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Refugee Week 2017

No one ever plans to be a refugee. But when it happens, a little help goes a long way.

Friday June 16, 2017

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It starts with a journey you never thought you'd make

In the rural Syrian town of Jaramana, volunteer Ruba works on the reception desk of a Syrian Arab Red Crescent medical clinic. Ruba's been volunteering here for 10 years, managing patient records and helping people as they arrive at the clinic.

"When I first came to work for Red Crescent 10 years ago, it was to help Iraqi refugees. I would cry about each case. And then it began for Syria. This is hard to see, these people are my neighbours, they are my people," she says.

As whole communities flee Syrian towns in search of safety, Red Crescent volunteers remain hard at work. They hand out food and water, and allocate blankets and places to sleep. Along with first aid kits and other necessities, volunteers distribute kitchen sets, torches and children's clothes to people who've lost everything.

"I'm happy when patients feel good and we have helped them. Most people worry they have to pay, and when they realise they don't they are so relieved. This clinic makes a big, big difference."

Sometimes you're forced into desperate measures

Every year desperate people undertake the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean from northern Africa to Europe. Last year more then 4,500 people died or went missing as they tried to cross the sea in the search for a safer life.

This sea crossing is especially dangerous for migrants because smugglers often put too many people on small rubber boats that easily capsize on the rough open waters. Most boats are doomed before they set sail: often they don't have enough fuel, food or water to make it across the sea.

The Responder is Red Cross' specialist search and rescue boat that saves migrants who have become stranded and in danger at sea. It patrols the Mediterranean route between northern Africa and Italy where most of the drownings happen.

The Responder helps to pull men, women and children from makeshift rafts and overcrowded dinghies in the freezing water. Many are dehydrated and suffering from terrible injuries.

Once on board, Red Cross medical teams check over each passenger. They bandage wounds, tend to pregnant women, treat injuries and make sure children are alright. They also give people blankets, food and water.

"Thank god we were rescued from the boat," says 21-year-old Light from Nigeria as he shelters on the deck of the Responder. "Otherwise we would all be dead."

Not everyone is as fortunate. Many thousands go missing or perish each year as they attempt the dangerous sea crossing. Volunteer burial teams from Red Cross makes sure that those who are recovered from the sea are treated with dignity and respect. Where possible Red Cross also brings comfort to the families left behind by making sure they're informed about the fate of their loved ones.

It's a test of endurance that lasts for years

Many families fleeing war and conflict travel through Greece and Turkey as they escape the fighting in their homelands.

In Turkey, Syrian Hussein Shik Mohammed and his family live in a two-room house in the border town Gaziantep. He's only 10 years old but remembers nothing but war.

"Whenever I see an aircraft, it scares me because I think it will bomb us," he says. "I know that bad times are over. My father told me that people in Turkey use planes only to go to work or on holiday."

The family left everything behind when they fled Syria, but they are now able to buy their necessities using a pre-loaded cash card provided by the Turkish Red Crescent. The card provides asylum seekers and refugees with a monthly payment of 100 Turkish lira (just under $40) per family member to spend on whatever they need most - food, rent, school fees or mobile phone costs.

Hussein's mother Amina tells how the cash card helped during one of the hardest times of their life.

"Shortly after the bombing of Aleppo, we walked to the border with three kids. My husband Haleed started to work in a craft shoe shop but suddenly got sick and the doctor told him he could not carry on working."

"We couldn't pay our rent for months and I fed my kids only with dry food. During this desperate time, we learned that our cash card application had been accepted. I cannot explain how happy we were after I paid the rent."

The relief of staying in touch

In Greece, many refugees live indefinitely in camps while they wait for decisions on asylum and relocation to elsewhere in Europe.

In addition to the basics like food, water and emergency supplies, Red Cross also helps the people living in these camps with access to wifi and power to charge their mobile phones. Refugee life is one of uncertainty; being able to contact loved ones back home provides relief to many.

In addition, Red Cross offers a worldwide service that helps people find and contact their missing loved ones.

Mary, who now lives in Australia, used the service to find her mother after they lost contact four years ago.

Mary was born in Sudan but had to flee when she was just seven years old. A sudden conflict hit her village and it was unsafe for her to stay. After living as a refugee in Kenya for many years, she arrived in Australia as a refugee nine years ago.

Mary and her mother, still in Kenya, were able to maintain phone contact until suddenly one day four years ago when Mary was unable to reach her. For four long years Mary hadn't been able to contact her mother, and had assumed she was dead.

Then one day earlier this year she received a Red Cross message with news from her mother.

"I was overjoyed," she recalls. She immediately drove to her nearest Red Cross office and asked whether Red Cross could help her ring her mother. To her enormous surprise and relief her mother answered the call. Her mother now lives in Uganda and the two are able to speak regularly on the phone.

When you find safety, you have plenty to offer

In Australia, Nesar gives presentations to school children about what it's like to be a refugee. Before he fled the Taliban he'd been a volunteer for the Red Cross in Afghanistan, too.

"I was a volunteer with Red Cross when I was in Afghanistan. I was like a teacher," he says. A lawyer by trade, in Afghanistan Nesar volunteered to teach people about human rights and the laws of war.

"In Australia I am also a volunteer with Red Cross, for the In Search of Safety program. I go to many primary schools and secondary schools and I share my story. It's really rewarding."

Nesar takes the train to the Red Cross office to meet his colleagues and plan his presentations. Like many refugees, when he arrived in Australia Nesar had to learn how to navigate public transport.

"Some things are really different in Australia and I had a lot to learn," he says.

With a little bit of help starting their new lives, Nesar and thousands of other former refugees are now sharing their skills, stories and courage in their new communities.

Photos: Ibrahim Malla/IFRC; IFRC; Francesco Malavolta/; Yara Nardi/Italian Red Cross; Caroline Haga/IFRC; Australian Red Cross/Dilini Perera

Want to make a difference?

Australian Red Cross works to make a difference in the life of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants who are new to Australia. You can make a difference too.