Hu­man­ity lessons on Lesvos

Stanstead Journal - - FRONT PAGE - Vic­to­ria Vanier, Stanstead Town­ships

Many Cana­di­ans have been moved by the plight of Syr­ian refugees, ral­ly­ing be­hind the new gov­ern­ment’s ef­fort to bring thou­sands of Syr­i­ans to Canada in the com­ing weeks. But it takes a spe­cial kind of Cana­dian, in this

case a Town­ship­per, to fly across the world to one area where the refugee cri­sis is at its worst, the Greek is­land of Lesvos where refugees have been ar­riv­ing in the tens of thou­sands, usu­ally in dan­ger­ous, over-crowded boats and dinghies, to vol­un­teer to help.

“I had spent some time in Greece in the spring do­ing agri­cul­tural work and I saw many refugees ar­riv­ing there. When I came back home I started read­ing more about the refugee cri­sis in Greece; that’s when I knew I had to go back,” said Jackie Heim of Stanstead Town­ship, who has just re­turned from spend­ing three weeks work­ing with refugees on Lesvos. Jackie con­tin­ued: “Af­ter a friend sent me an in­ter­net link to vol­un­teer in Greece, I saw there was a real cry for com­pletely hands-on work to help peo­ple off the boats, feed them, give them dry cloth­ing and in­for­ma­tion. Then I woke up one morn­ing with a strong pull to go.”

Prepa­ra­tions to fly to Lesvos, on her own dime, to join the hun­dreds of vol­un­teers wel­com­ing the thou­sands of refugees ar­riv­ing from sev­eral dif­fer­ent coun­tries, in­cluded get­ting to­gether a list of cru­cial items: emer­gency blan­kets, elec­tro lights, al­co­hol swabs, rain pon­chos, and money to buy food for the refugees. Jackie also brought some spe­cial gifts from the East­ern Town­ships: an­i­mal fin­ger pup­pets for the chil­dren who sur­vived the har­row­ing sea jour­ney to Lesvos, ar­riv­ing scared, hun­gry, cold and damp, some­times alone. Fin­ger pup­pets that were made lov­ingly, al­beit in a hurry once Ms. Heim had made up her mind to go, by women in the re­gion. “A friend of mine, Chantal Michaud, cre­ated the pat­terns for the an­i­mal pup­pets and about twenty lo­cal women sewed them to­gether. I gave them out to chil­dren wait­ing in the long line-ups. They had noth­ing at all to do – they really liked them.”

“The im­me­di­ate im­pact when I ar­rived was feel­ing over­whelmed,” ex­plained Jackie about her first day back on Lesvos, work­ing with the wellor­ga­nized, lo­cal vol­un­teers. “I was on the beach for six hours just lit­er­ally help­ing peo­ple climb off the boats. One woman couldn’t stop sob­bing, so I just held her. A doc­tor who was work­ing there told me that, more than any­thing, th­ese peo­ple need love.” The refugees, who stay in Lesvos just a few days be­fore mov­ing on, also need to be fed. “The main thing that vol­un­teers do there is buy food and pre­pare it for the refugees,” said Jackie who did a lot of that her­self while there.

Jackie’s ex­pe­ri­ence on Lesvos was dif­fi­cult, at times, as she heard so many sto­ries of loss and hor­ror first­hand. Writ­ing sev­eral lengthy let­ters to send home, de­scrib­ing both her joy­ous and chal­leng­ing mo­ments, may not only have helped her process the ex­pe­ri­ence, but also kept her sup­port­ive com­mu­nity back home in­formed. Th­ese let­ters are at times heart-break­ing and hope­ful, can­did and eye­open­ing, and give a view of the refugee cri­sis that we in North Amer­ica rarely see. Here are a few ex­cerpts: “We ended up stay­ing six hours into the dark help­ing boats ar­rive. Three came on this beach alone while we were there, again so im­pos­si­ble to fathom what must be go­ing on for the peo­ple in this mo­ment. We helped carry chil­dren off and to the shore - in the dark­ness it’s es­sen­tial to have head­lamps so no­body gets sep­a­rated – dis­trib­uted emer­gency blan­kets and helped peo­ple put them on (un­der coats); such range of emo­tion – cry­ing, smil­ing, wel­com­ing, con­sol­ing - one woman I just held while she cried and cried hold­ing me tight, later she told me that the en­gine had stopped half­way and they would have sunk if it hadn’t started again. All I can say is this is very pow­er­ful and pro­found and I'm so grate­ful to be here… I’ve given out many felt fin­ger pup­pets hand sewn by women friends at home in Que­bec and yes, they ab­so­lutely DO light up the chil­dren’s faces! The par­ents are equally as gra­cious. I handed out food for a few hours, which meant look­ing into the eyes of hun­dreds of peo­ple and at one point I pri­vately teared up. It some­times hits you, the depth of hu­man suf­fer­ing but also the depth of grat­i­tude. So many many thank yous, so many smiles. They made it, this far.”

Ms. Heim con­tin­ued the in­ter­view: “Ev­ery­one I met on Lesvos, all the lo­cals help­ing the refugees, were very sym­pa­thetic to the refugees com­ing to their is­land. That might be be­cause, in 1922, there was a great pop­u­la­tion ex­change be­tween Greece and Tur­key; there were peo­ple flee­ing to Lesvos. Here, the word ‘stranger’ doesn’t have the neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion that it has at home. In Greece, when they see a stranger, they put the cof­fee pot on!”

“What I dis­cov­ered on Lesvos was that the ma­jor­ity of the re­lief ef­fort is be­ing done by or­di­nary vol- un­teers; I was so deeply in­spired by that. It’s in­di­vid­u­als who really make so­cial change hap­pen. I felt re­newed with hope to see what can be done at the grass roots level.”

“I will definitely be go­ing back, af­ter I raise some more money. There are still a lot of peo­ple to be fed. This kind of ex­pe­ri­ence changes you – it opens your heart even more. But I still have my mo­ments, re­mem­ber­ing all the peo­ple and hop­ing one day they will be safe and warm, and not know­ing if that will ever hap­pen for them. That’s what stays with you,” Jackie con­cluded.

Town­ship­per Jackie Heim com­forts a young baby at a refugee camp on the Greek is­land of Lesvos.

A tray­ful of play­ful an­i­mals wait to go with Ms. Heim back to the Greek is­land of Lesvos where thou­sands of refugees ar­rive daily by way of the sea.

Jackie Heim, sec­ond from left, and a few friends sewing fin­ger pup­pets for the child refugees who Jackie will meet on her next trip.

Pho­tos cour­tesy

Syr­ian refugee chil­dren play­ing with a couple of an­i­mal fin­ger pup­pets made right here in the Town­ships.

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