Only once — when an overcrowded night ferry backed into Gate E7 at Athens’ Port of Piraeus — did my emotions consume me. My breath grew fast and shallow. I squinted through my tears and stammered, “There are so many of them. There are just so many.”
There were more than 2,000 refugees on that ferry alone, 35 percent of them children. As a volunteer with the nonprofit Carry the Future, my job was to approach arriving families with babies and toddlers and offer them free baby carriers to ease their journey along the Balkan Route to Western Europe. The families I met were primarily Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans bound for Germany — as long as the borders stayed open. Over the course of their journey, they would cover 1,000 miles on buses, trains and foot. A structured backpack-style carrier or a cozy infant pouch would make an enormous difference to those toting children along with garbage bags and duffels of their belongings.
There are just so many.
“One baby at a time. That’s all we can do,” whispered my friend Devin. “Don’t think about the big picture. Focus on the babies.”
If ever there was a wise summation of humanitarian work, it is that: One must ignore the inevitably overwhelming big picture and focus on discrete moments of connection.
And so I did. As a member of a nine-woman team, for ten days in January I helped distribute 568 baby carriers and several hundred pounds of mittens, hats, socks and protein bars, along with the occasional matchbox car or plush toy. Our team met each ferry that arrived from the Dodecanese, the chain of islands upon which rubber rafts of refugees wash up, hours or days after leaving the Turkish coast under cover of night.
By the time the refugees reach Athens, fatigue has set in. Some of them have lost loved ones. Some are suffering from hypothermia or frostbite. Some have not eaten for days. Some don’t even know where they are. A handful are mistrustful of relief workers; most are grateful for any and all assistance.
After fitting a toddler in an Ergo carrier, I noticed she wore no socks. The temperature in Macedonia — her next destination — was 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
The images broadcast by international news outlets are not hyperbole. This is the largest refugee crisis since World War II. What I witnessed was a veritable sea of humanity. In January, more than 52,000 men, women and children made the crossing from Turkey; 257 died at sea. Day and night, ferries unload their passengers into the quasi-organized din of relief workers, whistle-blowing police and travel agents who usher the lucky ones onto buses bound for the Macedonia border. Those without money or the proper documentation will remain indefinitely in makeshift “hot spots” in Greece.
I met a grandmother in diabetic shock, her adult diaper soiled and ankles swollen like summer melons. Once an ambulance whisked away the woman and her husband, their young grandson was left alone in a vacant building to mind a small mountain of parcels and grocery sacks filled with the family’s personal items. A day later, he still waited. We offered him a box of food aid to distribute to refugees arriving on the afternoon ferry, and he reveled in the opportunity to assist.
An Afghan couple and their infant arrived at midnight. The only English phrases the man knew were “no money” and “no camp.” Insistent that he didn’t want to end up in a refugee camp, he was prepared to keep his family on the street until he could earn money for bus fare. The fortuitous intervention of compassionate volunteers found him and his exhausted wife and baby warm beds that night.
Men with blackened, chilled fingers asked for gloves; we only had child-sized pairs. After fitting a toddler in an Ergo carrier, I noticed she wore no socks. The temperature in Macedonia — her next destination — was 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Everywhere I looked, I could find reasons to grieve.
Yet from the chaos, awesomeness emerged. One example is Fadi, a middle-aged Syrian whose family is stuck between two ISIS strongholds, unable to escape to Turkey. Fadi has been waiting for his family for eight months, and in that time he’s become a full-time volunteer with the Piraeus Solidarity crew. He unloads cargo containers of donated supplies, translates for new arrivals and hands out aid at the port day and night. An individual whose situation defines disempowered, Fadi has taken action on behalf of others and, in doing so, has empowered himself.
Greeting refugees alongside Fadi are Greek grandmas with shopping carts full of baby food, diapers and toiletries. American high school kids on a missions trip gamely accepted every task thrown their way. Model-beautiful Swiss volunteers prepared hot soup and chai for new arrivals, and their bright orange truck was a beacon of fragrant goodness at the port.
My journey to Greece began with that photo. You know the one: three-year-old Aylan, clad in shorts and a red shirt, hands tucked under his stomach, dead on a Greek tourist beach. He was a few months older than my youngest son. For weeks, I saw that photo in my dreams — when I could sleep at all.
Honestly, I just wanted to hug some Syrians… I wanted to show, through physical connection and affection — along with volunteer service — that I believe in their journey, their rights and their humanity.
Meantime, my red-state governor jumped on the “no Syrian terrorist ISIS refugees will be allowed to resettle in MY state” train. I felt depressed, helpless. Halfway around the world, a crisis unfurled and my own privileged life continued apace.
Honestly, I just wanted to hug some Syrians. I realize how ridiculous it sounds, but I’m kind of a ridiculous person sometimes. I wanted to show, through physical connection and affection — along with volunteer service — that I believe in their journey, their rights and their humanity.
Thank you, Facebook. Through social media, I found Carry the Future, which was organizing baby carrier donation drives nationwide. I united with a group of like-minded moms to launch Team Nebraska, and we set of a goal of collecting 500 baby carriers. On a whim, I submitted an application for a CTF distribution trip. A week later, I received an email with the subject, “Are you ready to go to Athens?”
Action is the perfect antidote to helplessness. Research tells us this, and now I’ve experienced it firsthand. We should all have the miraculous and heart-growing experience of doing humanitarian work, even just for a few days. Without a doubt, our elected officials would gain new perspective from meeting a few ferries at Piraeus. As for the rest of us, no euphoria can match that of giving, freely and with love, assistance to those who need it.
You don’t have to travel to Greece, but if you have the time and money, you should. You can arrive on an island at 9 a.m. and be working by 10. The need is that great. But you can also write a letter to your governor and ask him or her to prioritize refugee resettlement in your state. You can become an English language tutor for new immigrants. You can invite speakers from other cultures to your church, your children’s school or your book club. You can do whatever makes you feel connected and aware, and then gently introduce that compassion-building awareness to your community.
I cannot promise we will change the world or ebb the tide of refugees — at least not in the short term. But I can promise that in choosing empowerment and action, you will feel better and you will effect change.
(P.S. Mission accomplished. I hugged those refugee babies like hugging was going out of style. I held hands with the mamas, clapped the men on their shoulders and offered up goofy, energetic bear hugs whenever it felt even mildly appropriate. These were bright, tiny moments of connection, and I will never be the same.)
(Photo courtesy Sara Gilliam)