Working with the Refugees on the Island of Lesvos Greece by Cecilia Wambach

We are proud to share with you a talk given at our Yom Kippur services by a member of Beyt Tikkun and Tikkun’s interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming NSP–Network of Spiritual Progressives who just returned from working with refugees on Lesvos, Greece

–Rabbi Michael Lerner

Working with the Refugees on the Island of Lesvos Greece 

by Cecila Wambach

I have just returned (the day before Yom Kippur) from the island of Lesvos Greece, where 500.000 refugees have crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to find a new home in Europe.  Because of the recent agreements between Europe and Turkey, many of these refugees are stuck—approximately 7,000 on the island of Lesvos, in refugee camps.


I am honored to be speaking to you during the high holydays.  Thank you, Rabbi Lerner.  But I want to move on from the thank yous.  Because I want to say that I am now so full of questions about what I did and what to do next because this experience has dumped me squarely into a great big pile of debris—not the debris of the island of Lesbos, which is full of life jackets and clothes and large rubber boats, but  a great big dump pile of Questions.  I am, frankly, stumped.  But I know myself, and I know that being in the question has always been a place of great reflection for me.  The Buddhists call it “mindfulness”, where I examine everything that places itself in front of me.  The New Age Folks call it “watching for signs”, where because you are in the state of being led by the spirit or the universe, you look for where to go next.  And surprisingly, answers come.  And the Jews call it “being in the fourth world” where living one’s life fully in all worlds, action, emotion, relationship, and the divine self become part of one’s being if you consciously practice and know it.


I want to tell you about my experiences.  How and why I went to Lesvos,  the learning I experienced once I got there, understanding the refugee crisis, and what I will do next.  But I think it is important to look at what I did with a framework—the framework of Jewish practice.  What resonates for me are two practices:  The practice of blessing, and the practice of the four worlds, which I have already mentioned.


Really, I do not understand fully, the four worlds.  It is a highly sophisticated mystical understanding.  But I have translated it for me, and it works.  In the first world we live our lives, action—we eat, we sleep, we wake up, we brush our teeth, we go to work.  Yes, I am in that world.  In the second world, I do all of the above, with feeling– the world of emotion.  I try to call up upon awakening the feelings of gratitude, love, generosity, and I revisit these during the day.  Yes, I am in that world.  And the third world, the world of relationship– I am open hearted and I know that I am you and you are me—we are one, as Kat told us last night.  We are in this together, because we are one.  Yes, I get that.  I am in that world.  And the fourth world! Look at the beauty of the sunset, the dark sky at night,  the ocean, the dazzling beauty of the world—the Divine Self.  Really understanding that there is something more than all of this!  The Divine Principle in all of it—for me, the God Self, the power of love and transformation, the divine energy, Yad Hey Vav Hey, the life force, the love energy!  Wow!  The power of this fourth world!


This is why I went to Lesvos!  This is why!  This is the whole reason!


Like you, I watched for months, the refugees fleeing Syria.  I couldn’t take it.  It put me in mind of the transports of the Jews, years ago.  I saw my relatives, walking from Prague to Terezin, carrying only a satchel.  I knew I had to be there to do something.  But what could I do?  I am 74 years old.  I didn’t think I could do it.  I couldn’t go into the sea, and pull people out of the boats.  But I knew there was something for me to do.  I started to do some research.  “J”, the weekly Jewish paper had an article about Temple Emmanuel in San Francisco, and what they were doing.  It started off with one man just getting on the plane and flying into the port of Lesvos, Mytelini, then others from Temple Emmanuel went.  They brought clothes and canned foods.  Deep down in my heart, I thought maybe the crisis would go away, but it didn’t. There they were, every night on the news. So about a month later I called Thomas Friedman from Temple Emmanuel.  He told me to just go.  “There are volunteers from all over the world”, he said.  “You will find a place to be.”  I still couldn’t go—I needed to go with someone.


So I wrote letters to everyone I could think of asking them to go with me.  To do what?  I didn’t know.  I prayed.  I waited for answers.  I called on my Divine Self to be present in me.  I needed the courage.  Finally, I located on Facebook, the Dirty Girls of Lesvos.  They were a group of women and men doing rescues of refugees, providing them with clean, dry clothes by recycling (washing, sanitizing, drying, folding) the laundry of other refugees, and cleaning up the beaches so that rats and other varmits would not start to multiply on the island.  They were an humanitarian and ecological group.  Then a miracle happened—a real blessing for me.  The New York Times did a one page spread on the island of Lesvos, and they mentioned the work of Dirty Girls, as well as some other groups who needed volunteers.  I wrote to them and they welcomed me.  I eventually put together a team of four people, and we were off to Lesvos to be a part of Dirty Girls!


We stayed at one of the most beautiful, natural resorts in the world.  Because tourism in Lesvos was down, we got a great price.  While there, we were part of a rescue team.  A small rubber boat, filled with over 40 people, came onto the shore of the hotel.  The proprietors were amazing people.  They welcomed these people, give them showers and clean clothes, some food, and helped them onto buses which would take them to the camps.  We met beautiful children and people—young men and grandmothers, mostly.


