenced me completely. Since my experiences in Greece I've been working with refugees in the Netherlands. I am very aware of the amount of refugees and the situation that they're in, so I just want to support them wherever I can. I am also still in contact with a lot of people I met in Serres, and I will actually go to Germany next week to visit a lot of those families. They are still in my mind all the time, and have a big place in my heart.

6. What have you learned since volunteering with LHI in Serres? Has your perspective changed?
Definitely. I always thought I was quite an aware person, but since I've been to Greece I've realized I wasn't. Since then I am also trying to raise awareness around me. I am a musician and decided to turn stories that refugees had told me into songs. This turned out into the EP 'maktub' (which means 'written' in Arabic). I hope this will bring awareness to the situation that is still taking place but seems to have lost the attention of the media (and therefore the people).

We're always looking for skilled and passionate volunteers at the LHI Refugee Center in Serres, Greece. Email greecevolunteer@liftinghandsinternational.org for more information! 

Refugee Voices - Ailas, Yazidi

Ailas and his family survived the Yazidi genocide in August 2014. He has graciously shared his story of survival with us. 

 Photo by Shannon Ashton. Ailas, mid 40s, asked that we not show his face.

Photo by Shannon Ashton. Ailas, mid 40s, asked that we not show his face.

"Despite being injured in the ISIS attack in August of 2014, my family and I fled to Sinjar mountain with thousands of other Yazidis. Our family spent 8 days total on the mountain, where there is no food or water. After 4 days on the mountain we were horribly dehydrated in 120 degree F heat. We needed to do something about it or we would die.

So, two others and I snuck down to Sinuni, a village on the other side of the mountain, to get something to bake bread for the children. Sure enough, as we were scavenging for food, ISIS soldiers discovered us and started shooting at us. A bullet grazed my back. A bullet hit the shoulder of one of the two men and the hand of the other. I put my hand on their wounds to stop the bleeding. We snuck back up to the mountain empty-handed, with no food or anything for my children. I couldn't even stand up because of the bullet wound. We were stranded, surrounded by ISIS. There wasn't any possibility to get out from the mountains.

The mountains were so dry. There was no water or food. If we’d had even this much bread [indicates one knuckle], we would have been happy, but we didn't. Some people gave us small animals to kill and eat. We ate the animals just like we were the animals, without bread, without salt, barely cooking them over a rough fire and digging for what little meat that is on the bones.     

Afterwards, we learned that many others had it worse on other parts of the mountain. There were people who even ate leaves from trees. Hundreds of children died from hunger or thirst. Old and young people died because of hunger and thirst. Some women killed their newborn babies rather than watch them die from imminent dehydration. There were people who drank their own urine to save themselves.  

And those were the people who escaped. Since the attack was such a surprise, many couldn't escape at all: We were forced to leave old people, injured people, and people with mental issues were left behind in the villages around Sinjar. They couldn’t run with their families. ISIS killed all of them, burned them all together, and threw them in mass graves. A woman here in Serres, Greece, with us, her brother had mental issues and was in a wheelchair. ISIS shot him in the head.

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From the mountains of Sinjar we went to Syria, and from Syria back to Kurdistan (an autonomous region of Iraq). On 13th September 2014, just a little over a month after the genocide, we went to Turkey. We had better chances at survival in Turkey. A batch of 4,000 of us entered Turkey together. We went to Siirt, where we stayed in shelters for a year and 6 months, working odd jobs and trying to survive.

In February 2017, we decided to travel to Greece to join the Yazidi diaspora gathering in Germany, but when the borders closed in March 2016 we have been forced to remain here in Greece ever since. It's been difficult to leave everything behind and face an unsure future in Europe. Sometimes I feel bitter and angry because we've lost our homeland and face losing our culture altogether. But what can I do?"

Serres camp is home to 600+ Yazidi refugees, all of whom survived the 2014 genocide. LHI is the only organization based in Serres. Our program is wonderful - we teach English, German, dance, fitness, yoga, and other healing activities. We also do several kinds of distribution, such as vegetables, clothing, shoes, hygiene, and more. Please consider supporting this fantastic project here.  

Story collected by Kate Hubrich


 

Voices of Serres - Kordi

Kordi is 33 years old Iraqi Yazidi. She survived the 2014 genocide at the hands of ISIS. She is now living in the Serres refugee camp in Serres, Greece. 

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1.
I am mother to five girls and one son. We are from Hadana [region in Kurdistan]. We'd been celebrating the Yazidi summer festival when Da’esh (ISIS) came and caught us off guard, at around 6:00 pm.

