Meet the Palestinian volunteers on the frontline of Europe’s refugee crisis

Middle East
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Millions of refugees are fleeing war and risking their lives on unequipped boats to reach European shores. Parallel to the unstoppable mass migration of those fleeing persecution, another form of mobilization has taken place. Volunteers from all of the world have arrived at the receiving end and are offering their aid and support to the biggest global displacement crisis since the Second World War, and Palestinians are no exception.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) lists more than 57,000 “persons of concern” in Greece. What originally began as a transit area for refugees after the short but deadly boat journey from Turkey, has become a place where thousands are stuck in squalid and inhumane conditions.

European Union leaders are sitting on their hands after they’ve closed their countries’ borders and smugglers have grown greedy, turning the Mediterranean sea into one of the biggest refugee graveyards. Nowhere is this situation more apparent than in a village on the island of Lesbos. There lies a patch of private lend with mounds of windswept graves of those who died while trying to make the perilous journey of crossing the sea. Tens of lives memorialized in simple marble plaques inscribed with “Unknown”, and the victim’s presumed gender, age, and date of death.

A small cemetery near the village of Kato Tritos commemorates those who died making the harrowing crossing from Turkey. (Photo: Michaela Whitton)

A small cemetery near the village of Kato Tritos commemorates those who died making the harrowing crossing from Turkey. (Photo: Michaela Whitton)

We teach life sir

At the forefront of the crisis, Palestinians from the humanitarian organization Humanity Crew can be found dealing with the most harrowing scenes to hit European shores in modern history. Launched less than a year ago in Haifa as a response to the Syrian war, the organization is leading the way in delivering mental health and psychosocial support to refugees from Syria to Sudan.

Based in Greece’s two refugee hotspots, Lesbos and the port city of Thessaloniki, Palestinian volunteers in distinctive Hi-Viz jackets can be spotted everywhere from barbed-wire topped detention centers to local hospitals. Generally among the first responders to the endless stream of emergency situations, all have a background in social work, psychology or medicine, and serve for a minimum of two weeks. Many took unpaid leave to help those shackled by European bureaucracy.

Currently the only Arabic-speaking organization working within the crisis, Humanity Crew has a lengthy waiting list of those keen to volunteer. Mental Health Activities Manager and Psychologist, Jumana Abo Oxa explained why:

“Everyone’s listening to the news and watching the Syrian crisis, they want to do something but it’s difficult. As soon as we provided the opportunity, people jumped on it,” she said.

With applicants from the West Bank and the diaspora, the Palestinian volunteers must all speak Arabic and English. According to 33-year-old Abu Oxa, Greek would be a bonus. Asked if there is any truth to the rumor that those working with the organization refuse to work with IsraAid, an Israeli NGO doing similar work, she was diplomatic.

“It’s an individual choice, they want to help however they can so they look at their options,” she said, before explaining that Humanity Crew is an international organization, which happens to employ Palestinians mostly, because that’s where it originated.

This is my dream

After hearing about the organization through Facebook, Palestinian nursing student Mariam Kanaani knew she had to be part of it. The 24-year-old from the Acre district said that after being denied leave from her job in a psychiatric hospital to take part in the initiative, she refused to take no for an answer and resorted to radical measures: “When I asked for three weeks off to help with the crisis, they said no, so I quit! This is my dream,” she grinned.

Like thousands before her, witnessing the carnage of the crisis has been a life-changing experience for Kanaani. During her three weeks in Lesbos, she’s undoubtedly witnessed more tragedy than most twenty-somethings will in their entire lives. For her, one experience stands out. Recently, a boat capsized near Lesbos, four people died and three were never found.

Palestinian Humanity Crew members provide psycho social support for refugees in Greece. (Photo: Michaela Whitton)

Palestinian Humanity Crew members provide psycho social support for refugees in Greece. (Photo: Michaela Whitton)

She described what happened. “We were in the marina and I saw body bags being carried to the ambulance. One was small, I found out later it was a five-year-old girl,” she said solemnly. The tragic scene didn’t end there. That evening, her shift translating at the local hospital included comforting the survivors of the tragedy.

She continued: “I met the man who carried that dead girl in the sea for eight hours. He only met her the night before. I asked myself, why? It was a body, she wasn’t alive! He could have left her and swam, but he didn’t.” Still puzzled by the behaviour of the miraculous hero, Kanaani said she will never forget him for as long as she lives, adding:

“I was so shocked. In this world with all these bad people, there are good people too.”

