Arrival of Syrian refugees on the island of Lesbos, Greece
Welcome and Introduction of the Speakers
Reed Price: Good day everyone. My name is Reed Price and I’m with the Charter for Compassion International. Welcome to the last call in our weeklong series in honor of World Interfaith Harmony Week. Monday we heard from Karin Miller about her recently released book “Global Values” and her work to promote “Our New Evolution.” On Tuesday we heard from Imam Jamal Rahman and Rabbi Ted Falcon, two of the Interfaith Amigos, on bridging differences and understanding faith traditions. Wednesday we heard from Aleasa Word, Marie Roker-Jones and Louisa Hext on how to create safe spaces for communication. On Thursday, international scholar and expert on Islam, Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University joined us and told us a lot about the situation of the Muslim world and confronted head-on the issue of Islamophobia. Today, we take a close look at the human migration that is sweeping out of the Middle East, across Europe and beyond – and at the issue of refugee populations generally.
It is widely acknowledged that the number of people on the move today is equal to if not greater than the mass migrations from the World Wars that reshaped national boundaries and balances of power – roughly 70 years ago. But rather than nation-states colliding, what we are now facing is generally asynchronous warfare – more complicated politics, less potential for international political influence and, of course, devastating consequences for individuals and families who are just trying to live out their lives in peace. The brutal consequences of this experience are widely reported.
Today we are going to talk about some of the efforts to respond to this crisis. Our call today is titled: “Desperate Times Call for Compassionate Action.”
We have two speakers today, Reham Hamoui and John Forseth, who are working with refugees arriving in Europe and America. Reham is a Syrian-born American, currently residing in Seattle. She has worked on humanitarian issues for five years in several capacities, including the coordination of medical missions, political advocacy, and community outreach. She is now the Director of Communications for Salaam Cultural Museum, a Non-Governmental-Organization (NGO) focused on providing humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and Greece: https://salaamculturalmuseum.wordpress.com/.
John Forseth has worked for Lutheran Community Services for the past six years, previously as supervisor of in-home caregivers in Pierce County, Washington. More recently he has worked as Program Director of Refugee Resettlement and Placement out of Tacoma, Washington, managing placements across three counties of the state of Washington. John works with refugees from a number of communities, including Syrian refugees, through his involvement in regional and national efforts with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (http://lirs.org/).
John will be walking through PowerPoint slides, which we will feature via the Social Webinar. To see the slides during his talk, please click on the blue social webinar button that was on the email invitation you received with your phone number and PIN code to listen to today’s call. We will also make the PowerPoint available after the call along with our notes.
By the way, we are partnering with our sibling organization and strategic partner “The Compassion Games” – and invite you to participate in their World Interfaith Harmony Week Coopetition – go to http://compassiongames.org/world-interfaith-harmony-week/ to register, and then post your thoughts about today’s call or other reflections this week on the global Compassion Report Map.
Reham and John, thank you so much for joining us today.
Reham, please go first and give us an overview of the Salaam Cultural Museum – and the work you’ve been doing... which sounds much more like NGO outreach than museum curation.
Reham Hamoui: Of course. Thank you. The Salaam Cultural Museum (SCM) started as a museum. The organization was also publishing information about the MENA region. Then, the focus started turning to humanitarian aid. SCM started in 1996. Of course, when the Syrian crisis erupted in 2011, we tried to help. We were sending containers of supplies into Syria- clothes, medical supplies, etc. Now, we send containers to Jordan and sometimes Turkey. We also continue to provide goods in Lebanon and Egypt. More recently, we’ve turned our focus to Greece. In our Jordan project- we provide psychosocial support and food. Also, we have a solar lantern initiative for individuals in refugee camps. We also have medical missions in Jordan. In Lebanon, we provide human goods through “International Humanitarian Relief” (http://www.ihrelief.org/en/about/) as well as medical supplies distribution. We entered Greece in September of last year. We were getting conflicting reports about what was happening on the island. We heard of individuals drowning and people not being processed. We entered Lesbos- one of the main islands that has seen an influx of the refugees. Reports indicate that about 80,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Lesbos just in 2015. 3000-4500 refugees have died trying to reach Greece (this is not a confirmed number since we do not have the bodies). We have been sending teams in regularly. Our missions last from 1-2 weeks. We have overlapping teams of volunteers who are there. We will be continuing on until April, 2016. We have ongoing assessments of the situation and we might keep going longer. We are located on Northern shores of Lesbos. The situation is very dire. There is not a lot of the coordination that we would normally see in Lebanon or Turkey. Most of the volunteer organizations are smaller NGOs and Greek nationals. It is a very different situation than in Jordan. In a typical volunteer day, we work with other NGOs. We look out for boats coming in. We work with the Coast Guard. The team can get phone calls during the day and night. They rush to the shores and help with the refugees. They provide medical aid, humanitarian goods, a change of clothes, a warm meal. We can take people to a hospital, if needed. We have had a mobile clinic as well. There are unofficial camps on the island where refugees go to be processed by the United Nations. We also offer help with that. Through April 3, we will complete our humanitarian/medical aid effort. We are looking for people willing to be in that situation and who are able to help. We need Arabic and Farsi speakers for medical personnel who cannot communicate with incoming refugees. We have about ten people at a time in a team. There is flexibility as to when volunteers come and go. We have team leads on the ground. It has been really interesting work.
