When Syrians and Israelis meet and become One Happy Family

Adi Maya was Head of Delegation to Greece from April to July, 2017.

Reports from Syria have been flowing in for 5 years now, and my wish to help would not let up. I kept asking myself how I can contribute and knew I had to do something. In March 2017, the opportunity to be involved and not stand aside finally came. I was offered to serve as Head of Mission of Natan International Humanitarian Aid in a field operation on Lesvos Island, Greece, where the refugee crisis is still ongoing.

I spent 3 months there, and was part of a unique project that Natan established together with a private Swiss foundation and Jewish and Arab youth movements, Hashomer Hatzair and Ajyal; a community and education center for refugees called One Happy Family.

A funny name – One Happy Family - isn't it? What does it even mean - that we are one family? Especially a happy one? Tolstoy wrote that "all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". On Lesvos I discovered that the reality for Syrian refugees and Israeli volunteers is more complex than that: How can we be happy when chaos, instability, uncertainty and fleeing catastrophic war dictate a life of forever seeking refuge and asylum? Especially when we operate in a place where the majority of the refugees come from countries which are considered to be enemies:  Syria, Iran, Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq?

Those refugees face the difficult conditions in which they live for many months, the dirt and filth, the insecurity and confrontations with people from other nationalities, local authorities’ brutality and constant delays of their asylum interviews, the nightmares, the memories from the harrowing journey they went through to get to Europe, the situation in their countries, the worries for their loved ones left behind, the scary boat ride from Turkey and with their unknown future. And yet they feel proud, dignified and sometimes even happy.

The OHF is a remarkable oasis outside the closed, limiting, oppressive and confined barbed-wire environment of the camps. Despite the harsh reality, it's a place where people can feel a sense of belonging. Hundreds of people – men, women and families with children – arrive daily and enjoy recreational activities, learn new languages, smoke a water pipe together, and have a cup of coffee on the hilltop at one the most beautiful spots on the island. Some even say that the best coffee on Lesvos is served there, and the views of the Aegean Sea are breathtaking.

The crown jewels are the volunteers and helpers, who have become prominent and are the heart and soul of the place. Early morning in Moria Refugee Camp, when everyone else is still asleep, they wake up, dress and are ready to spend another day doing something meaningful for fellow refugees. They come to OHF, make breakfast, serve coffee, wash the dishes, clean, cut hair, work out at the gym, work in the warehouse, repair or distribute clothes, play with the children and feed them while the mothers attend a photography or embroidery workshop class, or even play music, culturally-appropriate to all the various nationalities. They can also enjoy lunch in the dining area. Ahmad, a refugee who works in the kitchen, and his team, work daily to provide all visitors the best and most diverse meals, whether it's maklouba or pasta.

There are no transparent people or children here – our team knows all the regular visitors by name. Anyone who is sick receives medical treatment or gets a ride and accompanied to the hospital, whoever wants to talk and share their personal story can find someone to listen to them, people who feel lonely can socialize and bond with others, and whenever someone from the international volunteers' team is sick or upset, they will be taken care of by the people from the camps. The feeling of caring is mutual and works both way, and as a result, prejudice slowly diminish.

The educational activity is also unique – the children arrive from Kara Tepe and Moria Refugee Camps to attend the OHF afternoon-education center daily, and learn their own mother tongue (Arabic, Farsi or French). When they return to camp in the evening, they are singing and laughing, their happiness is flowing and the joy is pouring out of them. And we know that they have had another day of normality where they could just be children.

The OHF's unique features in the local landscape vis-à-vis the international aid organizations which operate here, stems from the fact that the community center, as well as the education center were built shoulder to shoulder with the refugees from within the camps – the teachers at the school are educators in their countries of origin, and the varied projects, facilities and services are all initiatives created by camp residents, including building and construction.

Occasionally, large dinners are hosted at the OHF community center to celebrate special events such as birthdays and goodbye parties. During the Ramadan holiday, massive Iftar dinners were served twice a week, accommodating approx. 400 people. Volunteers and refugees would work together and later after the cleanup sit to eat. Despite the situation on Lesvos Island, we have managed to create normality and togetherness.

As time goes by, everyone became friends, and the Syrian-Israeli connection becomes tighter. Arabic sounds friendlier to our ears, the refugees accept our presence, and it's easier to bridge cultural gaps and opinions. They understand that we are here to help. Who would have thought that somewhat cliché or naïve name would be justified and a few months after the operation began, we would in fact become one family?  On the contrary to what Tolstoy claimed, our "happy family" is special and comprised of people from all around the globe including Syrians, Palestinians and Israelis, and is not similar at all to any other happy family in the world.