Like many, retired paramedic and Anchorage resident Teresa Gray had experienced the Syrian refugee crisis through casual news consumption.
“I didn’t know the scope and the scale,” she said. “You know, you see it on the news and you scroll past it on Facebook. I had no idea what the depth of it was.”
One day she saw the disaster in the form of Alan Kurdi — a 3-year-old Syrian boy who became one of the approximately 3,740 refugees to drown in 2016 trying to reach Europe via Turkey. After seeing a now-famous photograph of Kurdi’s body washed ashore on a Turkish beach , Gray said, her thoughts on the human loss of the situation began to change, and her actions followed.
“I had a skill that was useful at the time and I decided to go,” she said.
An internet search led Gray to the Ireland-based group Disaster Medics. Funding her own travel, she went with them to Lesbos — a Greek island to which thousands of Syrian war refugees arrive in their attempts to enter Europe.
One of Gray’s regular duties was to stand on a hill above a rocky coastline and scan with donated infrared binoculars for rubber rafts sailing from Turkey in the dark to evade the Greek Coast Guard. There was a lighthouse on the hill to warn of the rocks below, but Gray said that refugee pilots, ignorant of nautical conventions, sometimes took the light as a beacon. A boat of volunteers intercepted incoming rafts to take them to safer landings. Volunteer rescue divers stood by for those that weren’t diverted.
Aid workers searched for refugees who landed in the night in order to direct them to help. Approaching one group in her fluorescent yellow jacket, Gray said she had a new experience.
“They were terrified of me,” she said. “They had no idea who I was. This bright yellow jacket probably meant some sort of authority to them. The women immediately got behind the men, and the men just stood there. I’ve never had someone look at me in fear before in my life. I’m a paramedic — usually people are happy when I show up.”
Other times Gray’s job was less certain. Standing in a line at Lesbos’ government-administered Moria migrant camp, where Gray said arrivals would wait for up to fifteen hours to register with camp authorities, she recalled “babies crying, women crying, the men are angry.” She’d brought along some candy.
“The only thing I knew to do — because there wasn’t any medical need — was to pass out suckers and hug people,” she said. Later, she began bringing sandwiches to people waiting in the registration line.
Telling the story on Tuesday in a presentation to Kenai Central High School junior and senior politics and social studies students, Gray ended with some simple practical advice.
“Find out the need, identify how you’re going to fix it, and do it — it’s really that simple,” she said.
Though Gray was physically on stage at Kenai Central High School, her talk was web-cast to Nikiski High School, and also to schools in New York, North Carolina, and Canada. It was the most recent of many talks Gray has given since returning to Alaska. In October she gave a similar talk (though geared toward a younger audience) at Seward Middle School.
Her goal, she said, is to cut through the bitter politics of refugees, religion, and immigration and “put a human face on a faceless crisis.”
“It’s very easy to talk about the Syrian refugees, or the Muslims who are coming in — that lumps them together as a faceless entity,” she said. “I can tell you about them individually. I can put a face on them for you. ‘Refugees’ is not who they are. It’s what they’ve become.”
Focusing on her person-to-person experiences in Greece, Gray avoided relating the refugee crisis to political questions of immigration in America, though she argued against the notion that Syrian refugees necessarily want to come to the United States — or anywhere else — as much as they’d prefer to return home.
Gray now makes aid trips with her own organization. Since returning from Lesbos, she’s founded and served as the executive director of the Anchorage-based nonprofit Mobile Medics International. This summer she’s planning to take a crew back to Greece, visiting refugee camps on the mainland rather than arrival sites on the islands.
Toward the end of the talk, Gray got the question that she said arises at all of her presentations: What can I do?
“Stay aware of what’s happening in your world,” Gray said. “…You need to pay attention and decide what’s important to you. It doesn’t have to be Syrian refugees — it could be something locally. The homeless or children. Find something you have a passion for and pursue it relative to other human beings that are not necessarily like you. It’s real easy to get caught up in your own world.”
Afterward, several students approached Gray seeking more concrete details. Student Reyenne Carlson told Gray she was a certified life guard and was thinking of getting future medical training. She and fellow student Randee Johnson wanted to know how to get involved after their high school graduation.
Gray told her Mobile Medics International is seeking any volunteers with medical certification, and an application could be found on the group’s website.
Carlson and Johnson both said they’ve been following the crisis and have been emotionally affected by it, Carlson adding that she “really started thinking about it more when they started bombing Aleppo.”
Although the refugee crisis is a popular research subject in social studies classes, Johnson said immigration politics make the issue hard to talk about in other contexts. For her, at least, Gray had accomplished her goal of humanizing the crisis.
“I’m very grateful I got to hear from her, because she’s had first-hand experience, and it was much more solid than somebody posting online about it,” Johnson said.
When asked in a later interview whether media and conversations are giving students opportunities for that human perspective, Gray said “the opportunity is there, but I’m not sure it occurs to them.”
“It certainly didn’t occur to me before I went to Greece,” she said. “It’s not like I spent a year studying the Syrian refugee crisis and knew all about it. … If something about it captures their attention, there’s plenty of stuff out there that can give a first-hand perspective, but I don’t know if it’s been brought in front of them. Especially junior high and high school kids — life is full for them, it’s all-consuming, and life for them is still pretty narrow at this point — it’s where they live and who they know, who their friends are and their parents. It’s at this age that they can start learning about what’s going on in the world.”
Reach Ben Boettger at email@example.com.