Pope Francis will visit the Greek island of Lesbos Saturday to highlight the plight of the refugees who are fleeing war in the Middle East.
His visit is intended to show solidarity with the thousands who have risked their lives in the perilous journey here, and now face an uncertain future in detention camps.
Today, 52,000 refugees are trapped in Greece after the Balkan countries closed their borders to block the path to Germany and Sweden. Twelve thousand Syrian refugees, mainly women and children, have been stuck at Greece’s northern border with Macedonia. A European agreement with Turkey is designed to stem the tide of refugees seeking safe haven in Europe.
“They hugged and kissed us. It was like we gave them the world back.”
- Kara Schiff, 41, of Weston, Conn.
Approximately a half million people have lost their lives since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Five million Syrians have fled their war-ravaged homeland, according to the International Organization for Migration.
So far this year, more than 320 refugees have drowned while trying to reach Lesbos, a gateway to Europe that’s only a few miles across the Aegean Sea from Turkey’s western coast.
Kara Schiff, 41, of Weston, Conn., gave Fox News a close-up view of conditions on Lesbos, where she worked in February and March as a volunteer with IsraAid, an Israeli non-profit that helps victims of war and natural disasters throughout the world. IsraAid is one of many humanitarian organizations that have brought volunteers to help with this refugee crisis.
Schiff, an advanced emergency medical technician who works for a Greenwich, Conn., non-profit ambulance service, has seen her share of pain and suffering. But her experience on Lesbos, which she describes as a life-changing one, presented her with situations she could not have imagined.
On February 23, she helped deliver a baby boy to a 12-year-old Syrian girl. The girl’s parents had sold her to a 50-year old man in order to raise money to evacuate the rest of the family, Schiff said.
“The girl was catatonic. She didn’t want any of the male practitioners to help or touch her,” said Schiff, describing the birth. “That little girl wasn’t prepared to be a mother… the child wasn’t ready to be anything more than a kid.”
Herself the mother of 4 children, aged 4 to 14, Schiff found this devastating.
Many of the refugees are dehydrated, said Schiff, and living on one slice of bread a day. They suffered from hypothermia that was worsened by the cold February water that splashed their rubber boats during the dangerous night crossings. Schiff and other aid workers would wade into the water to rescue the old people and children who were often in dire need of emergency care.
One day a fellow volunteer passed a 5-month-old boy to Schiff from a boat that had just been pulled ashore. Turkish smugglers had put the infant on board, while keeping the parents behind at gunpoint, thereby forcing them to pay a second fare to be reunited with their baby.
“I felt happiness that the child ended up here,” Schiff replied when asked what she felt as she held the nameless infant on the rocky Lesbos beach, “But sadness because I didn’t know what would happen to him without his parents.”
According to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, six thousand minors have been separated from their parents during this largest migration of people since World War II. Germany absorbed more than a million refugees last year.
Little comforts often made a big difference, Schiff said. For instance, the volunteers gave a used stroller to the parents of a 6-year-old boy who could not walk because he had no bones in his feet. His mother had to always carry him.
“They hugged and kissed us,” Schiff recalled. “It was like we gave them the world back.”
Schiff said that she and the other volunteers smothered their emotions as they went about their work. They did not allow themselves to express their feelings. And then they found an earless black lamb on the side of a road. They named him George. Schiff bottle-fed George for the time she was on Lesbos.
A few days before Schiff returned to the United States, the little lamb died. They buried him in the refugee camp.
“George’s death gave us an outlet to release our emotions,” Schiff said. “We all sat down and cried and hugged.”
Donald Snyder was a news producer at NBC for 27 years and has been a freelance writer since his retirement. He specializes in Germany and Eastern Europe.