How to help save Syrians
We wanted to help, and fortunately for us, we knew where to turn.
Both of us had met Yotam Polizer, co-chief executive of IsraAID, Israel’s largest humanitarian nongovernmental organization. Working with Muslims, Christians and Jews, IsraAID has provided lifesaving disaster relief and long-term support in nearly every humanitarian crisis of the 21st century — setting a good example for Israel in the process.
The group currently is working in 17 areas of the world, including South Sudan, Nepal, Haiti, Jordan, Kenya, the Philippines, Colombia, Peru and Greece, where Syrian refugees are landing to flee a civil war now in its sixth year.
IsraAID has been working in Greece since September of 2015. By now, fighting between the Syrian government and opposition groups has resulted in the deaths of 470,000, by some estimates, and displacement of over 6 million more, according to the United Nations. Greece has become a primary way station, from where refugees hold out hope that they will reach Germany, a “promised land” of sorts that has absorbed the most Syrian immigrants — more than 600,000 — among all countries in Western Europe.
As mothers, grandmothers and psychotherapists, we fell in love with IsraAID’s mission to respond immediately to people facing natural or man-made disasters, even those from countries like Syria that have declared Israel its enemy.
Polizer invited us to see firsthand the magnitude of the crises and the work IsraAID has been doing in Greece. And, because of our training, we were asked to be consultants to the staff for the eight days we visited. IsraAID has sent 120 Arab and Jewish-Israeli professionals to provide support for the refugees, focusing on long-term trauma counseling for about 750 refugees.
IsraAID works in seven refugee shelters and camps around Greece, providing psycho-social support through therapeutic groups for women, men, children and adolescents, as well as individual counseling and specialty needs for others, such as art therapy for women and children.
Most organizations either save lives or change lives. IsraAID does both. Polizer invited us to visit IsraAID’s project in Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece, which has a long Jewish history. There, at the northwest corner of the Aegean Sea, we met members of his team: Sigalit, a Jewish Arabic-speaking psychotherapist; Anat, a Jewish Arabic-speaking art therapist; and Khaled, an Arab-Israeli occupational therapist.
We visited three sites where the refugee families are housed: An abandoned high-rise, a rundown hotel in the countryside and a converted factory with no private kitchen or toilet facilities. Each site is supported by NGOs from Greece, Italy, Great Britain and elsewhere, offering various services, such as facility management, facility construction, education and recreation.
All the refugees in Thessaloniki had arrived by boat after observing drownings and illnesses on their journey from Syria. After first living in tents, suffering a terribly cold winter, they were moved to more “permanent” shelters, like the ones we worked in. Most of the families were not intact, separations caused by deaths and relocation: three or four children with no father, fathers with no children, children with no mother.
What did we do?
On days that we were with children, we observed their need for attention and affection and an eagerness to learn English, play, do art projects, dance and throw around balls. We spent hours facilitating play and communication skills as children described their treacherous sea journey by holding their tummies and pretending to shiver.
We sat in women’s groups led by Anat and Sigalit. As they slowly built up trust, the women became open to new challenges facing them: How to parent in new lands with new cultures, how to encourage education for their children, and how to speak up for their needs and express their feelings. Some of the mothers even forgot how to play with their children. The leaders helped them to remember.
We watched Khaled, age 26, who did not appear old enough to be a father but was old enough to reach the adolescent boys, helping them to express their feelings and cope with undue stress and aggression. Without speaking the language, we recognized in the boys hope, excitement and connections. For instance, Amid, 12, began the session sitting apart from the other boys but with Khaled’s skills and encouragement, moved next to another boy and even left the session speaking with some of the other kids.
Often, we were invited in for a cup of tea with the families in their meager surroundings. Despite their circumstances, their culture of hospitality remained.
We met Fatima from Aleppo, a mother of four. Her youngest child is only a year old and has never met her father. He was able to relocate to Germany and hoped that would hasten the family’s permission to move there. So far, there is no indication that the move will happen. While Fatima attended a women’s group, we sat with her children and played games.
Each refugee family is given an allowance for food and necessities, and Fatima’s small apartment was immaculate despite her limited resources. Due to traumatic experiences walking from Syria to Turkey and crossing the water in a dangerous lifeboat, she insisted her children stay inside. We had hoped to take them outside to meet others, but she was too frightened.
Susi, 7, was living in the rundown hotel with a depressed aunt and her father, whose culture did not teach him parenting skills. Her mother relocated to Germany, hoping to speed the family’s reunification. Susi was in perpetual motion due to her high level of stress, depression and separation anxiety caused by being away from her mother. She hugged us as we entered the grounds, pulling us away from others in a desperate attempt to find comfort and affection. When we had to leave, Susi ran after us and jumped into the car. Our hearts were broken, not knowing what to do. We drove away but the sad memory has stayed with us.
Mohammed, 16, was living in the concrete factory. We first saw him body-building in a parking lot. Although he looked quite healthy as the leader of a group of adolescent boys, led by Khaled, we learned later that he has had two heart surgeries since arriving by lifeboat.
As we observed him in the group, we realized Mohammed’s anger and aggression were transformed into leadership and role-modeling. It was hard to imagine that he recuperated in this rundown facility without private bathrooms and quiet surroundings. We couldn’t help but wonder what his future will be. We pray for his future.
Realizing the need for important supplies, we went shopping and bought personal items for the women, formula and diapers for the babies, and soccer balls and art supplies for the children. We also bought colorful wooden chairs to add to the community’s limited supply. IsraAID distributed the items for us.
As these families wait for relocation, which may take one or two more years, if ever, we felt grateful for the work of IsraAID in making the delay less difficult.
There are many reasons to despair while watching the darkness descending on Syria. But don’t ignore the light.