Reed: When you say you have team leads, it still seems very chaotic. Is there something unusual about this refugee situation?
Reham: Yes, a lot of the Syrian refugees must go to great lengths just to cross border and leave Syria and also to leave Turkey. Technically, a refugee can only claim asylum in the first county they land in. These refugees must go through extreme measures not to be registered in Turkey. In this situation, they are often exploited by smugglers.
Reed: Why do they want to avoid Turkey?
Reham: I think that these people do not want a life in a refugee camp where they would be barely scraping by. Many are educated and want jobs and want to be self-sufficient. They don’t see a future for themselves in Turkey. So, they go to great extremes to get to Greece.
Reed: If you get to Greece, is it more likely that you can move on?
Reham: Yes, unless you apply for asylum in a third county. Then, it’s harder.
Reed: People show up in Greece, having exhausted all their resources, and then they are trying to get somewhere else. Is there a problem with people not being able to leave Lesbos?
Reham: Yes, there are unofficial camps on Lesbos. There are camps of Syrians and non-Syrians. In some camps, the people cannot leave the island. Syrians may be transferred to Athens. If Syrians cannot prove their nationality nor have their papers, they may be stuck on the island.
Reed: Having papers when leaving Syria may not be easy.
Reham: Very much so. Most people leave on an emergency basis. A recurring story I hear is, “Oh, I never thought it would reach our house.” They woke up one morning and it was happening in their own neighborhood. People leave carrying only what they can carry.
Reed: It sounds like a classic refugee story. Is there something unique about these families who are surviving a series of insurgencies and war zones? Would you say they are unusually desperate or unprepared?
Reham: I think what is important to remember is that in Syria there are many factors and variables and groups that are targeting refugees. Even by the time a Syrian reaches a Southern or Northern border, they’ve risked their lives numerous times. A lot of towns and villages in Syria have sieges on them. People have to sneak out of the country. That is one reason we don’t work directly in Syria. There are no safe roads. For Syrians, there is even more desperation. These people who arrive in Greece are just a percentage of the refugees. There are a lot more who are internally displaced and not receiving any aid.
Reed: You talk about ending April 3rd?
Reham: We originally assumed that we would not be continuing on past December, 2015. We were concerned about the winter. However, individuals kept coming. We say April 3rd. It might go on after that. Unless there is a clear and safe humanitarian road that refugees can take, I don’t see this passage stopping.
Reed: You talk about the many small NGOs providing aid. Do you see some evidence that this might change?
Reham: When we first got there, it was surprising to see all the different smaller organizations trying to work together. It took a while for everyone to coordinate everything. It goes back to the Greek nationals. They were the ones from day-one on the shores and they help with coordination. It is rather chaotic. The refugees in the camps are depending on NGOs for basic needs. If an NGO does not show up, the camp can go that day without a meal.
Reed: We will come back to what you mentioned about needing Arabic-speaking professionals. Now, let’s bring John Forseth into the conversation and learn how the United States has been responding to the refugee needs – and how the response varies across the United States.
John Forseth: Thank you. I live in Washington state and I work in an affiliate of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS: http://lirs.org/), based in Baltimore. We are one of nine organizations contracted by the United States Department of State to resettle refugees entering our country. In Washington state, there are five of those nine organizations.
Now, let’s turn to the PowerPoint slides.
The majority of refugees come to us from Turkey and Jordan, specifically from the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. The reasons refugees do not want to be in the refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan is that it can take fourteen years to be processed. Less than 1% make it out.
They must go through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since 2011- the number of refugees, registered and currently processing, has risen to 4 million.
We went to a conference in New York. Eight United States cities were identified to receive refugees.
