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On the Ground in Greece

April 7, 2016

Delivering Aid with Dignity to Refugees in Europe

His name was Jawed, and he was screaming in pain when Latifa Woodhouse met him and his mother. His hands were swollen, bleeding, severely frostbitten. And he was just one of the thousands of refugees arriving on the shores of Lesbos, Greece, every day. Latifa and her husband, Colin — both longtime and deeply committed UUSC supporters and volunteers — met the family while volunteering for a week at Camp Moria in Lesbos, where UUSC is partnering with PRAKSIS, a Greek civil society organization, to support refugees fleeing their homes and seeking safety in Europe.

PRAKSIS: UUSC’s partner

Thanks to generous supporters who have donated almost $630,000 to the UUSC-UUA Refugee Crisis Fund, UUSC has established strategic partnerships with grassroots groups across the migration route in Europe. UUSC started working with PRAKSIS (which, translated from Greek, stands for Programs for Development of Social Support and Medical Cooperation) in December to deliver vital aid to refugees — from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere — who are arriving daily in Greece from Turkey.

Founded in 2004, PRAKSIS provides humanitarian aid in the form of medical care, legal assistance, social welfare, and psychological and financial support to socially vulnerable groups in need. To serve the vast influx of Syrian refugees — who have faced a dangerous journey across the sea, brutal weather and travel conditions, and exploitation by traffickers — UUSC teamed up with PRAKSIS to facilitate transportation of refugees from their arrival on shore to the refugee camps 40 kilometers uphill. UUSC’s support also enables the distribution of winterization kits for 536 babies, to help ensure they stay warm and healthy during the cold winter months.

When the Woodhouses — who served for 10 years as UUSC volunteer regional coordinators and presently are UUSC volunteer local representatives at the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock — began their humanitarian mission in Greece, they met PRAKSIS staff members by chance: walking through the camp, Latifa saw people wearing PRAKSIS jackets, introduced herself, and made the connection with Youta, a social worker, and Eva, and a teacher, who mostly work with Syrian refugee children at and around the U.N. compound at Camp Moria.

Navigating the refugee journey

When Latifa met Jawed and his mother, the mother was relieved to hear a familiar language — Pashto, her own. With Latifa’s help translating and navigating the unfamiliar camp, Jawed received initial treatment and pain relief at a health clinic and his family was set up in Camp Pikpa — for vulnerable children, disabled refugees, and those recovering from wounds, sickness, and the loss of loved ones. Not only that, Jawed’s mother was assured that a surgeon would provide necessary care for Jawed’s hands.

During their time together, the mother told Latifa the family’s story: They were an extended family of 22, traveling from Kunduz, Afghanistan, where they feared for their lives. They used all their money to pay a smuggler to get them to Greece; the trip to Turkey, over mountain ridges, took 22 hours, in brutal cold. Their elderly grandmother died on the trip. Jawed lost a glove and suffered severe injuries to his hands, and the whole family suffered frostbite. In Turkey, they were turned away from a doctor for lack of funds and insurance. They were directed by a smuggler to take a small rubber boat — that was over capacity — across the Aegean Sea to Greece. They had never seen water like that. They were one of the lucky families that made it to the shore of Lesbos.

That is the story of just one family among millions. The Woodhouses heard heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story. But they were struck by the strength and resilience they witnessed. “They are really amazing, strong people with a great hope for the future,” reflects Latifa.

The Woodhouses’ mission

“The refugee issue is very close to both of our hearts,” explains Latifa, the daughter of Afghan refugees herself. The Woodhouses saw the refugee situation unfolding — and worsening — in the Middle East and Europe and felt they must get involved. They raised money amongst friends, family, and community, including urging their congregation, the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock, to contribute $100,000 to UUSC’s refugee relief efforts.

With the funds they personally raised, Latifa, Colin, and their daughter Alexandra traveled to Lesbos in January, and they were joined by Diane Lombardy, a pediatrician. At Camp Moria, a processing center surrounded by tents hosting refugees going through registration, they got to work doing the following and more:

  • Helping provide and distribute aid, like clothing, firewood, and food
  • Creating vital camp infrastructure like walkways and irrigation, and making the medical tent and other areas accessible to wheelchairs
  • Translating and navigating language barriers (Latifa is fluent in Farsi and Pashto, and can converse in Arabic and Urdu)
  • Providing crowd control
  • Sharing information and connecting people to services

The Woodhouses worked with and alongside volunteers from around the world and with the refugees themselves, from sunrise to well past sunset. “During the past four days we have gone to the shore at night and welcomed the boats that have arrived in the dark. There is truly so much one can do,” Latifa wrote from the field. “Especially with my language ability, I have been everywhere. At the health clinics to translate for doctors. At clothing facilities to make sure every one is fitted properly. At the information booth to guide them to buy their tickets for Athens and how to register as they arrive from Turkey. It goes on and on. I have become everyone’s aunt and sister.”

“We must be involved”

The Woodhouses embody the values that UUSC puts into action every day. Martha and Waitstill Sharp, two of UUSC’s founders, carried out vital missions in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, rescuing Jews, dissidents, and refugee children at great personal sacrifice. “There’s no better organization to take this work on than UUSC, given its history and legacy,” says Colin. “UUSC and the story of the Sharps inspired us. The similarities are incredible — this refugee crisis is global and it’s the worst since World War II.  We must be involved.”

With a shifting situation that changes daily, working with local grassroots groups that know the realities on the ground is essential. Europe has been further tightening its borders and shutting its doors to the refugees arriving on its threshold. Christen Dobson, program director of research and policy at the International Human Rights Funders Group, recently wrote: “Moria, the reception centre where asylum seekers were registered and received assistance and from which they were able to freely depart, has become a detention facility.”

The Woodhouses reported to their personal donors: “Refugees continue to arrive in Les[b]os every day, but now are regarded as criminals, locked up, and told they will be sent back to Turkey or their country of origin. For many, this is essentially a death sentence. . . . How can we force people to return to communities in ruin and homes in rubble? How can we send them back into the line of gunfire, brutality, and war? We cannot. We will, however, continue our efforts to bring compassion, love, comfort, and justice to the people who deserve no less.”

Indeed, this is why UUSC is committed to providing emergency aid, ensuring access to legal help and resettlement support, and advocating for necessary changes in policy and public perception of the refugees attempting to find safety and build new lives in Europe. Colin reflected on their time in Lesbos: “All we did was offer a little humanity.” Everyone deserves that. Asylum seekers are not criminals. And UUSC will continue to deliver aid with dignity to refugees throughout the Middle East and Europe.

What you can do

  • Donate to the UUSC-UUA Refugee Crisis Fund.
  • Talk to your friends, family, and legislators about the refugee crisis.
  • Learn how to take action with UUSC’s soon-to-be-released Refugee Support and Advocacy Tool Kit. Contact Hannah Hafter, UUSC’s senior program leader for activism, at hhafter @ uusc.org if you would like to get on the distribution list for the tool kit.

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