Erin Schrode is a green girl and ecopreneur, mobilising millions of students and the public worldwide to go ‘green’ and make conscious lifestyle choices that promote global sustainability. While she goes on to steward environmental projects around the world, Grassroot Diplomat is recognising Erin as this month’s “Citizen of the Month” for herwork in the refugee crisis. New Yorker Erin recently travelled to Lesvos, Greece to help refugees arriving via boat from Turkey. Her eye-opening and heart-breaking accounts reveal some of the realities faced by these desperate individuals escaping from the threat of ISIS. She writes with intense emotion and detail, and her first-hand account is nothing like the tiny snippets captured by the news. An unabridged version of her story can be found on her Facebook page: facebook.com/erinschrode. For the first time in this publication, we reveal to you her personal account told by a young woman who wanted to “do something”.
Since this article was written, Erin is now running for Congress in the US which could make her the youngest member elected. Good luck on the campaign trail.
Why Am I Here?
I left my home in the States to be present, do whatever I could to help, no matter how seemingly small or fleeting. Why I am working with and for Syrian and other refugees on a distant Greek island off the coast of Turkey? Why this place? Why right now? Why this tragedy? “For you!” I tell the refugees with hugs and smiles. I needed to do something and, thanks to my stockpiling of air miles and cancellation of a speech, boarding a plane and showing up physically and fully was a possibility.
This is the largest humanitarian crisis our world has seen since World War II. Human beings are suffering to an unimaginable degree, forced to flee their homelands because of murder, bombing, beheading, rape, kidnapping, violence, danger, extremism.
I cannot tell you how many refugees arrived on the shores of Lesvos, but I would estimate upwards of 8,000 human beings. 62,000 people with 8,800 individuals arriving in Greece EVERY SINGLE DAY. The majority are Syrian (66%, according to a recent UN report), 21% from Afghanistan, 6% from Iraq, and the rest a mix of Somalia and other nationalities. The northern coastline of Lesvos has received 300,000 of the half a million people who have arrived in Greece this year.
A boat carrying 300 refugees sunk offshore – before my very eyes. Babies who reached shore alive soon perished, even under the master care of doctors – again, before my very eyes. The ultimate risk that these individuals take in leaving Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq became all too real with this loss of life. I apologized – on behalf of all of us around the globe who have failed these refugees on too many levels to count for too long.
“Why did you leave?” I probed one refugee, sincerely wishing to know his personal answer. “Da'ish,” he said, crossing his hands and flicking his wrists as if to gesture 'end of story.’
Da’ish is the Arabic acronym for ISIS. Da'ish is the reason that millions are fleeing their home countries of Iraq and Syria. Da’ish is terrorizing its people and directly responsible for immeasurable and untamed destruction.
Rami, a recent Syrian graduate with a degree in natural sciences, moved to Saudi Arabia to avoid being forced to fight in the Syrian army. “I will never kill my own people,” he told me. “You’ve got to be crazy.” Another Syrian family, Ziad and Adam, worked for American oil-related companies in Iraq before being approached and threatened by ISIS multiple times, forcing them to flee both their country of resident and home country. The refugees arriving by boat are not impoverished people, by and large, particular the Syrians – case in point: a doctor, a tech guru, college graduates with liberal arts degrees. These are educated, working professionals, who have been forced to leave their countries and are seeking a better life for their families. It is easy to cast off refugees as just that, refugees – and therein forget the humanity, the parity, the common ground.
Greeks have death appear on their doorstep, compelling action, as dozens opened restaurants, churches, homes to those in need. What haunted me were not phantom goblins and ghouls, rather the terrified all-too-real screams of men, women and children on faulty, overloaded rubber dinghies, as waves crash into and upon their boat. Moria, just outside Mytilini, Lesvos’ capital port city, is the location to which all refugees are bussed after making their way from the northern shores to transit camps, about an hour and a half drive. Barbed wire and cardboard signs to separate nationalities mark the entrance to the menacing camp: Syrians straight ahead, Afghans and Iraqis to the right. Syrian refugees, as well as the very small numbers from Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, Palestine, and Eritrea get papers for a six-month suspension of deportation. The fate of those from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Lebanon remains up in the air.
