Your Donations At Work

Wednesday night we purchased and distributed food and water to people waiting at the Port of Mitilini for their ferry off the island. So far SURF has sponsored 243 people, mostly children, on their way to asylum in Europe. We also gave a large donation to Better Days for Moria which will help that camp continue to support people once they arrive at Lesvos before they leave for Athens. The support they provide includes, shelter, new clothing, shoes, food and medical attention.

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Miles Away From Home

Tonight we made our way to the Port of Mitilini. Upon arrival, the volunteers, including SURF, handed out children’s toys, hats, gloves, blankets, hand warmers, snack bars, baby food, mandarins, oranges, water, hot meals, and a large vat of hot chocolate among other things. There were about 150 people waiting to get on the first ferry. I found a sweet Greek woman who had made a rice porridge dish, which smelled incredible. She needed help distributing it to the families waiting to make their journey across the Aegean sea.

Here I met a new friend, a man of curious nature. He was intrigued by my stories as a volunteer, and in return I was offered a glimpse into his family’s journey to Europe. His name was Farhad. He is 26 and traveling with his mother, and they do not want to leave their home country of Afghanistan. For the past 13 years he had been enjoying a prosperous life and building a solid career for himself. Highly educated, he spoke about his studies at the university, and shared stories about his time as the regional director for the British consulate in Afghanistan. Recently, the northern region of Afghanistan has been hit with a wave of Taliaban violence. He spoke of exceptionally brutal violence against women. He feared for his mother’s life everyday The counterinsurgency of Northern Afghanistan changed the fate of Farhad’s family and he was able to escape the presence of the Taliban and bring his mother to safety.

As an upper middle class male with a valid passport, something Farhad took great pride in, he was not used to having to deal with smugglers, travel illegally, and spend hours upon hours in boats, vacant buildings, and volunteer driven camps. Money is what drives the people’s survival. Money determines whether or not they are able to leave Afghanistan, stay safe during their travels, and provide for themselves when they arrive at their final destination. He spoke about his frustration with the process to become registered with FRONTEX. He spoke about his comfortable financial status, which, though higher than most people who leave Afghanistan, has not always guaranteed safe travel. He spoke about the lower income families in Afghanistan and how they are dying because they do not have the financial resources to flee.

Farhad and his mother had made three attempts to leave the shores of Turkey and travel to Lesvos, Greece. The first time they were taken advantage of by smugglers, and robbed of the money they used to secure a boat. The second time their boat broke down not long after leaving Turkey. They were picked up by the Turkish police, and detained for a couple days. The third time was successful. However, his mother broke her hand in the boat and needed medical attention once they landed. After one night in Lesvos we were now standing next to each other engaged in conversation on a personal level I have not had with someone in need since my arrival here a week ago. Just as he was wrapping up his story we were happily startled by the cheering and applauding all around us. In the distance we saw the night ferry drift away from the port and one more boat of people were on their way to safety. We both stood there silent, crying. He was one step closer to freedom, yet miles away from home.

Life Goes On

The other night we did the evening shift at Better Days for Moria. I was curious if it would be different from the night shift, but it really wasn’t. I worked in distribution helping women and children find warm dry clothes. There were so many babies and children that night, so exhausted that several of them fell asleep on the bare floor in the changing tent, amid the chaos. One baby fell asleep face down and got buried under some coats. Her mom was busy trying to get her other baby clothed, and seemed so tired and overwhelmed. I moved the sleeping baby to the side, used a jacket for a pillow, and put a blanket on her. I was relieved when the family (4 small kids) was outfitted and ready to move on to sleep.

There was one kid that I totally fell in love with. He was maybe 9 or so. He was so sweet and eager to take care of everyone, and his smile was infectious. He kept stopping all the volunteers to enthusiastically say “merci!” then rushing over to help one of the other kids. I told him “merci” as well, because his energy and eagerness to help was such a blessing on a night when most of the other refugees seemed to be too tired to function.

I also heard about a couple that just found out they are pregnant. They were so happy that the father started to cry with joy. It was a reminder to me that life goes on, even in the midst of all this turmoil.

-Kathryn McCarthy

Release

Yesterday I experienced my first emotional breakdown after a very long and stressful day. I finished my night shift around 9:00 a.m. and felt that I still had a lot of energy and I could keep going. I called a couple of Syrian independent volunteers who have been helping the refugees for the past few weeks to identify vulnerable families to help. I went to Moria to meet two large families, one from Iraqi and one from Syria. Both families had been stuck in the camp for almost three days because they did not have any money to continue their journey through Europe. The Iraqi family ran out of money after they paid the boat smugglers everything they had to cross the water from Turkey to Lesvos. The Syrian family got mugged while waiting in Istanbul to find a boat to take them to Lesvos, and they were only able to get here with the support and the generosity of independent donors. Refugees don’t get any financial aids from any governments or NGOs and rely on independent volunteers like us. So many get stuck on the island for days waiting for someone to buy them ferry tickets to get to Athens.