They took the men from us into to the streets to kill them there. Three of my cousins, my husband, and my uncle were forced to put their hands on the back of their heads and line up in the street. We were praying, “We know you will kill us right now, and God is seeing it.”

Just then, some neighbors [an Arab non-Yazidis] came into where we women were. We knew it was our neighbors and friends from the past, even though they were all wearing black clothes on were covering their faces. One of them put his hand on another’s gun and said “Put it down. These women are helpless and can't flee; let’s go somewhere else.” When that happened, our men just ran back inside, their skin yellow from fear.
 

2.
Even though we were spared, ISIS went to the other houses, taking all the other men outside and killed them right in front of the building we were hiding in. They piled the bodies on top of each other in a huge pile. Their women were screaming and running through the dead bodies and trying to wake up their husbands and brothers. The soldiers pulled them by their hair and threw them into cars. We fled to our garden and we waited until 6:00 in the morning. ISIS spent that whole night searching through our village for survivors.

That morning, we fled. We tried to shrink ourselves, walking only one step at a time. I held my children’s mouths closed so they wouldn’t scream, and we snuck from village to village side-by-side, huddling and hiding, until 12:00 at night. We hadn't had anything to eat or drink all day, and the heat of the sand had been too much for our children.

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3.
We knew that our children would die from dehydration if we didn't find help soon. That's when we saw some cars driving nearby, and we had two choices: either the cars belong to ISIS and they will just kill us right away, or maybe they are people who can help us. So we ran out in front of the cars and asked them to stop. It turns out that they were from our village and had fled by car. They gave us food and water and drove us to Shafardine [one of the main religious areas for the Yazidis]. From there, we fled to Turkey and finally to Greece.

From that day on, my daughter has been mute, still to to this day [three years later]. Even a doctor here in Greece told me, “She is traumatized, and that’s the reason why she isn’t speaking.” We've tried several times to get her to speak. But it’s true that she saw a lot of horrendous things. We saw what the ISIS soldiers did in front of her.

4.
My husband has been in Germany for a year. [Many men went ahead to prepare for their families, but then the borders closed and many families are indefinitely stranded in Greece and Turkey]. He's in a transfer center, and he said, “it isn’t good here, because my family isn’t here with me.” My husband feels so bad because I’m still stranded. He recently told me that he would be much calmer and happier if we were all together, "You and the children, together, with me.”

I don’t know when I’ll get to Germany. We've already spent a lot of money to process our family reunification application. We've had to get our papers together and our marriage certificate translated into German and other documents proving that my children really are my children translated into German. We're already in debt and we haven't even started our new lives yet. I’ve finally got all of the documents together now, so I'm going to Thessaloniki tomorrow to find out what the next step is.

I just want to be with my husband. I just to get his children back to him, too. I don’t have any family members anymore--the war has cut us off from our siblings and our parents. My father just passed 3-4 months ago, and I couldn't make it to his burial. I’m just hoping to at least reach my husband with my children because it’s always quite difficult for us. I would do anything to see my husband, even get in more debt. I've never asked for anything without working for it, even getting to see my husband and be reunited again. 

5.
I didn’t want to come here. It’s like we don’t exist anymore. So many of us died and so many of our Yazidi community are gone and living new lives in other countries. How can I live with that? No matter where you look, no matter which country you look in, we [Yazidis] are dwindling in size. We don't even have a homeland anymore. If it wasn’t for ISIS, we wouldn’t have had to flee over the mountains and seas. And it’s all because of them, all because they did this to us. It’s like I lost everything. I feel like I don't know anything anymore. My mind is blank now because I saw so much death destruction, and I’m still so afraid of the Islamic State. 


Photos by Shannon Ashton. Stories collected by Kate Hubrich. 

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How LHI started

By Hayley Smith, founder/director of LHI. All photos by Shannon Ashton. 


Moria Refugee Registration Camp, Lesvos Island, Greece. Early January 2016.

 The lifejacket graveyard. Represents the hundreds of thousands of refugees who crossed to Greece from Turkey. 

The lifejacket graveyard. Represents the hundreds of thousands of refugees who crossed to Greece from Turkey. 

I managed to say, "Asfa, asfa," (sorry in Arabic) to the women, without bursting into tears, though they were threatening to jump off the ledge and down my face. I will never forget her response, from the far corner of the canvas tent, stripped naked but wrapped in UNHCR-issued wool blankets. "I've seen death. This is nothing, habibti." And then she took a long draw from a cigarette.  