There is a security process that lasts a minimum of 2 years, unless the refugee has a special immigration VISA status. Refugees must go through multiple agencies and cross-checking. Syrian refugees take longer than Afghanistan refugees where we had boots on the ground.
In the first county they arrive in, they have to establish refugee status- prove they are in harm’s way, etc. They go through health screening and multiple interviews with several agencies. They report bio-data. Finally, on step ten, they come into the United States. We meet them at the airport and set up an apartment for them.
Refugee Reception & Placement (R & P) core services are part of our contract. This is the 90 day period we have to work with a newly-arrived refugee and their family. The services include school enrollment, registration with the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration so they can get food stamps and other benefits. They get a small, one-time grant. It does not cover their costs. In Washington, they get $1,125. Apartment rental is $2,400/mo. Apartment managers are increasing rents and deposits. Refugees have no rental history, references, etc. We help them prove income based on social services income and we find apartment managers that are willing to work with us. Statistics show that refugees actually lower the crime rate and help create new jobs in an area when they come in.
There are five different organizations in Washington state that are helping refugees (see the PowerPoint slide). These include Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Jewish organizations as well as others. If you look at the population of refugees, you can see that there are only 25 refugees from Syria in the last year.
The PowerPoint slide shows the ages of the refugees. The majority are children with families.
Multiple different agencies help provide supports. These are children and their families. We also have an unaccompanied minor program (for youth less than 18 years old). Youth can be split up in the immigration process. Some children go into foster care. We are looking for foster families for children ages 8-17 years old.
Our numbers are similar to those across the country. There are a low number of Syrians processed and a higher number of children. There is a great need for foster care.
Reed: So, people can look for agencies working with refugees and reach out to them?
Zartaar refugee camp in Jordan. Photo from the Guardian.com.
John: Yes. If people are interested, they can send me an email or inquiry and I can help connect them with the correct agency. I will also share a link to the Zaatari, Jordan camp. It is a video that shows where our refugees are coming from. Link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FeZCRZlqoOs.
Reed: We will share contact info in the notes.
John: The people that Reham is working with do not get direct aid from the United States government.
In our organization, we have two part-time and two full-time people to cover the whole state of Washington. This year we project that we will work with about 370 families and will have about 200 Syrian families. We work closely with church groups of any faith. We look for housing. Transitional housing is a big thing for us. We have worked out a way for volunteers to help house people until we can find an apartment.
The people do get a one-time grant along with Food Stamps and cash benefits. However, it is not enough to cover many of their expenses.
We have kits which contain items that people would have to pay for directly (those items not covered by Food Stamps; e.g. toiletry items, etc.) These “Start Kits” are given to each refugee family. Also, we try to help refugees through donations of furniture, etc.
I mentioned that we have a contract with the Department of State. The contract states what items we provide in an apartment.
The last PowerPoint slide provides contact info for our various programs:
- Refugee resettlement and replacement;
- Refugee mental health. Often we get bio-data, but it doesn’t tell their history very well. A child may have un-reported learning disabilities. They do go through a health screening. However, they often are afraid to share this kind of information until they have established a relationship with a case manager. We then can give referrals for services;
- Immigration services. People have five years to do an Affidavit of Relationship (AOR) to bring other family members here. I do assurances for the United States ties. Are people able to live with them? Can they assist with the resettlement?;
- Asylee program. An “asylee” comes into the United or is at the border and lists themselves as an “asylee.” The issues with that program involve immigration detention. They go into a detention center until they are processed.
Reed: So, you are trying to help keep people who want asylum from ending up in the detention centers.
When you talk about advocacy, are you talking about broader, political support?
John: Yes, it is the broader political advocacy- trying to stop the detention of asylees in this manner.
Reed: Who can we reach out to about this?
Reed: Sounds like a lot of these refugees have gone through enormous trauma and it just keeps coming.
Reham: have you talked with people who have gotten to the United States?
Reham: Yes, there is some effort in the Arab community here in Washington state to reach out and help families, collaborating with organizations such as John’s. These are families, often with younger children. They have seen a lot. For me, I would assume they have some form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. They have witnessed the unthinkable. It is not easy getting to the United States. They have to have strong cases to get here.
Reed: Is there something John that people can do to help immediately?
John: Yes, most definitely. Contact one of the local organizations. Volunteer time to help with English, help with mentoring programs, donate furniture or other items, etc. Have a group come together to make kits- hygiene kits, kitchen kits, etc. They get the hygiene kit when they land in the airport. Many don’t even know what the hygiene items are used for. They need help with cultural orientation to the United States. Many times there is fear of going to cultural orientation programs. There is fear of being targeted if they go to these programs.
