I am an attorney and recently had the privilege of spending three weeks in Greece volunteering legal services to refugees who had fled unimaginable violence and deprivation from barely functioning nation states. While there, I met and helped refugees from many different Middle Eastern and African countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other nations.
I would like to share with you this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Most of the refugees I met came to Greece after fleeing war and violence in their home countries—desperate, but with hopes and dreams of reaching a safe place to live. I heard heartbreaking stories of war, terror and political persecution that led them to seek some semblance of order in Greece.
The journey to reach Greece for many was dangerous and long, with navigation from Turkey across the Aegean Sea provided by unscrupulous smugglers. Those who survive the journey across uncertain waters find themselves stranded in Greece in outdoor refugee camps, inhabiting small, thin tents with dirt floors, often with no working bathroom facilities, while they nervously wait for asylum applications to be approved. The conditions in some of the camps are so bad that there are regular suicide attempts by refugees.
The refugees in Greece live in constant stress of not knowing when their gruesome living conditions in the camps will end. They await a possible life-or death decision: Will their asylum applications be approved or denied? with the latter decision ensuring deportation, imminent danger and possibly death.
For many, this intense stress goes on for a year or longer. They suffer intense anxiety and uncertainty.
For one week, I was in Athens working out of a legal aid clinic. Our main job was to help the refugee clients prepare for their asylum interviews. At bare-bones facilities, we used interpreters to facilitate meetings with refugee clients, where we helped review pertinent documents, personal histories, medical conditions and other information to prepare comprehensive narratives to support applications for asylum status.
Critically, information packets must be sufficiently convincing about why their countries of origin are unsafe for their return. It was rewarding to connect with and help people in desperate need, but it also was terribly sad to hear their stories and the devastation they had experienced. These are people, just like you and me, who in many cases survived horrific trauma and are desperate for help and the humanity of others. Many spoke of love, and that they just want to live a free and safe life.
I spent the next two weeks in Lesvos, Greece, which is an island a few miles from Turkey, over the Aegean Sea. It is a point of entry into Greece for many refugees coming from the Middle East and Africa through Turkey.
The work was similar to the work I was doing in Athens, but with more community involvement. I attended organized meetings where refugees spoke about their dreams and their struggles. Most spoke of their life in Moria, the largest refugee camp in Lesvos, which they often referred to as a “concentration camp” rather than a refugee camp.
From the outside, sections of Moria look like a high-security prison, with high concrete fences and barbed wire. On the inside, many refugees sleep on the dirt, covered by thin single-person tents. They are each issued one blanket, but when it rains, the blankets quickly become soaked and unusable. The food was described by one refugee client as “garbage.”
I was told stories of how, when temperatures reached below freezing and snow covered the tents at Moria this winter, six refugees died of hypothermia. In addition to being exposed to the elements, the toilet facilities are usually clogged, overflowing and unusable. The camp smells like a sewer, because there are often no usable bathroom facilities.
The conditions are inhumane. There is a feeling of helplessness that permeates and is deeply felt even by volunteers. Why can’t this be fixed? Greece currently receives approximately 15,000 euros per year from the European Union for each refugee within its borders. It is hard to understand how this amount of money cannot buy habitable living conditions, but it doesn’t.
So not only have they suffered greatly in their countries of origin, and along their journey, most of them continue to suffer under the long, uncertain process of asylum, while living in awful living conditions.
I write here about my experience because refugees are suffering and more can be done. They are fellow humans who are reaching out desperately for help. The refugees I met are not terrorists. In many cases, they are fleeing the terrorists.
Together, we need to address this fraught refugee situation with a shared sense of collective responsibility, and overcome our prevalent sense of fear and disdain toward those in despair. Their experiences could belong to any of us, had we been born in a different country.
We are so fortunate, and as the most powerful nation on earth, with a history of caring and an ethos of empathy, I believe we need to set aside our hesitancy and reach out to these troubled peoples. Refugees are humans in need of our help and compassion, not our fear and trepidation. A shared decency and responsibility is at the core of our wonderful community, and we each have the ability and responsibility to make a difference in someone else’s life.
None of us can help everyone—but we can all help someone.