“Where should we go?" That was a real question posed to me by two refugees at the entrance to camp. “Belgium or Germany?" 18-year-old Mustafa and his 29-year-old uncle Muhammad stared and pointed at the laminated partial map of Europe for quite some time. “Where?!"
The tragic truth is that no one knows the best option, where refugees should go, how the world, particularly Europe, can or should deal with the influx. We quickly discovered that there is no one in charge, no one to ask, no rule, no authority, no order. We approached a Greek police officer driving a tank through the property: no idea. A UNHCR administrator leading a family to the other side of the camp: not a clue. A Save the Children worker outside the organization’s packed tent: nothing. The lines were growing longer and the crowds more substantial, so we made our way to the front, where people’s faces were pressed against the chain link fence, eyes fixed on the processing tables on the other side, fingers poking through the small openings. I found myself on one side of a barbed wire-capped fence, a mass of Afghans and Iraqis on the other, being screamed at and threatened by police. So I ran over and asked to pass… the guard heard my English, glanced at my Red Cross ID around my neck, checked out my sunglasses (sure-fire sign of a foreigner) and unlocked the gate without pause.
I wanted to load my car, as there were 56 Moroccans awaiting a bus at the transit camp when I arrived, but a woman stepped in to forbid it. It is ILLEGAL to pick up or drive refugees anywhere on the island. It was considered ‘human trafficking’ and I had clearly broken that law thousands of time, shuttling dozens at a time between the shore, roads, bus stops, camps, and more. Fences, borders, walls, and seas may divide, but I refuse to accept such arbitrary and troublesome boundaries. I will fight for the dignity and respect of humanity – for my new friends, for my peers, children and elders alike, for my fellow human beings.
I am not suffering, not fleeing, not living the horror unfolding for too many around me. I feel like I have become something of a welcoming committee – not merely for Lesvos, but for Europe, for the West, for the world at large, for the next chapter in the lives of those arriving on the shores of the island. I have two arms in which to carry children from the sea and haul boxes of dry clothing, two hands to pull ashore boats and offer food or water, a pen with which to capture and tell this story, a computer on which to share images and words digitally, a brain to find simple solutions for bettering steps along the way and perhaps parts of the greater complexity, a phone to call for help in emergencies and document the situation through real time photography, a voice to first calm fears and then to raise awareness, and a heart to love unconditionally.
Our world cannot afford – morally, societally, legally, economically – to allow this travesty to continue. THIS IS A CRISIS. AND IT MUST CHANGE. STEP UP, SPEAK OUT, SPREAD THE WORD! Not tomorrow, today.
I thought I was ready to come face to face with Syrian refugees. I thought I was strong enough to welcome them off the boats here on the island of Lesvos. I thought I could take the tragedy unfolding firsthand in stride. But I was wrong.
There are three primary ways for everyday people, like you and me, to help:
- DONATE MONEY. Write a check or raise it! I recommend giving to two organizations with strong presence on the ground Help for refugees in Molyvos (aka Starfish Foundation, which will soon have a website with donate tab. Until then, I can collect on paypal: simply give to email@example.com) or Proactiva Open Arms, a remarkable team of Spanish lifeguards rescuing refugees and saving lives every single day. Your funds will be put to good use right away.
- SEND CLOTHES. Current needs include: socks, underwear, rain jackets, pants (all sizes!), sleeping bags, men’s and women’s shoes, scarves, gloves, blankets, clothes for preteens. Label boxes with contents and ship to:
Hellenic Post Office of Kalloni
C/o Starfish Foundation
81107 Kalloni, Lesvos, GREECE
- VOLUNTEER. Get on a plane to Lesvos and give your time, energy, and spirit. More hands are desperately needed in Molyvos and Mytilini – doctors, translators (Arabic, Farsi, Pashtu, Dari…), and willing to put in long hours to do whatever is needed. Join the Starfish Foundation team, write to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Volunteer” and provide dates, skills, and if you will have a rental car (which I highly recommend).
- WRITE to or CALL your government officials. Compel elected leaders to DO MORE. Policy changes are needed in the EU and worldwide.
When 8,800 refugees arrived on Greek shores every day last week and a boat with 300 people sank before our eyes, 66 of whom came to shore as dead bodies, there is no time to wait.