The most overwhelming casualty for families, children, and young men and women forced to become refugees is to find themselves suddenly as survivors with everything familiar ripped away.
Everything gone. Changed. Total dependence on others for food, water, shelter, safety. No choices. No friends. The shock of the gut-wrenching loss of relationships is absolutely devastating. Visible effects - homelessness, friendlessness, hunger - are compounded by invisible effects - fear, helplessness, emotions - that tear at their very sense of feeling that they are human beings. Shattered is the only way I can find to describe it.
I spent the greater part of the last two months visiting refugee friends in Germany, Greece, and Turkey. I have a long history of relationships in Syria dating back to 1982. And now hundreds of these friends are scattered across the globe. My goal was to "be" with them, to pick up relationship threads, and assure them that they are not forgotten. We believe in them, even if they find it hard to believe in themselves.
Questscope is in a unique position at this time. The long-standing trust built in our shared experiences of putting the last, first over decades is still there. We did not appear only in the crisis. We have been there all along. And we want to be part of reweaving the relationship fabric that will sustain them in the uncertain futures each of them faces.
I had intense, face-to-face, often tearful talks with so many Syrian friends. I can hardly think how to tell you about them.
One young man had left his wife and newborn baby to get to Germany (the water route from Turkey to Greece, then the land route through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary. He then sent for his wife and child, and they were stopped at the Greece-Macedonia border when that was closed. She is in a "camp" on the Greek side of the line (the photo below is that camp), he on the other side, far away in Germany. And no way across. No way. I could only sit humbly in his presence and tell him that I would not forget him. His wife. His baby.
We met true, German heroes, residents of small towns, each town inundated by hundreds of refugees who cannot speak German. School gymnasiums have been turned into spaces separated by blankets strung up on poles for some "privacy." Kitchens have been opened to cook for hundreds. House trailers set up. There is a scramble for individuals to teach German, and translate the plethora of forms for registration, documentation, assignment of resources. Real, true heroes!
One afternoon in Greece, while driving along a rural highway - long stretch es of road past farmlands, olive orchards, wheat fields, punctuated at long intervals by gas stations, I spotted "pup" tents, crowded around gas pumps at a gas station. I learned later that 3,000 people lived in those pup tents. No water supply. No electricity.
This was an "unofficial" camp (see photo below). It sprang up when some people pitched tents there. Then others. Then others. 3,000 total. We stopped and I walked up to some young men and started chatting in Arabic. We spent the next 2 hours listening to 50 stories of people who now had someone from "outside" to talk to. Of course, they insisted that we take tea. So refugees bought hot tea for us at the counter of the gas station. I drank it like it was holy. Who was I that they should use their slim resources to show hospitality to me?! I could only tell them that I would not forget them.
We also visited official camps in Greece. More heroes! The Greek authorities are serious about providing secure areas and adequate services - water, sanitation, shelter, food - for the 50,000 refugees there, although the summer influx of Syrians will likely change that. But hope is off the screen right now. What will happen next to people whose lives were ripped out of homes, jobs, families, communities? "Frozen" in transit in life?
In the Athens port of Piraeus, another unofficial camp for 2,500 people, I wandered into a former warehouse and found more pup tents pitched inside. When it was clear that I speak Arabic, space was cleared on the floor, and for the next 2 1/2 hours I was translator-in-residence for rapid-fire questions and answers among refugees, a Greek non-governmental organization (NGO) and a Greek donor organization.
Dismal is the only word I can find to describe that warehouse (see photo below) housing those wonderful, hospitable, questioning refugees. Dark. Two toilets for 2,500 people. No running water. Barest services for first aid, inadequate food, and again, the Language Barrier - this time Greek/Arabic. They asked me, "What next?" I could only say, "I will not forget you. I know you are here."
In Turkey I was accompanied by Muthanna Khreisat, the Director of Questscope in Jordan. We met with the most delightful Syrian refugee (a PhD from MIT) with whom we hope to design educational programs for the tens of thousands of Syrian refugee children and youth who will have no education otherwise. This is an individual we want to invest in.
In the south of Turkey we connected with a Syrian engineer who founded a Syrian-Turkish non-governmental organization. They help people build or rebuild houses to live in. Support educational classes where there are none. Give special attention to women, girls, and boys who have lost all means of support. Make sure everyone has water and food. And medicine. They are heroes. Champions, in my book.
One evening as we sipped tea and stuffed ourselves with lamb kabobs, a friend described his ordeal of torture and escape. Emotion! But something else was there, too. The engineer/founder of the NGO had come alongside him, believed in him, and got him involved in helping others. The "something else" we sensed was his healing. He was a wounded healer. He reached out to others as others walked alongside him in his pain. And this started his way to wholeness. I will never forget those two guys.
In this crisis, there are countless tragic stories. But there are also countless individuals in whom we can invest. A Syrian psychologist who worked with Roy is obtaining a license to practice in Germany as a refugee. A scrappy Greek NGO will let nothing stop them from respecting the humanity of refugees as they figure out the water and the health stuff. That Turkish-Syrian NGO who thinks that everyone should have a house, however simple, as an anchor for the next day, for the future that will come. They are there. We will not forget them.
In Jordan, the stories of loss, devastation, and pain are the same. But we also experience their same determination to overcome all obstacles, to help others even in their own pain.
What does this mean for what Questscope will do next? I hope to clarify this in the coming weeks as we think though our resources, our partnerships, and our friendships.
I will never forget those whom I saw, sat with, drank their tea, and felt totally humbled by being in their presence. I just had to tell you.
Founder and International Director