We volunteers had to make that decision out of necessity, for their survival. I mean, it was cold enough for hypothermia to set in. So, "Women go to this tent. Men go to that tent. Take off all your wet clothing and put them in a pile. Wrap a blanket around yourselves to dry off and get warm." What we didn't tell them was, "It will take us hours to find dry clothes for you."

Just hours before, this lady, from the rural Iraqi countryside, along with her husband and small children, climbed aboard an overcrowded rubber dinghy on a rocky beach on the Turkish coast. She wishes she had more time to stretch her legs out -- They'd been hiding for some hours behind shrubs and bushes while a Turkish coast guard boat sailed past, looking for people just like them -- Iraqi, Syrian, Aghan refugees who were crossing from Turkey to European waters. The coast was now clear, and it was time to cross. Some members of their party contested that the Aegean was too choppy to cross. Surely they would capsize. 3,000+ had already drown that year. But dangerous or not, the smugglers had money to make and more people waiting to cross over, so they didn't want to hear it. One smuggler picked out a young adult man and announced that he was in charge of steering the raft. Then a number of men pushed the overcrowded dinghy out to sea.

 Photographer Shannon Ashton and LHI founder Hayley Smith at Moria camp in January 2016

Photographer Shannon Ashton and LHI founder Hayley Smith at Moria camp in January 2016

Now, with their clothing soaked through with freezing water, they cursed the smugglers for their greediness and lack of regard. Might as well curse their governments, too, while they are at it-- the dictatorships, the state-sponsored terrorism and violence that was tearing their countries into bloody, mangled pieces. They cursed their memories, because all they did was bring pain. They cursed the fact that the only remnant of their former lives were in the form of pictures and videos on their phones. As Kenyan-born Somali poet Warsan Shire puts it, "no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land." Even on the choppy Aegean at the height of a cold winter, the sea was safer than home, "the barrel of a gun."

Some people were starting to get hysterical with fear. The crossing was taking too long. It should only take one hour. They'd been out for three. They'd lost sight of the Greek island long ago when the thick rain started falling. It felt wrong to comfort the children when they themselves were terrified. And in a split second, their worst fears came over them in the form of a monster wave. Everything turned dark and cold. They were in the water. 

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We volunteers at Moria registration camp hear that a boat has capsized nearby. Luckily, the Greek coastguard found them. But they were bringing them straight to the registration camp, instead of one of the receiving camps that is equipped with emergency blankets, fires, warm food, and proper medical care. We braced ourselves -- there weren't enough volunteers at the registration camp that day. There were only four of us that could be spared to help clothe the soaking people. Luckly, the clothing distribution tent at the camp had dozens of boxes of clothing donations. The boxes of donations weren't labeled or sorted. We knew we were in for a long day. 

They arrived. Soaking wet people started lining up outside the clothing distribution tent. We started opening the boxes, then began just tearing them open, looking for any kind of clothes to put on the wet people. One box had baby clothes. The next, more baby clothes. The next box, a bunch of shoes, high heels, even lingerie. We started to get hysterical with frustration. It was taking too long to go through the boxes.

It turned out okay in the end. We were finally able to find enough clothing for everyone, despite the resulting mountain of tank tops, high heels, dirty and smelly clothes, and other wildly inappropriate donations. 

The clothing was for the wrong season. Boxes weren't labeled. They weren't sorted. There were too many baby clothes. There weren't any men's clothes. There were too many t-shirts but no underwear and socks. Generous donors didn't realize that without strict guidelines, their donations were actually a hinderance, not a help.

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That day is when I decided that something had to be done about this. I came home determined to simply send a shipping container full of clearly marked, organized boxes full of things camps actually need in a hurry. We filled an entire container in two months, which is unheard of. The container went to Lebanon, where there are camps the size of small cities and aid is sparse. And the team that unpacked the container and distributed the aid knew exactly what was in each box. 

A lot has changed since then. LHI has spent thousands of generously donated dollars on emergency aid on the ground in Greece and France. We have sent a second container to Lebanon. We have paid for two additional containers to be sent from collection teams in UK to camps in Greece. We have a team of full-time volunteers working in a refugee camp in Greece. I have met with members of the Greek parliament to discuss how to better serve refugees there. I have met with the State Department in Washington DC to discuss the plight of refugees in Greece. We have an army of volunteers providing support to refugees getting resettled in the Phoenix, Arizona area. 

The current refugee crisis is alive and well, and it is called a crisis for a reason: It is driving wedges into politics worldwide. It is closing borders. It is causing a huge shift in foreign policy. It is changing history. It is challenging peoples' beliefs and motivations. It is huger than I can express in words. We haven't seen an exodus of refugees this large since World War II. It's massive. We cannot afford to stand by and watch, because it will effect us sooner or later. Will we be willing and ready, or will we close our eyes and pretend it's not happening? It is as simple as that. 

