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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Local nonprofit works with refugee camps in Greece

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Dana Sachs talks helping refugees in Greece.

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Noted author and humanitarian, Dana Sachs makes her home in Wilmington, but her words and heart are felt around the world. A few years ago her book, “The House on Dream Street,” brought a year of educational activities about Vietnamese culture to Wilmington through the One Book One Community program. She spent part of last summer in Greece working with refugees. From the experience, a new nonprofit, Humanity Now, was born  in April 2017. Sachs, a UNCW alum, was kind enough to share insight about the work she and her cofounders have been doing.

IN SEARCH OF A  NEW LIFE: Tens of thousands of refygees have been displaced and are stranded in Greece. Local nonprofit Humanity Now is  reaching out in multiple ways to help them rebuild their lives. Photo by Michael Honneger

IN SEARCH OF A NEW LIFE: Tens of thousands of refygees have been displaced and are stranded in Greece. Local nonprofit Humanity Now is reaching out in multiple ways to help them rebuild their lives. Photo by Michael Honneger

encore (e): Who all is involved in Humanity Now?

Dana Sachs (DS): We have four cofounders, [including myself]: Stephanie Meyers, Jennifer Maraveyias and Carol Atwood. Two other people are also integral to our success: Wilmington businessman Bucky Stein and Dora Maravegia, a Greek healthcare worker and community activist, who serves as our representative on the ground in Athens.

e: Who came up with the idea of Humanity Now?

DS: We started out informally, just raising money to take to Greece to support various volunteer groups working on the ground there. Except for a few notable exceptions—like Doctors Without Borders—the large international aid organizations have not done a good job at addressing the needs of the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants who have been stuck in Greece since borders closed in the spring of 2016. Small independent groups, mostly run by volunteers, have stepped up to try to fill the gaps.

When we began this work, we just wanted to raise money to support those groups. The response from people here in the United States has been extremely positive, though, and it inspired us to create a more formal organization so that we can continue this work into the future.

e: Are you a local chapter of a national group, or is the Wilmington group a solo project?

DS: We are not part of any national or state group. We are a brand new nonprofit corporation.

e: What was the trigger to launch?

DS: I first began working with refugees in camps in Greece when I travelled there with a friend last year. I was so inspired by the plight of these people, by the extent of their needs, and by the successful and creative efforts of the independent volunteer movement that I wanted to get more involved. When I returned to Wilmington and was telling people about it, local businessman Bucky Stein said, “Let’s do a fundraiser for the refugees.”

We held our first event at Thalian Hall a year ago, and the project has been growing ever since. Stephanie, Jennifer and Carol got involved and, over the past year, we’ve been able to raise about $85,000 for direct relief projects in Greece. We’ve spent every dollar of it. Because we’re small and all-volunteer, we don’t have any expenses (each member of our group covers all her own travel expenses), so everything we raise goes straight to helping these needy people.

e: Why are the refugees in Greece—from what?

DS: The conflicts in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have led to the displacement of millions of people. In Syria the numbers are extraordinary. Approximately half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million have had to flee their homes. About half of those people are internally displaced and remain in Syria. Millions of others have ended up in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Others have continued north, trying to reach the safety of Europe. After Europe closed the border between Greece and Macedonia in the spring of 2016, tens of thousands of refugees and migrants became stuck in Greece. Many of them remain in extremely difficult conditions in refugee camps, abandoned buildings, and on the streets. The work we do is meant to help make their lives a little easier.

e: Tell us a little about your first trip there: What did you expect? What happened?

DS: I had been to a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand once. The situation in that place was definitely grim, but it operated in many ways like a city. People had been living there for years, so, although the conditions were very basic, life functioned rather normally. They had commerce, simple private homes, schools… When I first visited Greece, I found the camps to be much more basic and miserable. People were living in tents. They were cold, muddy, hungry, and full of anxiety about their futures. They had to spend hours every day standing in lines for necessities, like food, clothing, even diapers for their babies—and they had no certainty of receiving any of it. I was surprised by the difficulties these people faced. I was also surprised by their resilience. Children still played. People smiled. They made the best of an awful situation.

e: Were you surprised by the stories you encountered? Are there one or two that really stuck out for you?

