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.