5 MAJOR THREATS ROHINGYA REFUGEE CHILDREN FACE IN BANGLADESH

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I have been among the Rohingya for a week, and we have major work to do — especially to keep the children safe.

An estimated 340,000 Rohingya refugee children live in crowded and unsanitary refugee camps in Bangladesh. There are a handful of established child-friendly spaces, but there simply aren’t enough shelters to meet the needs of that many children. Nor are they evenly distributed throughout the sprawling camps. Some have to walk 45 minutes each way to the closest child-friendly space.

On top of that, the staff at these centers end up getting so distracted by emergency projects, such as sourcing safe drinking water and sanitation, that they simply don’t have the time or means to focus on maintaining a safe space and meaningful activities.

There needs to be more official and consistent services for children, who are already facing these threats:

1. SEPARATION FROM PARENTS
Children and parents are often separated, whether it be amidst the confusion of their village burning down in Myanmar, or a child taking the wrong turn in the massive refugee camps and becoming lost, sometimes indefinitely. One of the few services that reunite separated kids with their families is run by a refugee himself, armed only with a table and a loudspeaker. He saw the need wasn’t being met, and he took it upon himself to reunite families. The fact that a refugee had to take this on is an indicator that large orgs need to invest more in child safety and establish more centers throughout the camps.

2. KIDNAPPING/TRAFFICKING
The trafficking scene here is alive and well, and has been since the 1992 genocide saw 300,000 Rohingya flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh. This has given traffickers decades to establish their networks in the camps before this latest exodus of 600,000 Rohingya since August of this year. With no security at the camps, traffickers easily prey upon new arrivals. Literally anyone can just walk in. While there are no official figures on how many children have gone missing, 10,000 refugee children went missing in Europe over the last few years, so we can easily guess that the figure is in the thousands.

3. MALNOURISHMENT
By the time children make it to Bangladesh, they have spent weeks in hiding in the forests of Myanmar, often without any food. They arrive in Bangladesh starving, disorientated, emaciated, and thus more susceptible to disease. There are very few resources to educate families and children about basic sanitation, and even fewer that provide supplemental food until their body weight normalizes.

There are some projects that provide supplemental nutrition. For example, Neezo’s Kitchen is a grassroots project that provides 1,300 warm meals a day for children. 1,300 meals for 340,000 children is a staggering number. There are very few, if any, other projects like this.

HELP US RAISE FUNDS FOR FOOD BY DONATING HERE. 

4. TRAUMA
Rohingya children have been exposed to high levels of trauma, due to displacement, witnessing atrocities like murder, execution, torture, and rape. Without proper help, the trauma will fester and lead to chronic depression, anxiety, and in some cases, self-harm or suicide. According to Relief Web, “Safe spaces and schools are vital if huge numbers of children fleeing from violence in Myanmar are to recover from their toxic stress.”

5. LACK OF EDUCATION
While this may not seem like an immediate risk, education is one of the most sustainable solutions to trauma and preventable disease. Rohingya aren’t even allowed beyond army checkpoints just outside of the camps, let alone given the opportunity to attend school. The illiteracy rate amongst the Rohyinga is 80%. Most children have never attended school.

We need aid organizations to set up MANY MORE safe spaces for children in the camps, where staff aren't distracted by other projects and can focus on providing safety and education.

Thank you for spreading the word.

Photo credit: Shannon Ashton, who has generously donated her time and photography to the cause.

Sources:
Reuters: Amid the exodus, lone Rohingya children face dangers in camps
Time: Rohingya Refugee Children Are in Desperate Need of Aid, the U.N. Says
Reuters: Traffickers prey on lost refugee children in Bangladesh camps
ReliefWeb: Rohingya refugee children need urgent help to deal with their trauma

Guest Volunteer Post: "See Ya Later!"

 Beth with two adorable Yazidi children in Serres, Greece

Beth with two adorable Yazidi children in Serres, Greece

Beth (age 23 from UK) spent a large chunk of her summer volunteering for our program Serres, Greece. She was kind enough to write up her experiences to share on our blog! 

 

I have been volunteering in Serres with LHI for 5 weeks now. Time seems to have a mind of its own here; I feel as though I have only just arrived and yet somehow I cannot remember life outside of my journey here with the Yazidis. 

Many of our refugee friends have been granted asylum and left for Athens this week, where they will wait a month or two to be processed before their flights to their new countries. Because of this, our team has shared many tender "see you laters" with our Yazidi friends as they continue on their paths to their new lives. 