After working tirelessly for three weeks, with no days off, Kanaani returned to Palestine on Thursday to start work at a Jerusalem hospital. Determined that her experience in Greece is just the beginning, she plans to continue volunteering while there is so much injustice in the world. Describing how the experience with Humanity Crew has affected her, she was frank:

“It’s changed my whole life; how I think, how I see the world, how I see politics. I can’t understand it, I don’t want to understand it. How can people do this to each other? Really, I don’t have the answer, but I can’t accept it,” she added. “I only know one thing, politics is shit. Those with power stand together while the poor suffer, die or are here in camps.”

A sense of normality

For thousands of refugees stuck in limbo on Lesbos, frustration levels are high and Abu Oxa said the need for psychosocial support has never been more crucial.

“They don’t know what’s happening with their papers, or where are they are going,” she said. “The destinations they were hoping to get to when the borders were open have changed. They can only rely on the relocation program or family reunification if they have family members in Europe already.”

On call 24/7 and focusing mainly on Arabic-speaking refugees, the Humanity Crew has a unique capacity to connect with the culture and language of those arriving at the gateway to Europe. Hearing their own language immediately gives people a sense of security and things don’t get lost in translation. Abu Oxa gave an example:

“When we accompany a search and rescue team to a boat in distress and everyone is shouting and panicking, as soon as they hear somebody speaking Arabic, suddenly there is silence,” she said. After the volunteers reassure those on board that they have reached Europe and are safe, what happens next depends on the situation.

She continued: “We normally try to detect people in shock. If a child gets out of the boat and is completely silent, that’s someone we need to pay attention to. If they’re crying, they’re processing in a more healthy way. They’ve been through a terrifying experience, it’s a death trip, especially at night with the waves, the wind and people screaming. They’re already running from trauma and this adds to it.”

While Greece’s overwhelmed refugee camps struggle to meet basic needs, Abu Oxa is adamant this is not enough and more developed mental health support is required. She stressed that a sense of normality in this abnormal situation is crucial, adding:

“Everyone comes here with a lot of resources, but because of the trauma they forget about the strength and resilience they have. What we try to do is empower them, connect them with their resources to help them move on and survive this rough period until they reach their destination.”

A transit camp for refugees in the north of the island of Lesbos. (Photo: Michaela Whitton)

A transit camp for refugees in the north of the island of Lesbos. (Photo: Michaela Whitton)

It’s impossible to say what the future in Greece will hold. A spike in boat arrivals and political instability in Turkey means anxiety levels are high in the economically stretched country. What is clear is that Humanity Crew will be on the frontline of the crisis for as long as it continues and Abu Oxa explained why:

“When you look at the TV, there are horrible things happening all over the world, but this is happening in Europe, which is supposed to lead in human rights issues. Most are fleeing war, running for their lives and looking for dignity,” she said, before recalling a conversation with someone who said he came to Europe to feel human. Chillingly, she added that the inhumane conditions have prompted others to declare that they would rather they had died in Syria instead of experiencing this “slow death.”

About Michaela Whitton

Michaela Whitton is an independent journalist with one foot in the UK and the other in the Middle East.

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5 Responses

  1. Citizen
    August 3, 2016, 7:26 am

    US main media totally mum on Palestinian/Arab volunteers helping the Syrian refugees at Europe’s borders. Imagine if just a few Arab-Americans had a bit of influence in our US main media….

  2. Elizabeth Block
    August 3, 2016, 11:34 am

    Yes — why didn’t we hear about this before now? and why not in mainstream media?

    And why is no one the least bit surprised that Israel isn’t taking in any refugees? Disgusted, but not surprised.

    • hophmi
      August 5, 2016, 5:53 pm

      Lol. Israaid is one of the most active refugee aid organizations in the region. Just curious; do refugees want to come to Israel?

    • Antidote
      August 11, 2016, 6:43 am

      “And why is no one the least bit surprised that Israel isn’t taking in any refugees? Disgusted, but not surprised. ”

      How welcome are refugees in countries who illegally invaded Iraq and bear major responsibility for the refugee crisis?

      The US. GB. Australia. Poland.

      Disgusted, but not surprised.

  3. echinococcus
    August 3, 2016, 4:29 pm

    Elizabeth Block,

    That is the only thing that the Zionist entity should be excused of.
    In fact, it has no right to take in or even have taken in its own master-race population in the first place!

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