DS: I have heard so many stories. One Syrian mother told me about walking into Turkey to escape the fighting in Syria. She was all alone with five children—a 13-year-old, a 6-year-old, a 5-year-old, a 2-year-old, and a newborn baby. She hadn’t even fully recovered from giving birth yet. They walked across the border through the mountains at night in the middle of winter. She and her 13-year-old daughter had to carry the other children, plus their baggage. At one point, the smugglers who were leading them yelled, “You’re going too slowly. You have to either leave your children or your luggage.” Of course, you know what she chose. She tossed aside all of her belongings, except for passports, money, and one change of clothes for each of the little ones. Then they kept walking. They all survived.

e: You wrote a book about Operation Baby Lift. Do you see any correlations between that time and now in Greece?

DS: “The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam” examines how humanitarian efforts both saved the lives of displaced children and, in some cases, tore families apart. These days humanitarian actors place a much stronger emphasis on keeping families together. That is, to me, a really important development.

Another difference is back in 1975, following the war in Vietnam, other countries worked hard to resettle refugees from Indochina. That’s not happening now. The resettlement effort has stalled and left millions of people in limbo.

e: What do you have planned for the next trip? How do you figure out logistics? Do you have a liaison organization you work with, and what sort of reception do you get in Greece by officials and Greek people?

DS: We have spent time both in Northern Greece and in Athens, where we have visited numerous refugee camps and also the “squats,” or abandoned buildings, where many displaced people end up trying to make temporary homes. This summer we plan to visit both of those regions, but also travel to Lesvos Island, where hundreds of thousands of refugees first arrived in Greece. Several very crowded camps still remain on the island, so we plan to volunteer there and also see how we can use the funds we raise to help various small volunteer teams working on the ground.

Over the past year, we have developed very strong relationships with a number of these teams. They do extraordinary work with very little money. When we support these teams, we can see an immediate and positive impact on the lives of displaced people.

e: What do you wish people understood about the refugee crisis in Greece or anywhere in the world?

DS: There is a lot of talk of terrorism these days, and it is scary, but these refugees do not threaten us. They are themselves the victims of terrorism. Back home, they were teachers, businesspeople, farmers, doctors, students. They have so much potential. We are all safer when there’s peace in the world and people have stable homes.

e: Anything else we haven’t covered?

DS: We’ve been able to support some wonderful and life-affirming projects, all through the generous support of our friends, family and neighbors back home. We have helped to fund the Schoolbox Project, which provides trauma-informed education to children whose lives have been touched by war. We’ve bought refrigerators and kitchen supplies for people living in abandoned buildings. Last winter, which was excessively harsh in Northern Greece, we were able to fund the distribution of thousands of pairs of mittens and knit caps to refugees living in tents. We have funded a model bike-sharing program, which allowed refugees living in remote areas to ride into urban centers for shopping—or just to have a little fun. Our projects have included diaper distribution, shoes for two refugee soccer teams, art supplies, paint for a mural project, fresh milk, and a hen house full of chickens, which provide eggs for displaced people living in an abandoned Athens school.

e: You have a fundraiser coming up for the cause. What should people bring? Do they need to register in advance?

DS: We’re having a big cookout on June 4 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Queensboro, which is located at 1400 Marstellar Street in Wilmington. It’s a very cool space and great for a party. The event is completely free (including food, wine, beer, and T-shirts), but we hope people will bring their checkbooks and donate generously to Humanity Now. Every dollar we receive goes directly to our relief work in Greece. Everything for the party has been donated by friends and generous corporate sponsors, so we have absolutely no expense costs. We’d like to get a head count so we know how much food we need. So, we ask people to RSVP at info@humanity-now.org.

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