Reed: You indicated that there is an ongoing need for Arabic speakers and health professionals. What should those of us concerned about the plight of refugees be doing to help beyond or even within the United States to make it easier for these people?
Reham: Help can be received on various levels. First, there is advocacy- recognize that these refugees are the ones in danger. They are not the danger. People can also donate to an organization such as the Salaam Cultural Museum. We accept help at the local Seattle office- putting together kits, sorting, packing the containers for refugees into luggage, etc. People can donate goods- first aid kits, clothing, blankets.
Reed: John what is the situation in parts of the United States where governors are speaking out that they do not want to welcome any refuges. Have there been efforts to try to make the case in those states?
John: We are fortunate in Washington state to have a positive governor who welcomes Syrians and all refugees. Regarding the 31 states where the governors say they will not accept refugees, people need to remember that this is a federally-funded program. These services do not have much to do with the state. Refugees are legal immigrants, free to travel throughout the United States. There have been instances in the United States where resettlement agencies have had some difficulty with people registering for benefits and with security threats. The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) has stated that they will continue to resettle refugees even if they need to use private funding.
Reed: Now, I will hand it over to Marilyn Turkovich, the Director of the Charter for Compassion International.
Marilyn: I have a question. When I look at the Bainbridge Island Facebook page, there are comments from families saying they would be willing to take in refugee families or single Moms with children. I wonder if places that are not in the mainstream of the country can be helpful. What are the possibilities for people in these places to assist with taking in refugees?
John: I am working with a couple of churches in Bainbridge. It is a little more difficult in rural areas. We welcome the opportunity. The biggest challenge is the 90-day period of time we have to ensure they have access to services. If there are volunteers that are willing to drive refugees or case managers, they are welcome.
Marilyn: I know of an individual who is a doctor who has travelled to both Jordan and Turkey and has made friendships with many medical professionals. She is very interested in helping. There is a refugee family she has talked with in Jordan and they have had their name on the list for a year. She is interested in sponsoring them. Is that possible? My guess is that these people are in the refugee camp in Jordan.
John: Sure- what the refugee family would do is list their United State tie. This could be the doctor. They can request coming here and also request what agency they want to be processed with.
Reham: Our organization, the Salaam Cultural Museum, leaves resettlements to the resettlement agency.
Marilyn: My understanding is that there are a lot of goods available in Lesbos. It is easier to purchase them there in Greece and help the economy as opposed to bringing in items from the United States.
Reham: Very much so. We can purchase many things in Lesbos, e.g. clothing, other basic items. When our volunteers go, we send along items that cannot be easily obtained on Lesbos and we use funds to purchase items that are available on the island.
It’s a win-win situation. It helps the economy there.
Marilyn: The doctor I referred to earlier has a list of surgical supplies given to her when she was in Jordan. Is that something that your humanitarian mission does? Can you help get these supplies to specific medical personnel in these countries?
Reham: We have supported clinics in specific areas and provided supplies. We facilitate a donation between a hospital and direct support providers. We could potentially help with this. We would have to speak more about it.
Marilyn: I will send you an email with her name and contact.
Reed: I want to thank you for attending this Charter for Compassion presentation on Maestro Conference. We’ll send out notes and a link to the audio of the call in a couple days. And you can find notes and audio links for the prior conversations in this series on our website.
Please join in the Compassion Games World Interfaith Harmony Week Coopetition (http://compassiongames.org/world-interfaith-harmony-week/) and post your reflections on the global Compassion Report Map.
Remember, every little bit helps: advocacy, kits, housing, etc. I invite you to reach out to our guests this morning.
Marilyn: John, if you could do a write-up about the kits that are needed, we could put that in our Charter newsletter and people in communities could work on this.
John: Great! I’ll be happy to do that.
Reed: We will include the information on the PowerPoint in the notes. John, please also send contact info.
John: Sure, I will.
Reed: Thank you everyone for attending. These calls are always free to you, but our operation does cost money, and we very much appreciate your financial support if you are able to “pay it forward.” Go to http://bit.ly/ccidonate.
Thank you John and Reham for joining us. Good bye everyone.
Salaam Cultural Museum: https://salaamculturalmuseum.wordpress.com/
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services: http://lirs.org/
LIRS Syrian services: http://lirs.org/syria
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services John Forseth PowerPoint