Three Roaring Fork Valley women help aid Middle East refugees
To learn more about the relief effort outlined in this story, go to www.operationrefugeechild.org
When Sarah Dogbe saw video images of a 3-year-old Syrian boy’s body wash ashore in Turkey in September, she knew she had to do something to help refugees fleeing war in the Middle East.
Seven months later, Dogbe and her sister Kate Lokken, both of Basalt, and Dogbe’s good friend Nancy Scheinkman of Aspen were in refugee camps in Greece, distributing backpacks designed to make life a little more tolerable for refugee children.
Dogbe’s research on how to help led her to Operation Refugee Child, a California-based organization that distributes backpacks stuffed with a wide assortment of items: toys, coloring books, clothing, underwear, flashlights with rechargeable batteries and electrolyte packets.
The three Roaring Fork Valley women teamed up with Operation Refugee Child founder Valentina Caceres in Los Angeles during the last week of April and flew with 800 backpacks to Athens. There, they undertook a weeklong aid mission that they said will forever change their outlook on life.
They started out looking for a family Caceres had helped before but were squatting with their extended family at an unknown location. Probing with their interpreter finally led them to where the family took refuge in an abandoned building. There were about 50 people living in a small space.
“That was shocking instantly because that was our first experience. From there it got worse,” Lokken said.
“Living like animals”
The women focused on distributing the backpacks and meeting families in unofficial, makeshift camps north of Greece, including Idomeni, on the border with Macedonia, where an estimated 10,000 refugees are holing up and hoping for passage to Europe.
The families were uprooted from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, including numerous Kurds. Many are women and children who are trying to reunite with husbands and fathers who went ahead earlier to find work in new homes.
The refugees are desperate for information about how to apply for entry in new countries and when they can go. Little information is forthcoming and nerves are on edge, Dogbe said, because the Greek government wants to relocate refugees into official camps.
The living conditions are deplorable, Dogbe said. Families live in the same type of tents that Aspen-area residents use for recreation. The camps often are set up on the edges of open fields. Wind rips the tent fabric. The ground is often muddy. The refugees are packed in without proper sanitary facilities.
“They can’t live like that. They are living like animals,” Dogbe said.
Welcomed with opened arms
Despite the trying conditions, the contingent found nearly everyone they encountered hospitable. Families often showed how they tried to make the best of their living conditions and regularly offered tea to their visitors, Lokken said. The children would jump into their arms. Mothers would hand over babies.
“I never felt unsafe ever,” Lokken said.
But she couldn’t help feeling hopeless at times. One camp they visited was created when refugees pitched their tents just off the road by an Eko gas station. The area had swollen to become “home” for more than 2,500 people.
Rather than have the children line up to receive the backpacks — and creating pandemonium — the women made it a point to try to visit the families and spend time with them. The three women slept at a hotel and ate breakfast and then hit the road. They spent between eight and 10 hours in the camps. Travel, runs to a warehouse and other logistics made for 12- to 16-hour days. That was their routine for five days.
Lokken said she would dive into their chores and not think too much at the time of the rough situation facing the refugees. She would break down “almost every day” at the end of the day, she said.
“When you meet a family and they bring you in, that can keep you going for three more days,” she added.
They realized how their problems pale in comparison with the people they met.
“I told Kate, ‘If I ever start complaining about stupid s— again, slap me,’” Dogbe said.
Scheinkman said she had traveled extensively and was aware of the refugee crisis. She volunteered her time because she was inspired by Dogbe’s determination to help.
She recalled visiting one camp where a teenage boy approached her and explained in broken English that he needed a doctor. He implored her to come to his family’s tent. She was uncertain if he thought she was a doctor or someone who could find aid.
At the tent was a small boy suffering tremendously from a fungal infection and other medical issues. Scheinkman was able to locate a doctor and bring him to the tent.
“I had been pretty stoic with everything that I encountered up to that point,” Scheinkman said. “I felt that was one thing I accomplished.”
She said she came back very confused by what she witnessed. Small, nongovernment organizations such as Operation Refugee Child were offering aid ranging from distributing bananas, tea service and medical care. But there was little presence by the United Nations providing what the refugees wanted the most — information on how to seek passage to host countries. Without information, the refugees will lose hope, Scheinkman said. With hope, they can tolerate just about anything.
She left the experience thinking it would behoove the world to make sure these refugees have a new home or face unknown consequences.
“This is how these children are going to grow up,” she said.
Dogbe said she wasn’t motivated by politics or religion to go on the relief effort but because the unwillingness of other countries to take in the refugees sickened her.
“People don’t want them because of the irrational idea that they’re all terrorists,” she said. In many cases when a family was willing to discuss their history, they described how they were fleeing the Islamic State group, she said.
Small steps, big help
Each of the women said she would return to offer aid at the refugee camps. While they were the ones giving something material, they were receiving something more in return, Scheinkman said.
They paid a price to do good deeds. They raised funds to pay for their own food, lodging and airfare. The nonprofit paid for the van they traveled in, the gas and the fee for flying the backpacks. The Roaring Fork Valley women also took time off work.
They tried to see some of Greece’s magnificent sights on their last full day, but their hearts weren’t in it. They chose to distribute more packs instead.
“None of us wanted to leave,” Lokken said.
Scheinkman said she will encourage people she knows in the Roaring Fork Valley to find a way to help the refugees. It can seem overwhelming and too large of a problem, she acknowledged. But she learned not to think of it as trying to save the world. She was content in trying to help one family at a time.
“What I’ve learned is it’s possible to make a difference,” Scheinkman said. “I will never shy away from this kind of work.”
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