Images of Middle Eastern refugees desperately fleeing civil war, Russian bombs and the Islamic State have seared into the minds of the citizens of the Western world. Greece is a primary destination of this haggard flow of humanity.
Boats bobbed through the Aegean Sea towards Athens where Greece’s angels and international volunteers greeted the worn travelers with food, clothes and medicine. Southwestern College student Mary York was one of the angels. She flew to Greece during her winter break to volunteer for Helping Hands.
“A lot of Afghan and Iranian refugees are coming to Athens,” she said. “Some are coming because of the war and some of them are coming because of the oppressive government. A lot of them are coming because of religious persecution.”
York said she had been interested in working in a ministry assisting refugees for some time and in November 2015 she saw her chance.
“This group works specifically with Iranian and Afghan refugees,” she said. “There’s been a steady stream of refugees coming from Afghanistan especially for the last 20 years.”
York said she was excited, relieved and anxious about her trip.
“I’ve done a lot of international work, so I wasn’t concerned about fundraising for the trip. I’m used to that kind of thing,” she said. “I was really worried about the little details. This specific kind of work was new to me.”
Helping Hands keeps itself in the center of Athens where most refugees wait for smugglers, transports or to process paperwork.
“It’s basically been the spot to go to for a long time,” she said.
Her usual day consisted of pouring tea for refugee men, making minimal eye contact, which is considered forward and inappropriate in Muslim culture. Muslim men see it as a sign of interest when women smile, make eye contact or reach out to touch hands, said York.
On Wednesdays, the center was open for women and children to shower. Some of the children, she said, played “refugee” as if they were playing house. York said many of the children had only known the life of a refugee and the sight of them playing make believe games of running to boats was strange.
“One of the stories I found the most amazing was this little boy who celebrated his second birthday while I was there,” she said. “His parents had come over about 18 months before and during their trip he had fallen out of the boat into the water and they couldn’t find him. They were finally able to grab him and pull him out, but he had stopped breathing completely. They thought he was dead. After two or three minutes they finally got him to start breathing again.”
So many refugees die at sea that Greek fishermen have become afraid of pulling in their nets because of the many corpses, said York.
“So many people told me they were coming because they were looking for God and they’re not allowed to look in the Middle East,” she said. “They’re not allowed to question Islam. They came to Europe because they knew that there they would be able to look for God.”
York said she hopes to continue relief work, but closer to home
“The next step for me is more local,” she said. “I know that the U.S. is going to be getting refugees and I know that some are going to be in Southern California. I would love to be a part of helping them acclimate to American culture to welcome them to their new home and to making them all feel a part of this country.”
York said trips like hers are necessary to bridge cultural barriers.
“I think that empathy and understanding come from knowledge and if we don’t know how can we empathize, how can we be compassionate?” she said.
York said the trip was very humbling.
“I was the servant and they were these honorable guests with these stories and what a privilege to give them a hot cup of tea and to listen to what they had to share,” she said. “How selfish it would have been of me to come back to my life and go on like it never happened, like they never happened. We should make changes here on the home front and trips like this are meant to train us so we can see what needs work in our own homes.”