It's important to note that this event is not a fundraiser. The group really wants to invite the community to see and hear what's been experienced in this ongoing crisis that has dropped from the headlines.
Humanity Now’s four founding women have traveled to Greece several times over the past 2 years to discover where financial help can make a big impact. Their latest trip was in June to a location they hadn’t visited before. One highlight of the trip was helping to create meaningful Ramadan meals for refugees. Listen above and see an extended transcript below. Humanity Now is composed of the four founding women: Dana Sachs, Stephanie Meyers, Jen Maraveyias, and Carol Atwood. Dana and Stephanie joined us in the studio.
Stephanie: There are four of us who make up Humanity Now Direct Refugee Relief.
Dana: We raise money in the United States and we take that money to Greece and we spend it on relief projects for refugees and migrants who are stuck in Greece.
Stephanie: That's what makes us a little different. Every cent we raise we try to do the best possible thing for the most people that we can. We pay all our own expenses. So we're able to use every dime that we raise to help people the best we can.
Dana: I first traveled to Greece to work in the Independent Volunteer Movement in the spring of 2016 and did a little bit of fundraising online and was able to use the money that I raised then to buy food and supplies for people that were living in tents and camps along the border between Greece and Macedonia. And when I came back, Stephanie and I started talking about how we could continue this. And then eventually Jennifer and Carol joined us and our idea is that the money that we spend and the relationships that we've developed over the past 18 months with people working on the ground there mean that we can use funds in a different way than large scale relief organizations do, or that your money could do if you just donated it to one of them. Because we don't have a lot of waste.
Gina: And zero administrative costs.
Dana: Yes. Zero.
Gina: And you also have control- you get to make the choices.
Stephanie: And we work very well together as a team. We talk about how we want to spend the money and what we should do and everybody chimes in and everybody has relationships with certain people and so we can all make the decision together on how to spend the money.
Dana: And this is new for us, so we've been learning a lot and we've become better and better at what we're doing. We look really closely at what people are doing in Greece while they're actually engaged in their relief work. So if we meet a team and we're interested in what they're doing, we'll go and watch them. We'll go to their sites and we'll see what they do and they'll talk to us about what they need money for and then we'll make a decision about whether or not to fund it. And then we keep in touch with them after we come back home and they send us pictures and they send us assessments and summaries and receipts so that we'll know whether our money is working or not working.
Gina: And you just went to Greece over the summer?
Stephanie: We went in June and this time we did something a little different. In the past we've gone to Athens and to the north and worked with the refugees there and this time we thought, let's do something a little different and see the refugee crisis from a different angle. So we went to Lesvos, to the island and it's right off the coast of Turkey. It’s the island where the refugees were coming on the rubber rafts. We went to Mytilini, which is the little town there, and you wouldn't even know there was a refugee crisis there because the refugees are all up in the hills in different camps. They're not in the middle of town, whereas in Athens, you see people walking around. You're very aware of what's going on.
And we found this place called Humans for Humanity. This woman is a Syrian from Michigan. Syrian American. She went over to volunteer and she met a man named Rafat, who is Syrian, and they got married. And he now is helping with the refugee crisis with her. They opened this warehouse up and they have clothing distribution, they serve food, they have a playroom for kids and they have a little grocery store, like a supermarket. We spent about a week working with them and they had this little market and it hadn't been open for weeks, so people weren't able to get any supplies they needed. So we funded supplying the store with diapers and baby food and oil and rice. And then Dana, Carol, Jennifer, and I worked the market, which was a really interesting experience because none of them spoke English and they were pointing to things on the shelves behind us. It was a really interesting experience.
But they were so grateful to be able to get things they needed. It was also heartbreaking. They had to pick between rice and oil or diapers. They couldn't have everything that they wanted. We served the Ramadan meal. We were there over Ramadan and that was very interesting. They ate very late. And we bought flip flops. We bought about 200 flip flops. All they had in their little clothing distribution room was boots and nothing anybody was wearing in the summer. So we bought a lot of flip flops with the money we raised. We paid for meals. We paid for the Ramadan meal. Hundreds of refugees were eating there every night and we bought all of the food for that.
Dana: The Ramadan meal was beautiful because the idea of this couple, Neta and Rifat, who run this warehouse community center, was that they wanted to have a meal for these people where the people who were eating were being served as if they were in a special place like in someone's home. And so all the volunteers went and literally served them at tables rather than having them line up and get their food and have it given to them in that way. We served it to them.
And so the idea was that we were trying to elevate them- not just so they would have an experience that meant more than what they usually experience, but that we can show them respect and that we valued them as people and as human beings who are not just this horrible experience in their lives personally, but this moment in their religious life that was really important to them and try to show them that we value that. And the people who are serving were not just foreign volunteers like us. There was a community of refugees who also wanted to serve because that was something that they were doing as part of their moral purpose or for religious reasons- they wanted to do something for other people.
Stephanie: And nobody makes reservations so you never knew how many people were coming. And they cooked the meals in this tiny little room upstairs. They didn't have stoves, they had little burners. Two women made the food for hundreds of people and they just stretched it out and everybody got to eat and it was pretty amazing what they did.
