I spent twenty-six days as a volunteer at the refugee camps in Greece. I was stationed at Moria, which is currently the only camp where refugees can register in Europe. We received anywhere between one thousand to four thousand new arrivals each day.
Aside from being an immensely humbling experience, I was honored to meet some of the world’s strongest survivors of pain, loss, torture, and destruction.
These people are not victims; they are survivors. We are one in the same, and it’s up to us to comfort them in their journey to freedom.
Why did I go?
I experienced a chaotic year – moved 7 times for reasons of fate and of course a few poor decisions, traveled to about fourteen countries, ended a long wonderful but outgrown relationship and then, on top of it all, left my job in fashion/commercial production in September.
The refugee crisis was very much calling me at the time I quit my job. I am Egyptian, and many of my family members were in fact refugees themselves, my parents being refugees to the U.S. in the early 80s. Now, in 2015, watching this constant outlay of destruction hit the Middle East and displace so many families was devastating.
My dear friend, who has been working as a humanitarian for several years, was called to join the refugee crisis in Greece, in response of the major influx to the island of Lesvos. She had been there for about two months when she emailed me, aware of my past year, and asked me to join her on “this great walk of life”, emphasizing how healing this experience would be. So I booked a flight and started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the trip.
Arriving on the island and camp.
Upon my arrival the island immediately felt morbid and consumed with great sadness. The roads were littered with life jackets, aluminum foil capes and destroyed baggage.
Arriving at the camp was like entering an entirely separate world, a dark dimension. The chaos was surreal. It felt like a film set. Police patrolling groups of refugees, speaking to them in a language they’ve never heard before. Smoke, fire and trash everywhere. I saw women exhausted, holding their children as they cried loudly from hunger and discomfort. There were entire families embracing one another as they sit in 30 degree weather completely drenched in sea water and men sitting defeated staring into their new world of constant survival mode.
Clothing distribution at camp site.
With a background solely in beauty, fashion and production, I had no idea what I would be able to offer in the camps. It was recommended that I manage the task of clothing distribution. Zara, amongst other international donors, had shipped in large containers of clothes. We bought heaters and installed solar powered lights (both of which do not exist on the camp of course), had incense burning, laid a carpet on the floor, had drapery. With the money I raised from my GoFundMe campaign, we also purchased boots, sneakers, panties, socks, sanitary napkins, bars of soap and much more from local businesses on the island. We had opened a small “boutique” of sorts.
Soon, I had lines of hundreds out the door. No exaggeration. I allowed groups of six in at a time (6 men or 6 women in respect of culture and privacy).
Immediately, you began to feel the type of experience they were having at the “boutique”. They weren’t begging for a bottle of water, they weren’t being treated like animals. No, they were in the comfort of a safe place where they had 10 minutes of complete freedom to choose… a dry, warm and possibly favored outfit. I held children while mothers roamed the shabby racks of clothes, daydreaming of their past lives and hopeful of a better life to come. We shared stories of taste, culture, style, music. Our team also built a small tea station next to the distribution center, keeping thousands of people just a bit warmer through the night. We added fairy lights, giving a sense of ambiance into this rather unpleasant, frightening journey. Everyone who stepped into that little “boutique” walked in with nothing but the soaking sneakers on their feet and ripped veils, but there was an energy of choice inside that allowed them to defer their reality, even if just for 10 minutes.
I had the honor of meeting a beautiful young girl who had walked tens of days with her mother all the way from Iran to Turkey to take a life-threatening boat ride to the shores of Greece, to escape being sold into sex slavery.As she was leaving the “boutique”, she stopped to ask me, “Why are you being so nice to us?”. I was caught by surprise and without even thinking I said, “Because I love you.” She embraced me and whispered she loved me too.
My passion project. #threadsforhumanity
After seeing the success of the boutique in terms of efficiency, management and the high records of distribution we were able to maintain daily, I decided to start my own movement here in the United States is called “#threadsforhumanity” which I plan to launch early 2016. The mission is connecting supply (i.e. clothing from individuals/fashion brands) and demand (i.e. refugees + those in need). If you were to put “supply + demand” on a venn diagram, that connecting center is choice. The experience to choose helps shape decision-making for the future. The option to choose reminds us that we have our dignity, rights, freedoms that we carry with us always. It reminds us that we are all connected, we are all one, we all deserve these basic rights of respect and choice.
To learn more about and support Sylvia Zakhary’s #threadsforhumanity check out her GoFundMe campaign.