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