Amid crisis students give back, make connections

For six students from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, a weekend trip to the the Greek island of Lesbos last November wasn’t a beach getaway.

Working with organizations serving medical and humanitarian needs, the students volunteered to meet and aid refugees and migrants arriving from Turkey via a narrow swath of the Aegean Sea.

CSB juniors Sarah Clark, Katie Schmitz and Amy Larson and SJU junior Thomas O’Toole joined medical volunteers, meeting boats as they landed on the shore. Working with Disaster Medics, the students provided first aid and helped new arrivals get safely ashore.

In addition, CSB juniors Abby Bushey and Mary Triggs volunteered with Samaritan’s Purse at a separate location.

Schmitz set up the volunteer experience for herself and her three fellow students who were, at the time, studying abroad on CSB/SJU’s Roman-Greco semester study program. “We got there and didn't know if we were going to be working in the refugee camps or if we were going to be helping the people coming off the boats,” she said.

“We ended up going to the beach. The main concern when they're getting off the boats is hypothermia and keeping everyone calm.”

The students say it’s difficult to estimate exactly how many refugees and migrants they saw arriving while they were in Lesbos. In October of 2015, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees reported some 450,000 migrants and refugees had arrived in Greece by sea in 2015. Despite the vast scope of human movement, it’s one-to-one connections Schmitz says will stick with her.

“There was a Syrian who got off the boat and he spoke English,” she said. “I asked him what he did in Syria and he said, ‘I was a chemistry student at a university.’

"I really connected because I'm a biochemistry student. He said his whole family pooled its money together to send him over in hopes of a better future.” 

Volunteering down the road from Schmitz and the others, Bushey says she had a similarly resonant personal experience.

“We saw a group of eight guys that probably ranged in age from 12 to 18, maybe. They didn't have any parents with them just themselves with their backpacks on,” the biology major from Duluth, Minn. said. “Putting myself in their shoes and, even at 20 years old, I cannot imagine leaving everything that I know and going across to some unknown place where I have no idea what's waiting for me on the other side."

Bushey and Mary Triggs, an accounting major from Edina, Minn., spent the weekend volunteering with Samaritan’s Purse away from the shore, setting up camps to provide food, shelter and dry clothes to refugees and migrants.

“The spot we were at is like the last tender love and care they'll have because the rest is government-run and the rest is just hell, basically. Our goal was to make them as comfortable as we can and make them feel welcome,” Triggs said.

These Bennies and Johnnies say their experience in Lesbos is one they won’t forget; they hope, by sharing their stories, others can connect, too.