January 06, 2016

Helping Syrian refugees as they arrive in Greece

As published in The Erin Advocate

Barbara Harrison wanted to do more than just help Syrian refugees as they arrive in Canada. After seeing some of these victims of war while travelling in Greece last fall, she looked for a way to make a practical and personal contribution to the relief effort.

“It makes you feel like there’s nothing you can do – it’s such a big problem,” she said. “But there is so much we can do.”

The Erin resident has now travelled to the Greek island of Lesvos, where many Syrians land after a perilous sea voyage, to work as a volunteer with local agencies. She will be there with her friend Denise Bates from Tennessee until January 17.

“I’m sure it will be a profound experience,” she said.

Harrison is part of the Transition Erin group and her trip was highlighted at their recent fundraising event, An Evening of Dickens. About $10,000 was raised, with most going towards a sponsorship in Mono. But more than $1,000 will go to Harrison’s project, for medical supplies, food, clothing, blankets and direct aid to “boots on the ground” agencies in Greece.

“We want to support the Greek economy and spend the money there,” said Harrison. She and Bates have raised about $2,000 through online crowdsourcing (Act4Lesvos2016 on generosity.com). They are paying their own travel, accommodation and other expenses.

The situation on Lesvos can be chaotic, as officials struggle to provide food and shelter in makeshift refugee camps. The island is the shortest crossing point from Turkey on the trip to northern Europe, and refugees are expected to stay only a few months.

Local aid groups are operating without central coordination and without strong backing from international agencies. The island has only 86,000 residents and they have been overwhelmed in 2015 – sometimes with more than 1,000 refugees per day.

“While I've worked with refugees for 20 years, I personally have never seen such a human crisis as intense as this one,” said Bates, on their fundraising site. “We are a global community. We should have each other's backs.”

Harrison expects to be doing manual work – washing clothes, moving supplies in warehouses, delivering meals, looking after children and providing transportation. She does not speak Greek, Arabic or Farsi, but does not expect to have any trouble finding English speakers to help with translation.

Apart from the assistance they can deliver, the travellers have a professional interest in the refugee crisis. The experience will serve as research for an academic paper on grassroots assistance for refugees.

Bates’ background is in Public Health, and Harrison taught previously at the University of Guelph. She has been involved in promoting the idea of learning through service and community engagement, and has offered a course on the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Program.

After Harrison returns, Transition Erin will host an evening for her to share stories about the trip. It will be held on Monday, January 25, from 7 pm to 9 pm, in the lower hall at All Saints Church, 81 Main Street in Erin. It will also be an opportunity for local groups to explore ways of working together to offer more support to Syrian refugees.

Harrison is hopeful that the Erin community will be able to organize enough support to sponsor a refugee family.