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Northwest Salmon



Jones’ her heart is in Greece,

trying to adjust to ‘normal’

by Amanda Fanger

It’s been a month since Jenifer Jones got back to the United States after spending five weeks in Greece on a mission trip, helping with the ongoing refugee crisis there, yet she says it’s tough to adjust back to “normal” life when her heart is still halfway around the world.
Jones volunteered for the month of December and part of January on an island called Lesvos, assisting with the situation in which thousands of people are fleeing extreme violence going on in their home countries.

Since returning, Jones says she’s trying to find the balance between being completely consumed by this issue which she is so passionate about and going about her normal life.

“It’s been super hard adjusting back,” said the 29-year-old freelance journalist from Webster. “I’m very passionate about this issue. Your understanding of what’s important is different than those around you.”

Yet, she’s thankful for folks who indulge her and genuinely want to know about her experience on Lesvos. Since being back, she has done several speaking engagements around the area, telling about her time overseas and trying to bring awareness to the issue.
Crisis background

The refugee crisis in Greece has been going on for five years, according to Jones, in which thousands upon thousands of people are fleeing areas of extreme violence and seeking a better life.

Jones says her heart had been breaking over the situation for months prior to her going on the trip.

“Sometimes God just puts things on your heart. We’re all wired differently,” she said. “I don’t know if it was seeing the pictures on the news, but I feel like I can identify with them. If the roles were reversed, this could be anyone of us. There’s an urgent need. There are a lot of issues out there, but God just laid this one on my heart.”

When she heard “Adventures in Missions,” a group she’d previously done an 11-month mission trip through, was organizing a group to go, she knew she was going to sign up.

“Immediately I was so excited. I could go do something for this cause I’d come to care so deeply about,” she said.

Jones left for Greece Dec. 2 and arrived back Jan. 9.

In a nutshell, Jones says it’s hard to describe her trip.

When Jones arrived, she was stationed at a stage two camp. Stage one camps are on the beach where volunteers help the refugees off their boats and give emergency first aid.

Jones jokingly called her camp a “fancy bus stop” because after there were 50 people in camp, they would help people onto buses that would transport them to their next destination where they were to register, turning what was once a two-day walk for refugees into a 90-minute bus ride. Jones’ camp would provide food, shelter and dry clothing if needed for the refugees. She says they often ran out of supplies, especially shoes.

“It was frustrating to not have the things you needed,” she said.

She witnessed anywhere between 50 to 400 people crossing the five-mile stretch of the Agean Sea from Turkey to Lesvos daily. Other volunteers Jones spoke with who had been there longer say they had seen upwards of 2,000-2,500 in a single day.

Jones shared that over 800,000 people crossed by sea in 2015, over 500,000 of them coming through Lesvos. It’s a dangerous trip too, she said. Two hundred and fifty people died in January alone.

“The problem is getting worse, not better,” she said.

It wasn’t until last fall that the United Nations became involved in the situation, she said.

After registering, refugees buy ferry tickets to Athens, Greece and from there they continue through Europe.

Jones was told 50 percent of those crossing are Syrian, 20 percent are Afghani by way of Iraq while the remaining 30 percent come from elsewhere. She said those numbers seemed consistent with what she witnessed.

She says she had great conversations with those at the camp.

“People are anxious to practice their English, but there are those who just want to rest,” she said.
A worldwide volunteer base
Although not a Christian-run camp, Jones says she found herself working primarily with Christians.

“We all felt the main goal was to love people and make them feel peace,” she said.

The volunteers on Lesvos came from all corners of the globe.

“It was encouraging that even though things were so crazy, all these good people were there to help,” she said. “There were some amazing, amazing people. A bright spot was so many wonderful volunteers from all over the world helping. They were kind, compassionate, wonderful people.”

Yet, the crisis is ongoing and organizations are in desperate need of volunteers, Jones said.

She worked beside 19-year-old boys to retirees who had never done that kind of work before.

