Refugee crisis

Nurse Freshta Poupal: “I had women throwing their babies at me to safety”

Dozens of Afghan Americans — once refugees themselves — are leaving the comforts of home to help their fellow Afghans on the island of Lesvos

A baby is held aloft as migrants and refugees arrive on the Greek island of Lesvos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on March 2, 2016, in Mytilene. (ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Dr. Shinkai Hakimi, a critical care physician in Seattle, had planned a yoga and surfing trip for her 37th birthday this year. Instead, she’s treating and translating for refugees in the chilly cold of a Greek island that has become ground zero for those fleeing war to Europe.

Hakimi was 1 when her family fled Afghanistan to Germany and later moved to the United States, during the Soviet invasion. But her journey was much easier than the refugees she’s aiding now. She and her mother sat on a plane in Kabul with visas and sought asylum once they landed in Germany. But her Afghan compatriots pay smugglers thousands of dollars and risk drowning to reach safety three decades later.

Europe has closed its doors on Afghan refugees stuck in Greece, but Hakimi is one of dozens of Afghan Americans — once refugees themselves — foregoing vacations, leaving their children and the warmth of their homes to volunteer and help their fellow Afghans on the island of Lesvos.

Dr. Shinkai Hakimi stands in front of the UNHCR refugee camps, once a prison, in Lesvos, Greece.

Many of the volunteers include women doctors, nurses, activists who offer their professional skills as well as language translation. They are able to interpret the two Afghan languages of Farsi and Pashto into English, needed to fill out forms and receive urgent aid. Since 2015, 545,000 refugees have passed through Lesvos; 147,000 – about 27 percent – were from Afghanistan, according to United Nations data. As the Taliban return to most of Afghanistan, violence and economic depression are driving out Afghans from their country.

“As a critical care physician, I’m accustomed to seeing traumatic things, but this situation is different,” Hakimi said. “Being a refugee myself and seeing my own people with so much hope in their eyes crushed and devastated is something I can’t explain. It’s not all despair, but we can’t let this problem slide by and assume it will disappear. I think it will get worse before it will get better.”

The volunteers wait for boats at dawn or in the dead of the night, as refugees arrive shivering and wet on the rocky shores. The aid workers wrap them with emergency blankets, carry the children off the dinghies and hold the women as they sob from a harrowing sea voyage from Turkey that has claimed more than 400 lives since just the beginning of this year.

Hakimi works in a makeshift clinic with a space heater, where she has treated refugees with scabies, respiratory problems and colds. The day before her birthday, she was coming down with the flu from exhaustion when volunteers noticed a scabies outbreak and had to quarantine 200 men who had been infected. Hakimi spent half of her birthday, on Tuesday, sleeping to regain her strength.

These Afghan Americans do not go empty handed. They have raised about $138,000 for food, clothing and emergency needs for the refugees. Lesvos, once known as a vacation spot on the Mediterranean, has become a crowded campground run by NGOs, the United Nations and volunteers. Afghans are second to Syrians in escaping to peaceful terrains, but Syrians and Iraqis have been given priority and passage to Europe. Countries like Germany are deporting Afghans and running ads on Afghan TV to discourage illegal migration.

European authorities say Afghanistan is still stable enough for its citizens to remain, and Europe continues to give aid money for development to the country. But many Afghans say they wouldn’t have risked the dangerous journey if they had been safe and fed.

The Arab side of the campground in Lesvos fills and empties as those refugees head north, but in the area reserved for Afghans, space has run out, Hakimi said. The refugees are camping out anywhere they can find.

Freshta Poupal with an Afghan refugee in Lesvos. “I fell in love with this girl,” she says.

Freshta Poupal, a nurse from New York, was one of the first Afghan-American volunteers to travel to Lesvos in the fall. Then, Afghan refugees didn’t wait long before leaving Lesvos. Many of the families Poupal helped are now in Germany. Poupal, 26, spent two-and-a-half weeks on the island and wrote emotional pleas on social media for other Afghans to come and translate.

It didn’t take long before her calls were heard. Maqbool Siddiqi, a refugee who recently made the journey from Greece to Germany, created the Facebook page Afghan Volunteer’s Coordination Team, and groups of Afghan Americans from California to Virginia teamed up, fundraised on social media and headed to Greece. Men and women kept journals, shared emotional photos and videos calling for more help.

“It’s truly beautiful seeing all these people respond the way they did. Now it has become a movement between Afghans from all over,” said Poupal, who recently spoke to United Nations members in New York, advocating for refugees.

Nahid Fattahi and Humah Bargzie Talai, working moms in the San Francisco Bay Area where the largest population of the Afghan diaspora in the U.S. resides, started a fundraising campaign with a goal of $5,000 but ended up gathering $16,000. They left their young children with their husbands and flew to Greece to translate.

Almost all the fundraising campaigns exceeded goals. “I did not feel alone in my mission anymore. I saw that people truly care and wanted to help,” said Fattahi, who is also a psychology graduate student. These women say their time in Lesvos has changed their outlook on life.

“I cry thinking that my presence alone essentially is what made them feel safe and comforted,” Poupal wrote in her journal from Lesvos. “I had women throwing their babies at me to safety. Men pulling and fighting against the ocean to just merely grab my hand for safety, me, just a nurse. Throughout all this hardship, I saw humanity at its absolute best.”

While Afghan Americans see the infighting and bloodshed in their home country in the media, they say they will continue to show solidarity and welcome the refugees across the ocean. “Empathy is probably what brought all of us to Lesvos,” say Farzana Shah, a nurse from Philadelphia who spent the New Year there. “Knowing that it could’ve been you, your family, and you have to help whether it’s Afghan, Syrian or Iraqi.”

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