It was freezing cold, and one of the men had only a thin T-shirt on. I asked him why he was not given a jacket, and he replied that he was told that the NGO ran out of jackets. The man was carrying a toddler. When he realized that the child’s head was cold, he took off the only thing that kept him warm, a wool hat, and placed it on the toddler’s head. I was watching all that while internally processing and figuring out what to do to help this poor man and his family. I really wanted to let go of my emotions and burst into tears, but I realized this won’t help and might make this family uncomfortable, so I wiped the tears that escaped and ran down my cheeks and told him to wait for me. I went to other camp where we usually volunteer our time and I grabbed a jacket and went back to the family and gave the man the warm jacket and a wool hat that I had in my backpack. I would never forget the look in this man’s eyes and his words of appreciation. My heart instantly melted and I couldn’t stop my tears this time. Both families were put on the ferry to Athens and were provided with bus tickets from Athens to Macedonia using the donated money we received from all of you.

Later on I was walking near the ferry harbor and I found a single woman traveling with her nine year old daughter who had a similar story. The woman was in desperate need of a warm jacket and ferry and bus tickets, which were purchased using your donation money.

Early the evening of the same day, I was introduced to a man of Syrian descendant who left Syria 28 years ago. His name is Kastro, and his long story of fighting against the Syrian government and the support he provided to the Syrian residents of Greece and the refugees for many years will be shared with you all in a separate post. Kastro operates a solidarity house (where he also lives) for refugees with special needs in Lesvos, and when I met him that night he had 22 refugees at his house and 37 more at other locations. These refugees are mostly children, elders, and others who need medical attention. One specific Syrian refugee I met at Kastro’s house, Hussain, had a stroke shortly after his boat crashed at Lesvos’ shore that left him half paralyzed. He was at the hospital for about two months without any improvement, then the hospital had to let him go. No NGO would accept him, and all independent organizations on the island were full and did not have the capacity to take him, so Kastro took him to his place and took care of him. Hussain has diabetes and of course could not cook or feed himself due to paralysis. That night, I witnessed one of the most humanitarian and heart (and mind) opening behavior when I was interviewing Kastro at his house. While he was talking to me about the 59 refugees he was caring for, he was cooking a special meal for Hussain at the same time. Kastro then asked me to excuse him so he could go into the next room and feed Hussain.

The 58 refugees (59 less Hussain) were all put on the ferry and given bus tickets using your donation money. Hussain had to stay behind to complete his registration and refugee’s paper work, and to find a way to get to his final destination in Germany. No one knows how long this will take. To free up Kastro’s valuable time, your donation money paid for a nurse to bathe him, feed him and take care of his medical needs for one month.

I came home around 2:00 a.m. the next day, emotionally and physically drained. I was sharing my day’s stories with the SURF team when I suddenly broke down in a long burst of tears that came like spasms. I was so much in need of this release, and I am fortunate to be with my supportive team who held a loving and grounding space for me. Thank you Amy, Cindy, Kathryn, and Lisa for the hugs and words of comforts, I could never have done this without you.

All of this work is only possible with the generous support of donors like you. If you would like to contribute please go to https://syrianunitedrefugeefund.com.

-Youssef

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Your Donations at Work

All the donations we have spent so far have been given directly to people in dire need. We have been focusing on helping families and getting them unstuck from the system and on their way to freedom. We will continue looking for ways to make a direct impact in the systems, but what has emerged as an effective strategy right now is providing immediate financial support to families who need it most. Families who were robbed, misled, lost everything on their way, or simply don’t have enough money to complete their journey to Germany, Austria, or another viable country.

So far we have sponsored 179 people, more than half of them children, from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We have helped them get ferry tickets to Athens and on a bus to the border of Macedonia where they will continue their journey north.

Your money is making a real change in the lives of these families.

Please visit our How to Donate page to continue supporting the SURF mission.

Port of Mitilini

Monday 3:30am: We arrived at the Port of Mitilini to serve hot chocolate, water, and fruit and distribute blankets to those waiting in the cold. There were about 400 people waiting to get on the ferry to Athens. Once in Athens, they will continue their long journey north. One ticket is 45 euros, and for those who cannot afford one for themselves or their families, it is common for a volunteer group to help them out. We helped to purchase tickets for several people this morning including a family with young children who would otherwise have been stranded.

This Map represents a person’s journey from Greece to Germany or Austria.