While at the camp, Jones met two Afghani Christian refugees who told her how they felt, after seeing those who welcomed them, that humanity was still alive.

“This is such a huge problem; There’s so much darkness (in the world), but darkness is not winning. These volunteers are shinning their lights in the darkness,” Jones said.

The woman at the welcome gate
Of all the stories she brought back from Greece with her, Jones said one stands out among the others; when an experience with a refugee taught her a lesson in kindness, literally, firsthand.

One of the jobs Jones did while stationed on Lesvos was to stand at the front gate to the stage two camp and greet people as they came up from the beach.

“The goal is to welcome people and point them in, to be a friendly face,” she said.

As Jones was doing this, on a particularly cold day, a woman shook her hand.

“She was so surprised at how cold my hands were,” Jones said. “She took my hands and were rubbing them. It was such a motherly gesture. It was just like something my mom would do.”

It was that exchange that taught Jones something.

“We’re (all) so similar, yet we let language and religious beliefs become barriers,” she said. “I mean, here’s this woman who’s just come across the sea and she stops to take time to warm the hands of a stranger. It was a beautiful little moment.”

Mountains of life jackets, a dangerous journey still
Upon flying in to Lesvos, Jones said she remembers looking down and seeing orange along the beaches. Once she got a closer look, she realized they were life jackets. It was an emotional moment when she saw that the life jackets were eventually piled into mountains, she said.

“It was so intense. There are mountains and mountains of these. I know each one was worn by a person who each has a story and I don’t know where their story will end up. All of them are out there somewhere,” she said.

Seeing those life jackets put the refugee crisis into scale for Jones.

“It makes you think about how many people it has affected. It gives you perspective on the problem. It was very intense, very emotional,” she said.

Jones learned that many of the life jackets are even fake.

“Each of these life jackets represents a human with hopes and dreams,” she said. “Many of the jackets are fake and will actually cause the refugees to sink if they fall in the water,” she said.

Smugglers are selling tickets for up to $1,300 to ride on what is often a rickety, non-sea worthy vessel, she said. In Turkey, the boats are overloaded with people, pointed towards the shoreline of Greece and sent on a perilous 90-minute journey which not all survive. It’s not uncommon for a boat to sink before it reaches shore, she remarked.

When they do reach shore, they’re wet, cold and close to hypothermia.

A new year, a new perspective
One of the most memorable stories Jones has to tell about her time in Greece was from New Year’s Day.

As she tells it, the waves were high and volunteers were not expecting any boats to come in that day, so she and another volunteer had decided to go into town to attend a church service. As they were driving, however, they saw that there was a boat coming in and decided to go to the beach to help.

Jones says although statistically, about 30 percent of the refugees coming across the sea are children, on this day in particular, there was an unusually large number of children and babies.

“My intention was to stay out of the way, but I kept walking closer,” she said. “Then someone shouted ‘baby!’ I stuck out my arms and there was this tiny baby placed in my arms.”

The child was cold and unresponsive. Jones said he had spit up all over his face.

“I had no idea what to do. I started praying like crazy,” she said. “I’ve never felt so helpless before in my life.”

Jones said she took the infant to the area where tinfoil blankets were being passed out, an attempt to get the child warmed.

The teammate who had gone to the beach with her was beside her with another child when a frantic woman came up to them, looking back and forth between the children in their arms.
Jones’ teammate looked at her and said, “We’ve got these two.”

What the teammate had meant, Jones said she later figured out, was that the children they were holding were the frantic woman’s children and while the woman looked for her third child, Jones and her teammate should stick together.

“But what I interpreted it as is, ‘we have these two... on a beach full of people, our job is to take care of these two we’ve been given,’” Jones said.

After another rescue worker finally had the chance to look at the baby in Jones’ arms, it was determined that the child needed more advanced medical care in the camp up the hill. He was whisked away from Jones, put into a vehicle and taken to the camp.

