When I step into an unfamiliar space,
I look for people who “speak my language.”
I look for someone with whom I can identify– if not with the details of our lives, at least with the fact that we are both Black people in an otherwise white space. Or natural-haired girls. Or girls at all in otherwise male spaces. I look for people who figuratively “speak my language.” Among other things, a common language is comforting. Knowing that at least one other person genuinely understands my colloquialisms and colorful interjections is often enough to assuage a good amount of discomfort and nerves.
Though belonging is quite an intrinsic need, my need to do so in school and work settings is based on comfort mostly, not necessarily survival. When I look for familiar faces, I know that I am not without family or friends. I am not without my home, clothing or the places that I’m used to. This isn’t the same sense of belonging Syrian refugees look for as they come ashore to strange places, looking for day-to-day safety and some sense of freedom. I can only imagine what it feels like to be a stranger, in a distant land, uncertain as to whether or not there will be people to help you, let alone people who understand you. This is the story of many a Syrian refugee, fleeing war and political disaster, seeking asylum and mercy in general.
A friend of mine, Yalda Ahmadi, made the trip to Greece to serve as a translator and overall volunteer. For a short time, she was able to welcome refugees and point them toward warm, dry clothing and emergency medical care– a small part, outwardly, but a big deal when you’re filled with fear and uncertainty about the days ahead. Hopefully her story inspires us to take a more hands-on approach to helping those around us.
1. What was your goal, initially?
To make an impact and help people while raising awareness.
2. What inspired you to physically make the trip as opposed to just sending money or goods?
So my brother’s friend got back at the beginning of the month and a friend of our had been planning to go for about a month and when we put them in touch with each other the friend that just returned said “Well, why don’t you guys go? You’re desperately needed.” So we looked at costs and how we would work once over there and it made sense.
3. What’s a typical day like so far?
We work in shifts at the camp. My brother solely works at the only 24-hour clinic at the camp. I try my best to float around where translators are needed whether doing line control and handing out clothing in Farsi at the clothing distribution center, family compound, or the clinic. At night after dinner or early morning, we head out to the beaches to watch for incoming boats (carrying) refugees. Once the boats make landfall, many are wet; we look for cases of hypothermia, lost children in the chaos, and help people to at least a pair of dry socks. If pants are available, we switch them into pants too, if they’re comfortable changing on the beach. Then we wait for the UNHCR buses to transfer them to the camps.
4. What kinds of things are you seeing everyday and what’s hitting you the hardest?
The hardest thing is seeing women and children escaping alone. Many men have been killed by bombs, Taliban, DAESH (ISIS in Arabic), “friendly fire” and their sole goal is to reach Germany. That’s their “north star.” I was translating for a family of 11– 6 of which had frost bite and were fast tracked to get to the hospital, but then refused treatment because they didn’t want to stay in the hospital for 2 days. They wanted to make it to Germany ASAP. When asked if they had all the means of getting there or family waiting for them, they said “No.” I have never seen so many doctors so upset that they refused treatment. I think this family will haunt me for awhile. They based their decision on the leadership of a son-in-law that didn’t have frost bite. I pray for them. The last thing they need is to lose a limb or die from frost bite.
5. What else can we do here to help?
Greet your local refugees. Call your congressmen/women to accept refugees. Offer to teach English or vocational training to groups of refugees. Do not turn your back on humanity because of a fear mongering media. Personally, if you can make the trip, have language, medical, or management skills- do it! Since we have left Lesvos, people can still donate to our Crowdfunder until the 10th of January and we can forward it to our connections on the ground. The clinic that we worked at is splitting into 2 and establishing a mobile clinic.
Do not turn your back on humanity because of a fear mongering media.
That sentiment, specifically, bears repeating. With a presidential race full of xenophobic candidates and most major news networks pushing a not so subtle brand of micro-aggressive racism, that statement encompasses the whole reason why I was interested in what Yalda was doing in the first place. In fact, she told me that on most days, as much as 90% of the clinic’s patients were Afghan. Migrants were coming from all over Asia and the Middle East, including Moroccans, Iranians, Pakistanis and Indians with little to no representation in U.S. media coverage. What does that say about how we as a society divvy up our mercy and good will? What does that say about the face of crisis and how we assign value to those different from us? How do you encourage a nation to make a paradigm shift when our potential leaders and mass information outlets contradict everything we know in our hearts about humanity and mercy? I leave you with this quote from supermodel, Iman, with the hope that it helps change our perception of refugees:
I literally have two pictures of myself growing up. I am the face of the refugee. The refugees are, 99% of the time, people who have left their countries for fear for their lives. It’s not people who want to come to other countries and be pariahs. That’s not what a refugee is. — Iman