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Port of Mitilini

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Sleepless

It has been 4 days since we left the Bay Area and headed to Lesvos. My total time of actual sleep is about 14 hours (including a few hours on the plane) and I feel that I will probably collapse at any moment. I know that after you read this post you will ask me to get some rest otherwise I will get sick, and you are probably right. However, my excited body and hyper energy won’t listen to y’all, but I assure you, I will be just fine.

Lesvos is a beautiful island and I felt in love with its capital, Mitilini, the moment I landed. Mitilini is one of three major spots on the island where refugees start their journey through Europe crossing from Turkey. Their journey to freedom and a better life comes with a very high price tag; expensive fees paid to the smugglers to cross the water from Turkey to Lesvos, and a high death toll of refugees due to bad weather, defective boats, or wrong landing over a rocky beach.

Local people in Lesvos are very friendly and supportive of the thousands of refugees who cross their little island every day.

My first two night shifts were full of excitement, but also anxiety. I was mainly greeting refugees who had just landed and helping translate from Arabic to English. Most of them were soaking wet, cold, frightened, some injured, and all totally exhausted. I tried to calm them down and explain where they were, because most refugees have no idea where they land and how much further they have to travel. They first need to process their refugee status papers, they need to know what to say to the authorities, and need assistance and direction to the camp’s food, shelter, and warmth.

This is personally one of the most emotional and difficult tasks that I have ever experienced, but it is without any doubt the most rewarding one. Witnessing the changes in the refugees’ energy after hearing my calming and welcoming voice, seeing the grateful look on their faces, receiving heartwarming hugs, and melting in the sweetness of the children’s smiles, were absolutely priceless.

These refugees lost their homes and everything they owned, and many lost their loved ones back home or during their journey to freedom. They took a risk, placed their hope and trust in the hands of strangers and volunteers who met them with warm hearts, open arms, and countless hours of hard work and dedication. These volunteers have restored the refugees’ faith they lost in humanity, and I am very grateful and honored to be one of them.

-Youssef

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Better Days Ahead

Moria is the largest registration point and transit center assisting refugees on the island of Lesvos, Greece, run by UNHCR. After a long, cold journey on the Aegean Sea, people are assisted from the shore through other volunteer groups who coordinate with Moria and Better Days for Moria, two camps that will look after them until they are ready to continue their journey to Athens and other parts of Europe. They are taken to the Moria camp to register with FRONTEX, the European Border Control Agency. There they are given food, medical attention, and clothing by Better Days for Moria, a private volunteer group who runs a camp next to Moria. The Better Days for Moria camp works in conjunction with the Moria Registration Site and sits on private land rented from a local farmer. They are completely run by volunteers and donations and are positioned right next to Moria, so they can easily assist those who need help with their transition into Europe. They are not beholden to the strict rules of the UNHCR and are able to offer kindness and more information than the larger more bureaucratic camps can offer. Better Days for Moria is where we spent our first two days as volunteers working the night shift from 1 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.

Greeted by a friendly yet visibly exhausted team of volunteer workers, we were given as much information as possible about roles/responsibilities needed at BDFM, and how the Moria registration system works. That system can change day to day, hour to hour, and never fully manifests into a clear concise process. Somehow, among the chaos, things keep moving at an impressive rate no matter how many issues arise or how many people arrive at any given time. There are extremely busy times when dozens upon dozens of people arrive who require immediate assistance, but sometimes it’s slow, and we organize everything as much as possible before the next wave of people make their way to land.

Better Days For Moria offers aid to people from many different nations including but not limited to Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. People are brought from the shore off boats and taken via buses to the camp. As soon as the buses arrive, BDFM tries to provide translators to explain the registration process, and to provide everyone with as much information as possible about what BDFM and Moria can provide. People have to go to the Moria camp to complete the registration process. The registration lines at Moria can be cumbersome, and people can be caught waiting long periods of time wet, hungry and exhausted before they are allowed into Moria. The BDFM camp tries to look after them before and/or after the registration process but sometimes that is not always possible depending on how long it takes them to get from the shore to the camps and how long it takes them to get through the registration process. If they need immediate medical attention they are taken to the medical tent at BDFM and given aid. If they are hungry they are taken to the kitchen and fed soup, porridge, tea and/or water. If they are soaking wet they are taken to the distribution center for clean, dry clothing and sanitary supplies. Some require medical attention, many are soaked from the journey, but all are hungry and ready for rest.

