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Former AIFF director helps provide hope for refugees in Greece

Within minutes of arriving on the Greek isle of Lesvos, Joanne Feinberg was lifting wet, cold, shivering babies from a rubber raft. Barely seaworthy, and certainly not designed to hold more than 10 people, the dinghy had carried 60 refugees — many of them women and children — over the five-mile stretch of choppy, chilly Aegean Sea separating Turkey and the Greek islands.

Feinberg and her cousin, Kathy Scheman Hertz, were making the five-minute drive from the airport to their motel when they spotted the boats of refugees and volunteers splashing in the waves to help them ashore. Other volunteers were scrambling on the beach to help scared, soaking-wet children into dry clothes and comfort their exhausted, sobbing mothers. Though they were in dresses, the two American women hopped out of the car and went to work alongside the rescuers.

Feinberg, the former director of programming for the Ashland Independent Film Festival, says she and her cousin were in Greece after they decided they were not going to spend their annual Christmas holiday “lying on a beach somewhere.”

Moved by the reports of the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the war-torn countries of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Morocco and Somalia, the two women opted instead to spend their time and money “to the best advantage,” Feinberg says.

Their itinerary included an eight-day working vacation in Lesvos, Greece’s third-largest island and the jumping-off point for thousands of refugees seeking asylum in Europe.

“That first day on the beach was our introduction,” the Ashland resident recalls in a telephone interview this week. “It was extremely moving … terribly heart-wrenching.

“It was organized chaos,” she adds.

In New York City recently for the Cinema Eye Honors event honoring documentary filmmakers, Feinberg made her way back to Ashland after the humanitarian mission in the refugee camp of Moria on Lesvos.

And she is assimilating the intense, desperate situation she witnessed.

“I am overwhelmed by a constant flood of emotions and memories,” she says. “I wish I was still there. It was hard to leave.”

Feinberg kept a journal and made almost daily postings on her Facebook page to share the experience with friends and family who supported the venture.

“The first time I had a baby handed to me off a boat and I carried it to shore scanning the hectic scene for the child’s parents, I had no doubt at all that the families who left their lives behind had made this decision because they truly had no other,” she wrote her first day. “And, although my heart went out to all the people I encountered, I felt most for the women and children.”

The children, she says, “have no voice, no choice,” and the women are fearful of what lies ahead. She says that sex trafficking is a real threat, and many women are sold to pay for the families’ passage across sea or land.

But she has compassion for the men, too, the ones who were overcome with relief and gratitude watching their children taken to safety. One man, she says, kissed the beach after disembarking the raft.

“They want a better life for their children,” she says.

According to the International Organization of Immigration, about 3,300 people made the frigid crossing in December, and by Dec. 21, more than 1 million refugees had entered Europe in 2015. The vast majority (802,000) entered through Greece.

Greece is just the first step of a long and exhausting trip through Europe.

After arriving at Lesvos, refugees must register at Moria and wait for clearance to travel to Athens, the gateway to the rest of Europe. Because of the thousands of immigrants, the wait can last for days, Feinberg says.

Others wait for additional funds to be wired because their money was either stolen or used to pay exorbitant fares to cross the sea.

Politics may close borders or make passage difficult. For instance, entry into Germany, once a haven, is becoming more restricted.

While they wait, the refugees live in overcrowded, makeshift camps in the olive groves and endure lack of sufficient bathrooms, food, clothing and blankets. Most of them come unprepared for frigid temperatures, which in December and early January dipped to the 20s, Feinberg says.

“The camps are wet, cold and muddy,” she says.

The “tea tent” is a favorite hangout for those who wait hours in line for a cup of hot tea and snacks and fruit.

“An incredible volunteer effort” and assistance from the United Nations has shored up an infrastructure totally unprepared for the influx of refugees and provided much-needed supplies, Feinberg says.

She and Hertz were able to raise more than $8,100 before they left the United States. Those funds were able to provide meals for nearly 500 people, 18 hours of tea and snacks at the tea tent and 100 pairs of shoes, as well as essential toiletries, gloves, hats and socks.

They also pooled their money with a group of colleagues who joined them to buy a new engine for a worn-out patrol boat operated by PROEM-AID, a group of Spanish firefighters who volunteered in search-and-rescue operations along the island’s rugged coastline.

“It was incredibly important for us to support the firefighters’ efforts,” Feinberg says. “It felt great to do it.

“All the efforts being made on Lesvos to feed, clothe, aid and comfort refugees would have been for naught if lives are lost at sea,” she says.

PROEM-AID has rescued more than 7,000 people in just the first month of operations.

Feinberg acknowledges that the work she and Hertz did was “just a drop in the bucket.”

“The human connection, though, was amazing,” she says. Because of the language barrier, “I am not sure we were on the same page. But to share tears and human emotion seemed to give a spark of hope in a desperate situation.

“The families we met could not believe that we came all that distance to help them.” 

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.