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Serving the refugees, a Christmas blessing

I’ve known B Barnett since my cheerleading days, and although we haven’t seen each other in years, her smile and determination reach through everything she does.  B is an International Federation of Body Builders pro and owns the Inkery (an Austin-based tattoo shop) with her husband, Scott. When I read that she was going to Greece to spend Christmas helping the refugees, I knew I wanted to follow along with her trip. And as she shared stories, her experience touched me deeply– especially after feeling the tension over the ‘refugee situation’ in Europe. I’ve asked her to share her experience with y’all and hope it inspires you and opens your eyes to what the refugees are facing, just like it did for me.

How do you set the scene on a cold beach, building a bonfire with complete strangers?Lesvos refugees campfireOr the bonding with refugees in a camp that feels like a prison instead of a paradise?

Lesvos refugee campHow do you explain the gravity forever pulling you to island of supposed refuge? You don’t… Or I am just not equipped with the words to explain all Lesvos is right now.

Lesvos is an island of Greece. It is a land mass surrounded by water, a crumbling economy, a desperate government, loving people composed of locals and international volunteers, and refugees flocking in by the thousands. Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Moroccans, Egyptians, Afghani… The cultures are diverse as they flood in on rubber rafts. Rafts ill-equipped to carry their loads of too many people and heavy hopes. The hope to escape oppression of terrorist organizations, bombs overhead, religious persecution, torture and even the tyranny of their own governmental regimes.

I stood on a beach two nights before Christmas with my best friends and 8 other volunteers trying to wave in our 4th boat of the day. The wind had calmed, but its chill still pierced through our layers. We recruited driftwood and logs, broke apart pallets, and built a fire big enough to be seen from the relatively calm waters that night. We knew every boat carried lives ranging from days since birth to thousands of days already passed. We knew their lives floated in the Aegean Sea together, and they just hoped for more days to live.

Lesvos refugee beach

Earlier in the day I held a 4-day-old infant whose mom was unconscious and needed intense and immediate care. I lifted children off boats, and hugged their mothers as they cried into my shoulder. I sought dry socks and blankets to warm families, as children translated their parents’ cries of gratitude and blessings for me. Earlier that day I heard the stories of the tortures from their homelands and even the smugglers taking advantage of their desperation to flee to Greece in secret. I learned the ferries crossing from Turkey to Greece for €10 aren’t an option since your passport will be reviewed. Earlier that day I learned they have to pay the smugglers to hide their citizenship until they arrive on the island. I learned the smugglers demand at least €2,000 per person. Money they have to secretly siphon out of their own accounts so the terrorists in their country won’t realize they are leaving. I learned the true meaning of desperate.

Lesvos refugees

However, in that day, my learning wasn’t complete. My growth would expand past human-imposed borders; it would grow to understand humanity I am still working to achieve.

In the dead of night, with flashlights on and car headlights bright, shining at the sea, we would pull in the boat that would change my life forever. It wasn’t unlike the other boats, 54 people on a raft built for 25. Families bundled together, strapped into worthless lifejackets and paddling in with their hands because of a worthless engine. This boat was no different except for the worthless feeling I felt at the end.

We pulled the boat in, wrapped its passengers in hugs and foil blankets. I watched my husband begin the dismantling of the boat, so smugglers wouldn’t try to reuse with worthless patches. I saw him take his scuba knife and begin to shred the rubber dingy, sure it would not be the boat to sink next time. Like those reused rafts still sinking and drowning the helpless every day. I also watched the little girl that watched him. I watched her satisfaction to be off the raft, and the fear for what lies ahead. She made it here; she didn’t have her passport stamped. There would be no record of her crossing. She would be a refugee, with no proof how she made it to the island. I saw the heart my husband cut from the raft and put in her hands. I saw her get to grasp the proof she made it in a simple piece of rubber.

Lesvos refugees raft heart

But my learning was not that of a happy ending. You see, she wasn’t Iraqi, Afghani or Syrian. These are the only countries the European Union is accepting as refugees. Her citizenship won’t be accepted as one able to seek refugee status because she was born on the wrong patch of dirt.

I still pray for happy endings, or rather the happiest beginnings for my new friends. When I saw the news coverage of the refugee crisis, I felt the calling to help. My husband, two best friends and I worked tirelessly. We were rewarded with smiles and hugs, and a fulfillment my heart needed. I think part of my heart and soul is still on the beaches of Lesvos.

How do you explain the gravity forever pulling you to island of supposed refuge? You don’t, because there is no way to explain all the faces, the hopes and possibilities trickling… flooding onto the beaches and into the camps of Greece. There is no way to explain the desperation, but there is a way to experience it. Your help and presence would mean the world to those still seeking refuge. Your power to prove humans are still worth saving, is a power than can save the world… Or at least someone’s world.

Help the refugees

Some great resources to start your volunteering experience:

Information for Lesvos Volunteers Facebook page

Lesvos Volunteers

Amanda Williams

Thursday 4th of February 2016

Awesome post. I missed this at the time, but am so pleased to have found it now. This is a really important issue. Respect to B.

Brittany

Thursday 4th of February 2016

:) I'm glad you did, too! B is incredible and I'm so happy I was able to share her story!