Israelis Lend a Helping Hand to Syrian Refugees in Greece
The Greek Island of Lesvos is a quiet vacation spot where tourists relax and local children play in peace. But on the other side of the island, a very different scene is unfolding.
Every day, thousands of refugees arrive on this shore. Most are fleeing the Syrian civil war, hoping to resettle in Europe.
Waiting to help them on the beaches of Greece are the last people they Syrians might expect. Volunteers from Israel.
Iris Adler lives in Tel Aviv, and just finished medical school at Tel Aviv University. She came to Greece through IsraAID as a member of its medical team in Lesvos.
"We see babies, which are only a few days old; old people at the age of 90 to 95, even. We get many people from Syria, from Iraq, also Afghanistan, Iran," Adler said.
The IsraAID team is a mix of doctors and nurses, both Jewish and Arab.
Manal Shehade is from Nazareth, and is IsraAID's team leader in Greece.
"I am a Palestinian citizen of Israel; Arabic is my mother tongue," Shehade told CBN. "I am also a Christian, so I am a minority inside a minority in Israel."
"Being aware of my history, my background, the history of what my people went through, this is something that appeals to me and I can help refugees, so this is my job, and this is what I should be doing," she said.
Adler explained, "Our job here is to receive the boats of the refugees from the Turkish side to the Greek side. There are many, many volunteers on the beach, not many medical teams, so our job is first of all, to help them get out from the boat, and get to the beach safely. Most of them come here dehydrated and in hypothermia. Sometimes the journey takes many hours, and they get here very wet and cold."
"On the line from the Turkish side, they're going through a lot of problems," Shehade said. "There are smugglers; they are asking for them to pay between $1,000-$5,000 per person. A lot of times, they're shoving them into boats that should fit 50 people, but there are 150 people in the boat. If the captains that are belonging to the Turkish smugglers are on boat, they just leave them midway through the sea and tell them, 'You find your own way to Greece; we,re not responsible on you.' Or they fill up half a tank of gas, and then just leave them in the middle of the sea."
Tali Shaltiel is an IsraAid volunteer.
"What we do is go to high points, be with binoculars, searching and scanning the water," Shaltiel said. "And you start looking for this black with orange dots. And then it comes nearer, and you start seeing the rubber boat and all the people on it. Every time it's like 1-2-3 - it begins, you know, it's a few minutes of chaos: taking off the babies, people screaming, shouting, helping them. You know a lot of them don't know how to swim; they're afraid from the water.
Team member Majeda Kardosh is a nurse from Nazareth.
"Here's the point where we start doing a triage - very fast, by hearing their talking, looking at the refugees, so we can see who is in need of medical help," she said. "And I start shouting, 'who needs a doctor?' in Arabic, and so this is the time that we start giving them treatment."
"After that we start giving them food and water, warm clothes, something to eat, to drink because some of them didn't have any water or food for like one or two days," Kardosh continued. "And after that I take the map -- we have a map that we translated in Arabic -- explain to them what is the next step."
"Now they don't know where the are, okay? So the first thing I tell them (is) they are in Lesvos Island in Greece because some of them have like no idea where they are," she explained. "Most of them, they have nothing. They just come with the clothes only. Why? They had to throw their bags in the sea, or the smugglers took their bags and threw it into the sea."
"After a couple of days of assessing the field, we understood that the biggest need was a way to communicate to the refugees who come," Shaltiel said. "So we brought a team from Israel which is Arab-speaking, and the effect was amazing."
"Hearing your language is very important to them, and getting the instructions - where to go, what to do next, what the next step are, because they have a lot of uncertainty," Adler added.
Although Israel and Syria are technically at war, none of that matters here on the beach.
"Usually, when they get to the beach, they're just happy to see people waiting for them, you know, giving them help and food and clothes, and medical treatment," Adler said. "Sometimes they realize who we are, and they're just happy to see us, and they hug us and kiss us, and it's very exciting."
Shaltiel said, "You get lovely, warming reactions of hugs, and men kissing me like I'm their daughter, you know, on the forehead, saying 'Thank you. You know, I never thought that I'm gonna be able to receive treatment, or be able to speak, from an Israeli doctor, or share my story with an Israeli who will empathize with what I've been through.'"
"This guy, he had, I think, a sprained ankle," she recalled. "And we put some bandage, and I wanted to take out of my bag some medicine to ease the pain, a painkiller, and while I'm looking in my bag, this guy asked Majeda in Arabic, where am I from. Like 'Where is she from? Where is she from?' And she was telling him, 'What does it matter? You need help now; she's here to give it to you. Why are you focusing on that?'"
"We continued with our work and whatever we were doing at the time, and a few minutes afterwards, he comes to me with a package of biscuits that he brought from Turkey for the journey, giving me something from the nothing that he had and apologizing for not respecting me or questioning me. Just giving me, you know, a thanks for being there," Shaltiel said.
Nurse Kardosh explained that IsraAID is an "unpolitical organization."
"What they do is help people in a disaster situation, and this is what I'm doing." she said. "And this is what they teach me at nursing school - to treat a human, no matter what he is, which religion he have, which color he is, what language he talks."
"To see a 60-year-old Arab man burst into tears on the shore - that's something that you don't see every day," Shaltiel added. "Being able to give a hand, give a hug, water, medical treatment - yeah, it's a privilege."
Offshore, IsraAID doctors also provide trauma counseling for families in refugee camps.
"We start with the communication, talk in Arabic, or put only hand on his or her shoulder and try to make them feel better," Kardosh said. "You know, as much as we can."
A refugee named Adam told us, "In my country, in Syria, or the Lebanon, it's becoming very hard. There is no future for anyone. Yesterday, I have coming here with the plastic boats. I would say that they are amazing people here, and I'm really thankful everyone working with these people They are really helping us and helping a lot of people here, a lot of children."
Shehade explained, "Because we come from a country where a lot of people suffer trauma because of the conflict and what's happening, so we have a lot of experience how to deal with trauma, how to deal with the conflict."
"And this is knowledge that we need to pass on to other people, to other countries," she added. "If we can help make their suffering less, or to support them, or to show them a different way, I think this is our duty."
"These people come here, they automatically get this title -- they are refugees, fleeing to Europe," Shaltiel said. "At the end of the day, they're just humans. They're families; they had honorable jobs, fulfilling life in the countries they are coming from and suddenly, they're coming here.They're treated and looked at as refugees when they're like human beings as me and you."
"And for me, when I meet those people, this is what I'm trying to give them - that feeling that I respect them," she explained. "That I feel them, that I connect to them at the most human level. I'm not above them; we're same; just now, they're on that side of the coin; tomorrow it might be me, and I will need their help."
Shaltiel went on to say, "I was thinking that it was 60 years ago, it was the Jewish people in Europe, during the Holocaust, after the Holocaust, making the journey to Israel or for different countries, and seeking for a safe home. We're always saying, you know, never again. When you see something difficult, for me, it's looking at my part, what's my responsibility? That's what we try to do, you know , we're coming as humans, meeting other human beings, and this is how changes starts.
"They are very lovely," Adam said. "They are giving me hope to my future. They are really cool people."
"I think that helping other people is a very important thing in the Jewish tradition," Adler said. "We can't just sit back and watch what's going on - we have to come and do the best we can, and if we touched few people's life, I think that's a lot."