By Los Angeles Region CEO, Jarrett Barrios
| For many of us, seeing the images of so-called “boat people” arriving as refugees to Europe’s shores last year was profoundly moving. I can recall family members of my own arriving on overcrowded boats from Cuba back during the Mariel Crisis, and I have no difficulty imagining the hard choices that forced many to risk the stormy seas and escape a hostile homeland. While the pace of refugees arriving in Europe has slowed this year, it continues. And, many arriving last year are still in limbo, living in refugee camps, awaiting word on resettlement.
Because of its proximity to Asia Minor and the Middle East, Greece has been one of the most affected European nations, in the news constantly last year with over 150,000 refugees arriving in 2016 alone. For 2017, that number is way down. As of August 1st, fewer than 10,000 refugees have arrived, fleeing violence and hunger. Over the course of 2017 many of those 2016 arrivals were relocated to other European Union nations. But many, many refugees still inhabit temporary refugee camps run by International Humanitarian organizations like the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the Greek government.
This crisis continues, and with it, the challenge for humanitarians seeking to respond with concern and support. That’s why I was riveted, when I learned on Facebook, that two of Los Angeles’ finest Red Crossers were going to Greece to volunteer in a refugee camp during their summer vacation.
Long Beach-based Disaster Program Manager, Nedan Rambo and his wife Ally – a Red Cross volunteer and my friend on Facebook – wanted to do more than watch this crisis unfold on television. True to the Red Cross motto of ‘Sleeves up. Hearts Open. All In,” they decided to use their summer vacation to volunteer with Cross Cultural Solutions at the Ritsona and Oinofyta Refugee Camps. These camps are located in central Greece, away from the arrival points on the Greek Islands and mainland ports that have been flash-points for concern and public backlash. The Ritsona camp had over 800 refugees, half of whom were children (including 40 infants).
Nedan and Ally volunteered with Lighthouse Relief to help provide a child-friendly space and to support a program that tested vision and provided free glasses to refugees. Overall, they worked to create an environment of empowerment and support, and spent most of their time in the child friendly space at Ritsona. On a typical day, volunteers were shuttled to the refugee camps, reporting to various stations where they would prepare for the arrival of the residents. In the child-friendly space, where Nedan and Ally spent most of their time, duties included cleaning and setting up arts and crafts. Although most refugees spoke either Arabic, Kurdish, or Farsi, they were able to communicate with the volunteers in broken English. The children enjoyed playing Uno, Connect 4, Soccer, and watching Disney movies or making bracelets out of beads. Working with the children, Nedan and Ally learned that some had lost one or both parents in the war.
At the end of each day, volunteers debriefed and noted safety issues or any signs of trouble. Safety concerns were complicated by the isolated locations of the camps. Without the bus, residents were stuck in the camps. This social isolation also made it hard for camp organizers to re-stock supplies.
The people in Oinofyta were in an even worse situation than those in Ritsona because most were not eligible for relocation to another country. To Nedan and Ally, it seemed many would be stuck there for the rest of their lives. Some residents used their time to build gardens and others converted old tents into handbags that could be sold online.
Nedan and Ally were proud to see that the Greek Red Cross had a major presence at both camps. The Red Cross helped establish the camps and provided all medical assistance for residents. Red Cross Health Services volunteers spent their time providing medical aid and the Red Cross also provided health education. One day volunteers even visited the children’s center to play a movie about hygiene, and do a presentation on handwashing.
For both Nedan and Ally, volunteering in the Ritsona and Oinofyta Refugee Camps, and seeing the Greek Red Cross Red Crescent Society in action, reminded them about the important work the Red Cross does around the globe. It also gave them a feeling of being a part of something big! “It’s easy to feel small or be discouraged when you see first-hand the scope of this crisis,” Nedan explained to me after he returned, “but I was truly encouraged and felt so lucky knowing that I was part of a much bigger effort, put on by the Lighthouse Relief, the Red Cross, and all of the many organizations active in the camps across country and around the world.”
Nedan and Ally are just two of the over 105 dedicated employees, and more than 5,000 volunteers that I have the pleasure of working with here in L.A. It truly warms my heart to know that these local Red Crossers, even during their personal time off, continue to want to help alleviate human suffering and share the mission of the American Red Cross.
Jarrett Barrios is the Chief Executive Officer at the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region. But, above all, Jarrett Barrios is a humanitarian, with more than 20 years of experience helping those in need throughout the United States and Cuba.
To learn more about Jarrett Barrios or the America Red Cross Los Angeles Region, visit RedCrossLA.org
Nedan will be talking more about his trip to Greece Wednesday, 6 PM, at the Long Beach Chapter’s volunteer meeting.