East Lansing Woman, MSU students Aid Refugees on Island of Lesvos

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Saturday, February 27, 2016, 10:14 am
Coleen Moyerbrailean

East Lansing resident, Sophia Koufopoulou, recently gave a talk at MSU about the refugee crisis on the Greek Island of Lesvos. The talk, sponsored by the Center for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies and James Madison College, looked specifically at the local and international responses to the massive influx of refugees landing on the island during the period of January 2015 to present day.

Koufopoulou is well acquainted with the island of Lesvos. She first went to live on the island with her family when she was an adolescent. She returned in the late 1990’s to attend the University of the Aegean in the island’s largest city, Mytilene, and since 2001 has been taking MSU Study Abroad students to the island every summer. She and her students experienced the refugee crisis first hand last year as thousands of refugees arrived by boat to the island.

Lesvos, population 80,000, is not unfamiliar with refugee issues. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Koufopoulou informed the audience, refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Africa began arriving in Lesvos. By the mid to late 2000’s, the numbers of refugees arriving increased and it became evident that the Greek government was unprepared for the influx of the more culturally and gender diverse population that also included large numbers of unaccompanied minors.

What distinguishes this current crisis from previous refugee situations is two-fold. First, Koufopoulou states that the problem “is new only in the sense that during 2015 refugees have come in massive numbers.” For instance, 51,592 refugees arrived on Lesvos in August, 89,690 in September, and 135,063 in October (according to The United Nations Humanitarian Council on Refugees). Second, the island is receiving and providing aid for the refugees “while simultaneously experiencing the worst economic crisis in [Greek] history.”

Koufopoulou explained that refugees escaping from Syria, Africa, and Eurasia take a land route through Turkey and then enter into Greece by crossing the Eastern Aegean Sea. There is no longer a land route from Turkey to Greece as a barbed wire fence was completed in December 2012 to prevent refugees from entering into northern Greece. Lesvos is only “5.5 nautical miles” from Turkey at its closet point and 12 at its furthest point. Refugees pay smugglers for space on tiny, unsafe boats or rubber rafts to make the journey from Turkey to Lesvos. Once on Lesvos, the refugees are given transportation on a ferry from Mytilene to Athens where they continue their European journey.

In the first few months of 2015, as massive numbers of refugees began to arrive, Koufopoulou described the local reaction as “bewilderment and numbness.” There were some “small acts of kindness” towards the refugees, but there was also some hostility, particularly on the part of the Greek men who believed the refugee men were “cowards” for running away from the fight in their homeland. That hostility changed when media reports showing the conditions in Syria and Afghanistan began emerging.

While the initial reaction of the locals was “shock,” Koufopoulou said they quickly came to an “overwhelmingly positive response.” The majority of local residents and local Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) provided water and food for the refugees; provided shelter; organized communal kitchens and rehabilitation camps; and donated and distributed clothes and hygienic items between January and August 2015. The actress Vanessa Redgrave was in Athens in January 2016, and made the following comment: “Greek people are showing the world how to be human. They’re showing the world how to try to help fellow human beings. Greece can’t solve this problem, and yet Greece has given us the most important lesson of all: the lesson of humanity.”

It was in August, with 20,000 refugees waiting in the city of Mytilene to be taken to Athens that the international media picked up the story. The international recognition meant the arrival of the International Non-Government Organizations (INGOs). Koufopoulou acknowledges that the INGOs have provided valuable supplies and resources, but they have also created friction between themselves and the Greek people.

The INGOs brought “paid volunteers” to the island. Local residents “[don’t] understand the notion of a volunteer-employee,” according to Koufopoulou. “For them, volunteerism equals social solidarity” and “social solidarity has no monetary value.” The INGOs have also presented themselves to the world media as “the only saviors of the crisis,” which negates the work the locals have done and continue to do. Another mistake Koufopoulou believes the INGOs made was not working with the Greek NGOs or the people of Lesvos. She explains that time and money could be saved if efforts were coordinated.

Koufopoulou returned to Lesvos three times in 2015 after she was there with her MSU students in the early summer. She is set to go again this week. The United Nations Humanitarian Council on Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that in the first month and a half of 2016, 76,607 refugees have arrived on Lesvos. Koufopoulou describes this as “incredible given extremely cold, rough condition of the Aegean during the winter months."

Shaw and Manssur in Greece

Two of Koufopoulou’s students from last summer shared with me what their experience was like on Lesvos. One student, Emma Shaw, an MSU senior majoring in Geography, recalls knowing “that Greece was in the middle of a fiscal crisis” but “did not know the magnitude of the refugee issue.” (Shaw traveled to Lesvos last May, three months before the international press picked up the story.) Likewise, Rachel Manssur, an MSU senior majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in Human Capital and Society, was “only somewhat aware of the situation on Lesvos, but was by no means prepared for it.”

Manssur stated that the “sheer magnitude is unfathomable, until you see it for yourself.” She was “shocked” and “felt helpless.” Shaw reports that her “reaction when faced with the magnitude of the crisis was shock and sadness.” Both women helped while on the island and continue to do so here in East Lansing. Shaw has been going to lectures and talking with other students, “in order to get the word out and share my personal experiences.” Her goal is for “people to know that these refugees are people, just like you and me.” She will be returning to Lesvos this summer to intern with a local NGO to “help further.”

Manssur has been involved with the Refugee Development Center in Lansing as an after-school English tutor for children of refugees. She participated in Alternative Spartan Breaks where she and 11 other Spartans volunteered with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Atlanta, GA. And like Shaw, Manssur is talking, “constantly talking about my study abroad, and advocating for this social issue.” Her belief is “educating ourselves and others is one of the most important things we can do.” To learn more about Shaw’s and Manssur’s experiences in their own words, you can read the full text of their interviews.

One student, Gabby Lotarski, started a GoFundMe page that raises money to support a local NGO called Synyparxi (which means “coexistence”). Koufopoulou praises the Synyparxi organization for acting “as a bridge of communication between the Refugees and the people of Lesvos.” The NGO has a history on the island and the people trust and respect the work it does, but it does not receive funding from the Greek government. The only funding it receives are private donations. The money that Koufopoulou and the GoFundMe raises is used to buy basic supplies like “bread, cheese, tea, water” and hygiene items that are distributed daily to the refugees. So far, the fund has raised over $4,000, but much more is needed.

Each time Koufopoulou delivers money that has been raised in Michigan, she says it has an “effect on the people in Lesvos.” They are “proud” that the work they are doing for the refugees is being recognized in Michigan and it helps them to know that they have “not been forgotten.”

Koufopoulou is grateful for the support she has received from The First Christian Church, the MSU community including the Sociology Department and students Emma Shaw, Rachel Manssur, Maria Bacarela, and Gabby Lotarski, and the East Lansing community.

Donations to aid the refugee aid effort may be made at https://www.gofundme.com/greecerefugee2015.

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