Youssef spent his time greeting people from the buses, translating information, and utilizing his native Arabic language as much as possible. There are not a lot of translators at the camp, so his work was in demand and very much appreciated. The rest of SURF spent a lot of time in the distribution center or working on the tent team. The distribution center houses clothing, sanitary supplies, tents and sleeping bags, and provides separate enclosed dressing areas for women/children and men. They are helped out of their wet garments and into warm, dry items such as jackets, hats, scarves, gloves, and anything else they need to feel more comfortable during the duration of their stay. Better Days for Moria collects all wet clothing in good condition and packs it up for the Dirty Girls of Lesvos. The Dirty Girls of Lesvos are an eco-conscious grassroots organization who pick up dirty clothing, blankets and shoes, clean them and redistribute them to the camps for continued use.

Sometimes Better Days for Moria has what they need, but often they run out of much needed supplies. For example, on our second day it was a very cold night and we did not have any gloves in adult sizes and very few children’s sized gloves. With that said, the camp does an excellent job at providing each person with what they reasonably need with the few resources they have. After they are fed and clothed the tent team works hard at providing shelter for each family. There are several large tents that should hold 10-15 people, but in most cases they cram over double the amount into the space because of the quantity of arrivals and lack of land that can hold shelter. When the larger tents are full, smaller tents are utlilized to provide enough dry shelter for the duration of their stay. The first day it rained lightly, and was bearably cold, assuming you were wearing proper garments, however the second day it was MUCH colder and we received a lot more people than the day before. Most people will stay at the camp for a day or so until they purchase a ticket to Athens and continue their journey. For those who are unable to continue for financial reasons, there are groups who sponsor families to help get them to where they need to go. More on that later.

It’s difficult to describe every emotion we experienced and share everything that happened. There was an older wheelchair bound Afghani woman who needed help out of her drenched clothes. With many communication barriers to deal with she was quickly given the best clothing options possible and was later seen enjoying soup by the fire, laughing with her peers. There was an old man wearing wet socks and shoes two sizes too small, ashamed he could not get himself out of his soaked footwear by himself. He noticeably swallowed his pride and allowed a volunteer to help him. Later on he was seen walking freely around the camp with a steaming cup of chai tea talking with his family. There was a woman with a young girl and small baby who came in completely soaked. Among other things, she needed clean diapers and a place to use the bathroom and clean her daughter’s hands and face. The portable bathrooms are cleaned daily in the mornings around 8am. She arrived half an hour before the cleaners were due which means the bathrooms were a frightful mess. Not only did she and her children offer zero complaints, they waited patiently for 30 minutes until the cleaners got the bathrooms back to a more functional state, and still thanked us profusely for helping them so quickly. Was every person this easy to assist? No, but most are so very grateful for what little we can offer, it’s difficult to become emotionally dragged down by the atmosphere because of the constant gratitude we receive from everyone.

There were boxes and boxes of one type of thing, and none of another. There were people happy to get a coat, even if it was the wrong size and ugly. There were people frustrated that we couldn’t give them new shoes or pants because theirs were good enough, and we had to save supplies for people who needed them more. There were people whose faces showed a level of exhaustion more than we’ve ever known. There were families of dozens crammed into a tent made for many fewer. There were people accustomed to having money and choices and opportunities who were adjusting to receiving handouts from strangers in a foreign land, but there was one thing all of us had in common. Whether you were stricken by unforeseen circumstances in your home country, drawn here to volunteer for a short or long period of time, working at a government agency, independent organization, or grass roots program, none of us know what type of days, or how many, lie ahead.

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Orange and Grey

A breathtakingly beautiful blood-orange sunrise filled the gloomy sky and dissipated the dreary morning atmosphere. It perfectly mirrored the warm emotions that washed over us as we anticipated the start of our mission. Seconds later, that same intense color contrast would trigger a completely different set of emotions in our inexperienced minds. Out the windows to our left, life vests littered the beaches of the stunning Mediterranean island, and a boat of refugees emptied onto the shore. It just got real. It was a human moment, and just the kind of image we needed to remind us of the gravity of the situation. The word “refugee” feels too detached to use as a moniker for the people in need, and that is what they are, people. Humans, just like us, in a struggle far deeper than most of us reading this will ever encounter. Not only do we want to raise awareness about the plight of the Syrians, Afghanis, Iraqis, and many others who are fleeing in search of something safer than their homes can offer, we want to humanize their story. With that, in the next week, we will share their stories through our own experiences in hopes that you can understand, or at the very least take in who they really are. It was never about us, and we knew that, but that bold clash of images and feelings made that more clear than it had ever been before.

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SURF’s Up

With over $60,000 raised in donations we are off to Greece! Thank you to everyone who helped us reach our goal, spread the word about our cause, offered resources and most importantly to those who understood the importance of the plight of the refugees. We can’t wait to share out stories with you and begin our mission.