We have to remember that they are people just like us. The men wore suits and ties and had a car and drove to work. And the kids went to school. And when they left they took some things with them and between their smugglers and the water, they ended up probably with a baggie of a few things when their travel was over. They have nothing and it's just important to remember they are just like you and I. It could be you and I in another time. You never know. And it's heartbreaking to see.
Dana: I heard at one point another volunteer said we're all just one disaster away from becoming refugees ourselves. And I think, at a certain point, when we do this work you kind of come to this conclusion like, this is what I want the world to be like- that there are people who will help people who are in need. If only because we all realize that this could happen to us. And if I find myself in a situation like that I would like to know that somebody from Russia or Afghanistan or Ghana would be there to help me and would serve me food. When we call ourselves Humanity Now, we are thinking in a very literal way that this is what we should all be doing. This is what humanity needs now.
Gina: Tell me about the difference between the kind of attention it was getting when it was considered an emergency and the more chronic state of affairs.
Dana: You couldn't avoid the photographs in the media of the boats and people drowning and the children's bodies on the beach. It was really horrifying and that was during the emergency stage of this saga, which mostly took place in the summer and spring of 2015. That's when we were really paying attention. And right now there's not as many people coming across in boats. And so, when those boats stopped crossing- and they did so mostly for political reasons, not because people no longer need to get to safety- it sort of, this story receded from the newspapers because it wasn't life and death anymore. It was just this ongoing, relentless, difficult situation that these people were in. So we don't really hear about what's going on there anymore. Another thing that we want to do as part of Humanity Now is let people know that there are still a lot of refugees and migrants stuck in places all over the world and they need help.
Gina: You see a lot of the same people. Some of the same folks over time?
Gina: Are their spirits being degraded over time? Does that happen?
Stephanie: I think it does but I think it's also a little mixed. I think we're surprised when we meet people who are so positive and so sure they're going to get out, they're going to be reunited with their family. But there's also the other people who've had it. What are they going to do?
Dana: There's nothing that crystallizes someone's character like going through this kind of situation. I know a young man who was in hiding in Syria for three years in a room in his house because if he left his life would have been in danger. He finally escaped. He got to Greece and he was arrested because they thought he was a smuggler and he spent a year in prison in Greece and then he finally got out and basically the judge threw the case out, he was not guilty of anything. And he's working really hard and he's seen many friends die and he's just like, I’ve got to get a job.
And then he got a job, he got an apartment. He's a survivor. He will land on his feet. And then there's other people who have not necessarily experienced things to that degree and they're completely beaten down by the experience. Either people have resilience or they don't.
Stephanie: And there's a lot of women with young children who can't go get a job and they can't get out and they're really stuck and they need food and diapers and they need people to help them. It's just not there for them.
Dana: There are a lot of single women with a lot of children by themselves there because they're trying to reunite with their husbands who are already farther into Europe and they're by themselves and in tents or in camps with three, four, or five children. It's really difficult.
Gina: Can they cross borders?
Dana: No. They can't leave Greece legally. They have to get some permission to leave the island
Stephanie: But they're not leaving Greece. And then of course, Greece has no money. Athens is really dirty. There's graffiti everywhere. It’s a tough place to be stuck.
Dana: It is. There's no way to make a living for yourself. There's no way to take care of yourself.
Gina: Are you going to go back?
Dana: Yes, we're going to go back.
Stephanie: Yes, we're going to go back.
Stephanie: We want to go back and want to stay connected to these people. Keep helping them as much as we can.
Dana: A lot has changed in the last year and a half and with the lack of media coverage there. There's also a decreasing amount of interest in the situation for those people. And people that are working on the ground in Greece have come to depend on us, not that we're anything huge but sometimes we can be a major source of income for them to do certain projects that they really want to do. It's important to them. And I think we all feel that we now play a role for several thousand people that are there. We help them. And I don't think any of us want to turn our back on that.
Like we spent several thousand dollars to give a small aid team money so that they could buy seedlings to give to each individual family in a camp of 800 people so that each family could start a little kitchen garden and grow tomatoes and grow herbs and maybe grow flowers because it's in this really barren place- the hottest spot in Greece. And hopefully right now they're growing these tomatoes and flowers because Humanity Now sent a couple of thousand dollars there and was able to pay for that. And that makes their lives just a little bit better.
Gina: So do you have any fundraising coming up?
Stephanie: We have a youcaring page if people want to donate, that's through our web site humanity-now.org. We're regrouping from the June trip and we are going to go back and we are going to decide when our next trip will be and then we'll plan our next fundraiser and we'll go from there.
Gina: Can people be involved in any in any other way besides donation?
Dana: Sure. If people have ideas or if people want to go and volunteer there and they're looking for guidance, there are a lot of groups that need volunteers, especially for periods of longer than just a few days. And there's a lot of groups that are bringing in volunteers to do work with children or women. Amazing kinds of projects. If somebody is interested in doing that, we can send them in the right direction.