Sara Kouĵĵi has put her life on hold.
An interpreter for ADRA Serbia, she is translating Arabic to English at a remote refugee camp on the slopes of Mount Olympus in Greece. The children are also rapidly teaching her Kurdish because the camp she works in is exclusively Yazidi: 1,114 refugees from a persecuted minority in northern Iraq and Syria, 480 of them are children.
Why does she do it?
“Because I feel I belong here and I make a difference,” she said.
Making a difference is what it is all about and is vividly shared in a Seventh-day Adventist Church-produced video report from Greece, made for World Refugee Day on June 20. The Seventh-day Adventist Church will collect a special offering for ADRA on June 18, which it has designated World Refugee Sabbath.
Staff and volunteers may not have all the answers. They have no power to open the borders and let these trapped refugees continue their journey, but they do have compassion, and an ability to share their life and values.
Rozalia Petsini and her daughter, Ifigenia, are members of the Athens Seventh-day Adventist Church. They give up their Sunday's to volunteer at Oinofyta camp, about an hour's drive north of the city where a lay member-led charity, Adventist Help, has a presence.
“Our country is the first country that has this problem with many refugees,” Rozalia said. “We see the situation and how these people live in our country with many difficulties. That’s why we are trying to help them and make them feel better.”
Visiting the two camps, it is clear to see how staff immerse themselves in that process. Daniela Krišová, a psychologist from ADRA Slovakia, is part of a team who work on psychosocial care with children and adults. She listens to their stories and gets right down beside people in the camps.
“These people have lost everything,” she said. “They don’t have any attachment besides the people that are traveling with them.”
That is especially true for Assad, a 14-year-old unaccompanied minor heading for Germany. His brother is already there; he had left three weeks before him. Assad made it across the treacherous Aegean Sea only to find the border with Macedonia closed. He is stuck in the camp with no family and with psychological problems related both to the journey and to what he experienced in Iraq.
He asked me, “As a European, if you had seen 500 people killed in front of you, how would you feel?”
Part of his therapy can be seen in a poem he wrote on the wall of the teens room. Omar El-Assad, another translator, explained that it is a poem about Iraqi and Syrian people and how they should be united. It concludes, “If I ever die, I will always say I am Iraqi and my brother is Syrian.”
Even for the medical team the psychosocial needs are greater than the essential physical treatments they provide.
“They need medical assistance, but they also need people to be kind to them and talk to them, and to realize that in their lives it is not only the medical issue,” said Maria Helena Silva, a fifth-year medical student volunteering in Oinofyta. “It is more complicated than just a medical case. You have to understand the background and to understand what is happening now.”
Lisa Campbell volunteers with Adventist Help as part of her own charity, Do Your Part. She works with the camp authorities to empower the residents.
“Our goal is to give them a sense of dignity in their lives here,” she said. “They are all going to be here for at least a year — this is what we tell them. … We don't how long. Some may be here for 36 months.”
Providing activity and purpose, for her, means that “they can live instead of survive.” Last week she quit her job to be able to volunteer longer hours.
All the refugees desperately want to move on, but ADRA and Adventist Help are doing what they can in the present to make their lives at least bearable.
Victor Hulbert, with Corrado Cozzi, reports from Greece for World Refugee Day 2016. (TED)
Are there needs? Certainly! More medical volunteers are needed in both camps. Hygiene issues with limited washing facilities need to be addressed. More helpers are needed to support the hundreds of children who have already missed a year or more of school.
ADRA is also looking to provide better housing for winter should the residents still be there when snow starts falling on the slopes of Mount Olympus. Adventist Help needs both a continuous flow of volunteers and donations — even to pay for the fuel for their van, or the ambulance they are restoring to provide essential transport between four local camps, a local clinic and the main hospitals in Athens.
Why do they do it? Frank Brenda, program director for emergency response from ADRA Germany, simply said, “I have this passion — the passion that I want to minister and actually to help people and also show the love of Jesus Christ through what we are doing.”
Omar El-Assad, who comes from another faith background, added, “I always feel as part of them — my friends are in need and I will try to help them in any way as possible.”
The world has 60 million refugees and displaced people, according to United Nations estimates. This Greek story is just a sample — the tip of the iceberg, but here we see helpers who believe they make a difference. My serious reflection on returning from camps like those in Greece is to ask, “Do I feel I am making a difference?”