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girlfriend Tara McColeman, found themselves in Chios, Greece — assisting refugees.
Since returning in early July from a two-week trip to Chios, the couple admitted their awareness was blown wide open to the massive exodus of Middle-Eastern refugees.
“We always have this perception of people in Arabic countries, [that] they’re out there [wielding] knives,” Söhner said. “I mean, [we] need to realize we are all made from the same flesh, blood and water.”
Söhner, president of ComeTogether Corp., a Venice, Calif. company that plans and organizes local and destination conventions and events, said the Chios situation came to his attention when he read an article from his hometown in Stuttgart, Germany.
He and McColeman then made the necessary arrangements with organization Balkan Route Stuttgart, founded by Serkan Eren, and quickly amassed funds and supplies to propel their humanitarian efforts in Greece.
“We collected $13,398 in six days, and six suitcases full of clothing, shoes and other necessities [for refugee],” Söhner said.
Once in Greece, the couple were able to witness and become a part of the relief efforts of organizations such as Balkan Route Stuttgart, The People’s Street Kitchen of Chios, run by Kostas Tanainis, B.A.A.S (Be Aware and Share), The Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association For Refugee Relief Work in Chios, Greece, The Norwegian Refugee Council, a Drop in the Ocean, Samaritan’s Purse and other non-governmental organizations.
Through a mostly volunteer-based system, refugees are provided three meals a day, some entertainment for the children in the way of toys, and tools for adults to upkeep their camps, as well as clothing, toiletries and other basic necessities.
“I wish people could all do this,” McColeman, a cardiac rehabilitation nurse, said. “People would all realize what it is like in other countries and realize what we appreciate, not just our healthcare and education,”
While the massive influx of people puts a strain on those fleeing a desperate situation, “we also need to realize that Greece is still suffering from its economic crisis,” McColeman said. “The Greek people were really nice, they really appreciate having people there [to help.]”
“2011 is when the war started in Syria,” Söhner said. “People started moving because there was nothing left for them to stay, basically.”
McColeman said that a lot of the misconceptions of the Muslim and Islamic faiths have to do with, “the priest, or cleric, or sheikh of [a given] village. It was always specific to the village where the sheikh lives. It was never necessarily what the Quran taught.”
The situation is chaotic for refugees, because their hopes and fate are mired in a kind of limbo, McColeman said.
“It’s too bad that [the United States and other European countries] didn’t wake up sooner and realize, holy moly, we need to do something about this,” she said.
Following an unsettled treaty between Turkey and the European Union, in which the relocation of refugees was to be decided, refugees have been bound to Greece since March of this year.
McColeman recounts one of the many horror stories she learned through Eren, in which refugees experienced unfathomable events while en route to their asylum in Greece. McColeman said, “Some of the international coast guards would try to turn [the boats] around, while the smugglers would grab a child or a baby and throw it in the water so it would divert the coast guard, so the smugglers could finish the trip and get paid.”
A majority of the stories the couple heard were ‘validated through observations of what people had seen, and by interviewing some of the other refugees,” McColeman said.
Still, a degree of normalcy remains. Those refugees who are teachers by vocation provide the children with four hours of instruction, which includes English lessons, bi-weekly.
“I met [a Syrian] husband and wife there, the teachers from one of the camps… and when I saw them in their camp, to me it was like, wow, they are living in these tents of ten or twenty people in a ten-by-twenty area. It’s hot, and you don’t have any privacy, you can’t [even] cook for yourself,” McColeman said.
Still, the couple said the refugees maintain a sense of humility, optimism and have faith there is an end to their turmoil.“If you’re open to meeting people, it’s just very interesting. It’s almost like watching a documentary, but you’re in it. You’re living a documentary,” Söhner said.
The couple is in constant contact with the individuals they met, especially with a group of unaccompanied Afghan minors, and they may plan on re-visiting Greece at the end of this year.
“I do what I feel is important and it is important for me to make a change in just one person’s life, “Söhner said. “I still help in the kitchen, I still donate thousands of dollars… but connecting with people, I get something out of that.”
Interested parties can join the cause by reaching out to the NGOs aforementioned, as well as by reaching out to the couple.
McColeman urges anyone interested to not feed into the fear factor, — “I think people need to travel. I think you need to go and see other cultures and see what people don’t have,” she said. “We have too much. Try to get out of your comfort zone and see what you can find.”
The couple may be reached at 310-822-0200 or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.