On the walk back to the camp, Jones says she began to cry.

“You feel utterly helpless. You wish you could fix everything, but you can’t. It’s awful that this is happening. It’s awful and we all know it,” she said.

Once Jones arrived back at camp, she discovered a team of volunteers working on the child she’d held, trying to warm his body.

“It was extremely overwhelming. All the volunteer’s eyes were wet. We just had to keep it together – it’s so hard to believe any of this is going on even,” she said.

Eventually, the baby’s core body temperature was brought back up and it was determined that he would be okay. Jones was later given the opportunity to hold him again. She discovered he was Syrian and that his name was Zachariah.

As she held him, she says she whispered to him, “you’re so loved” and he smiled in his sleep.

“One of the hardest things is these people may be at our camp for maybe an hour... They have a long road ahead of them yet. I may never know what happens to any of them,” she said. “I construct these stories in my head for those people because I will probably never know. That baby and his family may be in the street somewhere, freezing, but I don’t know.”
When Jones sought emotional council in a fellow volunteer once, he told her, “What these people need now is a welcoming, smiling face. Tonight, around the campfire, then we cry.”

“You just hold it together and process it later,” Jones said. Even after being back, she said in many ways she’s, “still processing.”

The toughest part has been, “trying to find a way to be okay with the fact that I’m warm in my apartment when others are not,” she said. “It’s an ongoing process.”

Back to the real world
Three days after arriving back in Webster, Jones was right back at her job as a journalist for South Dakota Public Radio and found herself in Pierre covering the legislative session.

“Coming back is always the hardest. It’s a blessing to go (but) coming back takes much more bravery,” she said. “The fact that my heart is still on the other side of the world... you’re living without your heart; you are not where your heart is.

“I think I went over with a delusional belief that (if) I did my part (I’d feel better),” she continued. “But that was so false. Now when I’m reading on the internet or hearing about the situation on the news, it’s even harder. As much as my heart was breaking before, it’s more so now.”

She says she has a problem with the way mass media is covering the events there.

“They’re talked about like they’re this faceless group of people, a political item,” she said. “I hate to even call them refugees. They’re human. When you see them in person, you realize this. They’re moms and dads, people with hopes and dreams, lives and memories. Anyone of them could be you or me. Behind each statistic is a person. It really humanizes this group we call refugees. They’re human beings.”

Still, she’s glad the national news outlets are still covering the situation and that it’s still being talked about.

“This is such an ongoing issue,” she said.

Jones encourages people to ask her questions, but said it’s easier when the questions are specific.

“When people ask, ‘how was your trip?’ it’s so hard to answer that. The trip was so many things! It’s hard to sum it up in a short answer. Instead, people could ask, ‘what were the things you learned?’ or ‘Tell me about the people you helped.’ It’s a lot easier to process an answer to that. Specific questions help a lot.”

No fear in love
Jones says, since coming back, she’s commonly asked if ever she feared for her safety.

“No,” she said. “There is nothing to be afraid of. I met wonderful, lovely people who are just like you and me. They want a safe place to live.”

Jones explained that the refugees are coming from situations where they’ve decided to leave their homes because their neighbors’ houses were bombed right next door.

“People sometimes are nervous about, ‘who are these refugees?’ The good part is I have all these stories now to tell they’re not bad people,” she said. “Kindness and love can make such a difference. If you let fear scare you away from people you know are different than you, you will miss out. They’re wonderful! (And) so many awesome people. There’s nothing to be afraid of. They could be you or I.

“These people are running from terror. They’re victims of terror themselves. It’s important to remember that,” she concluded.

Get the facts
Jones says that a lot of prayer is still needed for the refugees and for the volunteers trying to help them.

She said there is a lot of misinformation circulating out there about this faceless group of people. She asks that people think before they post something on social media and fact check before sharing.

You can connect with Jones at her blog jeniferjon where she shares more stories and pictures.


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