How one film about the refugee crisis spurred two local women to volunteer in Lesbos

  • Contributed photo/Sarah McKusick

For the Gazette
Published: 9/6/2019 6:38:58 PM
Modified: 9/6/2019 6:38:44 PM

In the Newark airport, on her way to Greece for a yoga retreat her husband was running, Jane Cross read The New York Times and started to cry.

“I was reading about this documentary called ‘4.1 miles,’” Cross, a general pediatrician, said recently at her Northampton home, while sitting next to her friend Sarah McKusick. “It’s about the 4.1 miles between Turkey and Lesbos, and about rescuing people at sea. I was like, ‘Why am I going to Greece to go to a damn yoga retreat? I’m a doctor — I should be going and working.’”

The same short film inspired McKusick, who owns a bed-and-breakfast in Colrain, to go to a refugee camp, Moria, near Mytilene, the capital of the Greek island of Lesbos. The two women met through mutual friends only after they went to Lesbos and worked with two different organizations — Cross with the Dutch nonprofit Boat Refugee Foundation, and McKusick with the German nonprofit One Happy Family.

On Sunday, Sept. 8, at 6:30 p.m. at the Northampton Center for the Arts, the two will give a talk on their experiences in Lesbos.

For both women, it wasn’t long after they watched the documentary that they got on a plane to Lesbos. Cross, who had worked as a doctor in many places around the world, had already been getting emails about international humanitarian aid work, some of which mentioned the Boat Refugee Foundation (BRF), which focuses on running clinics in Moria and doing psychosocial work.

“I had been considering a few other organizations, but the BRF was the one I ultimately went with,” she said.

So far, she has been to Lesbos twice for two-week stretches, the first time in the fall of 2017 and the second time this past spring. She said the main difference was that the first time, she and other medics would have to go to the patients who needed to be treated, whereas the second time patients came to the clinic.

“The first time, they gave us these backpacks called crash bags, which basically had everything you needed to resuscitate someone, deliver a baby,” Cross said. “That terrified me. My first day, there was a 50-year-old guy having a seizure we couldn’t get to stop. Just super-stressful.”

“When I first arrived, too, the medical team gave us a tour of the camp and pointed out, ‘There’s a hole here, a gate here,’” she continued and laughed. “It was for evacuations! I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to remember this! I’ll just run where all the refugees are running.’”

McKusick worked for two weeks last October a mile away from the camp at a community center run by One Happy Family.

“There was a women’s center, ESL classes, a shisha lounge where people could smoke shisha. If people wanted their papers laminated, we could do that for them. We could sew their clothes,” McKusick said. “Basically, how it worked was that everyone got three tickets when they came in, and they could exchange these tickets for different services. This helps give them a sense of power because they were making choices, spending money. Also, they got to experience this great little community during the day.”

Every morning, McKusick would drive and pick up volunteers, both those who worked for One Happy Family and refugees who volunteered at the camp. When she got to the camp, she’d do a last-minute cleanup, then get assigned different tasks for the day, like serving or cooking food.

To those looking to volunteer, Cross recommended doing research into different organizations and having faith that you can make a difference.

“You also should also ask yourself whether your money would be better spent by just donating it than flying to Greece and staying there,” she said. “And I think this work passes the test.”

“Sometimes,” McKusick added, “there’ll be times when you’re not sure you are making a difference. There were times I was scrubbing a toilet, and I was like, ‘Am I really helping with the whole situation?’ But I was, of course — every little bit helps.”

Still, both Cross and McKusick said that volunteer work, while valuable, is not enough to solve the refugee crisis.

“Europe and the U.S. need to take people so they can get out of these camps and start a new life,” Cross said. “Or, you know, we could stop fueling wars in these places, and we could give money to help rebuild places.”

“Some refugees leave because of war, famine, climate change, but refugees do not want to leave their homes,” Cross added. “That is not what they want. They want to get back. Their family is there, their culture is there. We need to help countries rebuild so people can go back.”


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