by Madison Marks
This article is from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies’ Newsmagazine, Fall/Winter 2017, available here.
On Christmas Day, I arrived in Athens, Greece to begin two weeks of volunteer work with Lifting Hands International (LHI), a grassroots, humanitarian non-profit that serves approximately 500 Yazidi refugees living in northern Greece. Volunteers have been the lifeblood of grassroots organizations like LHI since the beginning of the “migrant” crisis in Greece. I had heard stories of the need for volunteers on the ground and knew that my Arabic-speaking skills could be useful.
Prior to traveling north, I visited the “squats” in downtown Athens. These “squats” are empty school buildings or hotels that were shut down during the 2008 financial crisis and now provide temporary shelter for thousands of Syrian families. These refugees, no longer under the protection of a designated aid organization, are limited in their access to resources. In Athens, I spoke with a Syrian father who, along with his two daughters, had been forced to sleep on the street because they could not find shelter. Multiple conversations with refugees and volunteers confirmed that immediate relief is going to the most vulnerable, such as pregnant mothers or the extremely ill. As a result, there are thousands of vulnerable individuals and families left waiting to wonder if there will be enough food or if they will have a roof over their heads.
From Athens I traveled to the seaside town of Nea Vrasna near Thessaloniki, where the Yazidis had been temporarily relocated while their refugee camp in Serres, Greece, was being converted into caravans. After having made it to Greece, many of the Yazidis had experienced months of harsh conditions in camps, but after a stabbing incident and threats from Daesh (ISIS), the Yazidis felt unsafe and were moved to their own camp. For the first time in months, these Yazidi refugees had privacy, heat, walls, a cooking station, and a clean bathroom.
When I first met the Yazidis in Nea Vrasna, I immediately felt as if I was welcomed into a big, supportive family. I delivered distributions, drove women and children to English classes, and organized soccer games. On one occasion, I taught a yoga class and found that the refugees appreciated yoga for the physical and mental benefits. In fact, it was one of their most popular classes.
Everyone had stories about being forced to flee Sinjar when ISIS attacked in 2014. All had lost someone to death or distance—whether loved ones who had made it to other countries in Europe or who remained in Iraq. This group that had been self-sufficient in Iraq now found themselves reliant on foreign governments and aid agencies for basic necessities, and were obviously eager to continue their education, work, and family lives. Yet in the midst of so much hardship and uncertainty, the resilience displayed by the Yazidi community was what most amazed me.
It was difficult leaving Greece and returning to Washington, DC, as I still wished I could stroll down the streets of Nea Vrasna to greetings of “Chavanay” (“How are you” in Kermanji, a dialect of Kurdish) from the refugee children. When I left, I exchanged words with several of my new friends: “I hope to see you again, but not here.” “I hope to visit you in Germany or wherever your new home will be.”
This trip allowed me to reflect on the blessings that I have, since many of the refugees’ lives have been halted as they await for resettlement. I am now looking for opportunities to return post-graduation to continue my service. Initially, I am planning to become certified in teaching yoga so I can one day use those skills to teach vulnerable populations.
Madison Marks is a candidate in the Master of Arts in Arab Studies (MAAS) and is expected to graduate in May, 2017.