 Seeing our Yazidi friends leaving off as they progress to the next stage of their journeys - Athens

Seeing our Yazidi friends leaving off as they progress to the next stage of their journeys - Athens

I recently wished good luck to one of my students, who is one of the kindest, strongest and most genuine humans I have had the privilege to meet. He is going to Athens to prepare for his new life now that his family have been granted asylum. “Thank you, my teacher. I will miss you, my sister” are his parting words.

 Sharing smiles with our Yazidi friends

Sharing smiles with our Yazidi friends

In spite of all they have faced, so many of them come to class every day with a smile, ready to learn and grow. Yet they take the time to thank us for our lessons and classes. They are determined to keep fighting for a better future, despite major challenges they have faced AFTER being forced to flee for their lives. I came to Serres to teach English, but every day I learn from the Yazidis; lessons in humility, resilience, gratitude and kindness. 

Serres is a special community where the residents have found friendship and safety through their tight-knit sense of community. It is incredible that they are given a chance to move on and resettle, but their departure from Serres is not the end of their stories. The future brings another set of challenges and some uncertainty, but they can face any challenge after the trials and struggles they've been through. 

The relationships I have made in Serres will span distance and time; I can't wait to see some of my friends again, perhaps when they start a new chapter beyond Serres, beyond Greece! 

LHI Goat Project FAQ

 From LHI's May 2017 distribution in Jordan. Photo by Mike Walton.

From LHI's May 2017 distribution in Jordan. Photo by Mike Walton.

Thank you so much for your interest in and support for our ongoing goat project in Jordan. Here are some frequently asked questions and answers. 

1. Why goats?
Goats provide a sustainable food source, restoration of some parts of culture (the families are Bedouin), and eventual source of income. And perhaps the biggest reason: Family after family that we visited pled with us for goats so that they have a sustainable source of milk.

2. Why don't the refugees already have a sustainable food source? 
Jordan got hit hard by the Syrian refugee crisis. Only 5% of 2 million refugees (registered and unregistered) live in camps. There are very few NGOs supporting refugees who live outside of camps. 

3. How do you know the refugees won't sell/eat the goats?
The kind of breed we get them aren't really for food. The breed is perfect for producing milk and breeding. The families sign a contract stating they will not sell or kill their goats. Our partner org checks on the families and their goats every month. 

4. How did you select the 400 families who will get goats?
Our Jordanian parter org selected the families based on a vulnerability scale. The aid workers know the refugees and their families very well. The project has been receiving incredibly well in the area. The rest of the families who are waiting to receive goats are very excited. 

5. Why are you asking $300 per goat? That seems like a lot. Is there overhead?
Baby goats are about $80. A regular adult goat is about $180. But a milk producing female --meaning, a young, healthy adult who has given birth and will continue to produce milk for at least a year until it gets pregnant again -- is $270. Because bringing food and nutrition to the refugees is our priority, *those* are the goats we want.

We absolutely do not profit from this campaign. Like any project, there is a little overhead and admin costs. The extra money goes towards: Monthly checks on the goats (lots of gasoline and hours), periodic visits to the veterinarian, and distribution costs. 

6. Aren't there orgs that provide goats for families at a much cheaper cost?
There are some great orgs that provide livestock to impoverished families, but they don't work in Jordan. They do a lot of their work in India and other developing countries, which is why you'll see a cheaper cost. 

7. What happens if the goats get sick?
Recipient families will contact Jabal Zamzam, our partner org. Jabal Zamzam team will take the sick goats to a local veterinarian. Veterinary care for goats is government-subsidized, as goats are such a massive and important industry here. 

8. How will the goats eat? Isn't it a desert?
Jordan is prime land for grazing and has been for thousands of years. In fact, 50,000 families in Jordan still make their living by raising herds of goats and sheep. Jordan is the 3rd largest exporter of goats in the world, and the vast majority of those goats come from herds that graze in the countryside. We want refugee families to benefit from these resources. 

9. How can you make sure the goats won't get stolen?
Petty theft in Jordan is basically non-existent. The families' nearest neighbors are also Syrian refugees who will also get goats or Jordanian farmers who also already have goats. There are goats everywhere in Jordan. Goat-napping just doesn't really happen. 

10. You are only distributing female goats. What happens when the females die out?
Distributing two female goats is by design, as protein-rich food (milk, cheese, yogurt) is our top priority! Our partner org has agreed with Jordanian farmers to lend male goats from their own herds for mating. The resulting kids will belong to the refugees. We've already seen some goats have babies! Congrats to those mamas!

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.