It was on one of the first days that I knew I was in Lesvos for a different reason.  While swimming in the Aegean Sea, I realized that I wanted to get into the camps.  I wanted to see the people who were coming in and have an opportunity to speak to them.  We had a chance to get into Moria Camp first.  We went in with a group of volunteers who did cooking with the refugees—they were called “Social Kitchen”.  We were free to roam, once we got it. Actually, the refugees are now stuck in these camps.  There is little opportunity for movement.  They are desperate.  The camps were built for fewer people than are crammed into them.  They are not happy campers.  We had a chance to visit with some of the refugee families in their homes, which are basically large containers, like truck bodies.  Other refugees are in tents, similar to the ones we use for camping.  Who knew?


I was in Lesvos for six weeks.  During this time I met with rufugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Uganda, Kurds from Iran, and Iraqis.  I also met with volunteers from all over the world.


The refugees are angry.  They thought they were coming to the Land of the Free—Europe, Sweden, Germany.  But they are now stuck in Greece in overcrowded camps, and the Greek Government cannot afford them.  Their children are not in school.  Many of them have been stuck in detention-center-like containers for months.  They have nothing.  Surprisingly, many of them speak English.  When they hear we are from the United States, they think we can help them.  They have heard that the people are good and kind, but that the government is corrupt.  They believe that we started all of this because of the war in Iraq which gave rise to Isis.  The Syrians believe that we are a big part of their war because we are supplying arms to the rebels.  They think that Russia and Iran are supplying arms to Assad, and that we (The US and Russia) need to sell our arms for our economy to flourish.  Is this true?  What can I say to the refugees?  Why am I such a dummy?  What can I do to stop this evil in the world?


The Greek people are angry.  They are generous and humane, and they are still welcoming the refugees with open arms.  What else can we do, they say.  We were once in their position.  It is not their fault.  But their tourism business is now completely gone.  They cannot survive this crisis.  How can I help?


The volunteers from all over the world are not blaming us—their message is that they are grateful to be a part of the rescue, the feeding, and the healing of the refugees.  They are cleaning the island and recycling the debris that a refugee crisis brings to the land.  They are in the camps working with the children, teaching English to the adults, being part of the make-shift clinics in the camps.  In all of our time there, we met very few volunteers from the United States.  Those we did meet were a group of lawyers helping the refugees with their paperwork to move on to other countries.  But to what avail? They are frustrated. The paperwork means nothing if no one is moving.


During all of this time that I was “seeing, listening, responding, watching, participating” I was in the arms of my Divine Self.  I had to be.  I was being held by the Great Spirit that is there for all of us.  I was blessing everything that I saw or touched.  I was bringing the sacred into the camps.  I was greeting the children, the volunteers and the NGO workiers with blessing, and compassion and joy—no matter what happened.


(Sing this)  Yad hay, vav hey, compassion and tenderness.

Patience, forebearance, kindness, awareness, etc.


This wonderful chant that we sing at Beyt Tikkun–this was flowing through me—keeping me alive.  Allowing me to experience my own capability. I could do this. I was doing this.  I was being there.


Twice in torah, we hear the command.  “Be kadosh”.  Be holy.  Be sacred beings.  I was able to be there in Lesvos with this inside of me.  The whole universe was dancing inside of me, and I could feel it.  For me, it was a sacred moment in time to be there.


Eventually, I got to work with Save the Children and I was able to bring some math problem solving and thinking exercises to the children.  My former colleagues from San Francisco State University helped by coming to Lesvos and bringing math materials to me.  The work with the children is another story for another time.  It was an amazing gift to me.  To see these children with such radical hope in their spirit, to laugh and play with them, to sing with them, to work with them. They are the reason I believe that all of this—the chaotic energy in the world—a future for them and for all of us, may work.


This is the best I can do for now.  I have just arrived home, and I have not even begun to unravel the stories and experiences that are in me.  But I am thrilled to have begun the work of telling others, by starting with my community here at Beyt Tikkun.  Thank God for Rabbi Lerner, exhorting us to not accept what is happening in the world.  Pushing us to be our most ideal selves, and to flush out the voices that say we cannot do anything to help.  (Shout this) I refuse to be realistic!  I am grateful to be with all of you, in this sacred moment, right here and now!    My heart is open to awe, wonder, and infinite possibility, and I am with you right now, saying this, and inviting you to join in the sacredness of life.


What I did by going to Lesvos was to begin my own process of changing how I live my life.  And I am left with these questions:

  • Do I dare experience the despair of the earth,

and find ways to respond?

  • Am I strong enough to bear witness to the

suffering masses of the world?

  • If the world as we know it is falling apart,

What can I do?  And of course,

What will I do because of what I have seen in the refugee camps?

I will remain in my Divine Self, and I will soon know what to do.

Cecelia Maria Zarbo Wambach, Ph.D.

 Professor Emerita of Mathematics Education
San Francisco State University

P.S. from Beyt Tikkun:  You are invited to the Beyt Tikkun sukkah on Saturday morning, April 22 for services, celebration of Sukkot, and bring a main course vegetarian dish big enough  to share with twelve people! And please let us know that you are coming and what you are bringing so we can supplement. RSVP

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