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. 


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.


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. 


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.

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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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.

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. 

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. 


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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:

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.

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.

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.


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.”

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.

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 . 


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. 


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.