Chronicling Syrians’ Personal Stories of Struggle to Reach Safe Refuge

Sarah Rogers
On the left, a Syrian refugee rejoices after arriving on an overcrowded raft to the island of Lesbos, Greece on November 12, 2015. (Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images Reportage)

Leaving Syria: Seeking Refuge in Greece
By Bill Dienst, MD and Madi Williamson
Cune Press, 2017

On Friday January 27, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that, for a 90-day period, suspended immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States from Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. It also, for a period of 120 days, suspended the Refugee Resettlement Program,       placing an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. Immediately, protests erupted at airports around the
U.S. as authorities detained travelers. In the coming weeks, protests and vigils continued daily in rural towns and urban centers throughout the U.S. Stories of affected individuals flooded the news, bringing the Syrian refugee crisis to the forefront of the American media. However, as the thoughtful and provocative publication, “Leaving Syria: Seeking Refuge in Greece,” makes clear, the plight of Syrian refugees traces back to a much longer and tragic history.

Written in the present tense, and narrated through short personal reflections by healthcare and humanitarian volunteers, “Leaving Syria” details the daily emotional, physical, and bureaucratic hardships of Syrian refugees crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek Island of Lesvos. Dr. Bill Dienst authors the majority of chapters, although other volunteers, primarily U.S.-based, write a number of contributions. The book also includes two sets of poems by Syrian refugees. Although many of the authors do not speak Arabic, the tone throughout proves one of sensitivity and awareness.

Divided into four sections, “On the Island of Lesvos” immediately introduces the reader to the overwhelming stress and commotion greeting the refugees’ arrival on the Greek island: capsizing boats, drowned children, hypothermia, and hysterical family members searching for loved ones lost at sea, or sent to the hospital. The book addresses the magnitude of refugees to Lesvos (in late October 2017, over 7,000 refugees crossed in boats during one 24-hour period); the procedures greeting their arrival; daily life in the make shift and military camps; the effects of the refugees on the economy of Lesvos; risks of human trafficking for children; and the minute by minute frustrations experienced by volunteers hindered not only by the magnitude of the crisis, but also by feuding NGOS, language barriers, and riots between the Greek military, volunteers, and refugees.

Next, “Stranded in Macedonia” reveals the ways in which political decisions shift, yet again, the rules, regulations, and make-shift infrastructure of the volunteer heath care system. A chapter, written by Dienst, discusses the historical background of the crisis, while others highlight the stories of individual refugees, women’s health, and pregnancy in the camp.

A section on “Military Camps,” opens with the 2016 agreement between Turkey and the European Union to block smugglers from taking refugees across the straits. Additionally, a number of countries (Hungary, Bulgaria, Austria, and Slovenia, to name a few) closed their borders and a massive number of refugees became stranded in Athens, causing volunteer operations to move locations to the capital. With the necessity for Greece to address the refugee crisis as long term, the make shift camps closed, forcing refugees to move to relocation centers, or military camps, run by the Greek government. The book details those changes as they created further strain among the refugees. Finally, in “Reflections,” volunteers contemplate their experience in Greece upon their return home, far removed from the humanitarian crisis that continues unabated. In a welcome epilogue, the reader learns the outcomes of the individual stories shared in earlier chapters.

Together, this collection of first-hand accounts offers a multi-faceted and compassionate account of the current refugee crisis.

This book review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 22, No. 74, 2018.
© Copyright 2017, 2018 AL JADID MAGAZINE
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