Pocatello native Crystallynn Steed Brown remembers vividly the November night she and another volunteer were headed back to the refugee camp where they both worked on the Greek island of Lesvos.
Driving up from the beach toward camp, Brown saw a man, soaking wet and without shoes, collapse on the side of the road. They pulled over and offered to drive the 21-year-old Afghani to the Moria refugee camp, about 40 miles away.
“He had just come off one of the boats, which is just a horrific experience for a lot of people,” said Brown.
“He wouldn’t get in the car because he was worried about getting the seats wet.”
The man eventually accepted the ride and broke into tears. In broken English, the man told Brown the story of his family. In the last five months, Islamic State militants had killed five of the man’s family members. Just three weeks prior to his arrival in Greece, the militants broke into his home in the middle of the night and killed his mother and 2-year-old baby brother.
“Almost every person I’ve talked to has a story,” said Brown. “So often you ask where the father is and everyone gets quiet. At the boats people are always missing children. What’s infuriating is that people are calling them economic migrants. These people are refugees. There’s no way they’d embark on this journey if they weren’t.”
Brown, a graduate of Idaho State University, flew to Europe in September with her cousin to volunteer to help refugees fleeing the war-torn Middle East and part of Africa. Brown and her cousin started at the border of Croatia and Serbia then made their way to Greece and the Moria refugee camp.
After a month on Lesvos, Mercy Worldwide — a faith-based nonprofit and service organization — contacted Brown and asked her to volunteer as the chief of ground operations. According to Brown, many of the refugee camps in Greece are almost entirely run by volunteers.
At Moria, Brown was in charge of talking with the refugees, picking out those most in need and giving them shelter. According to Brown, she could only pick the most “vulnerable cases” because space indoors was limited, which meant many people slept outside either on the ground or, if they were lucky, in tents.
“There are so many women and children,” said Brown. “We are always packed with children. The pictures you see are a lot of men because they are they ones waiting in line. You can’t wait in line with a bunch of babies.”
Brown said there are many men who do show up at the refugee camps alone. However, many of them have families in the Middle East. She said these men hoped to find work in Europe before bringing their families over legally.
There are those, like the young man from Afghanistan Brown found on the road to Moria, who are alone. However, Brown said in all her work with refugees, she has never felt threatened.
“At night, I’ve walked through crowds of men and never had a problem,” said Brown. “I’ve always felt respected, and they have only been kind and patient. Even when they don’t have food, even when they’re getting beat by the police, they are still so kind and so thankful.”
According to Brown the portrayals of these refugees that had been presented by the media and politicians have given these people a bad reputation. She said in her time working with refugees — both in Moria and at the border of Serbia and Croatia — she has learned about Islam and the cultures of countries such as Syria and Iraq.
“What I have learned about Islam is completely different from what I thought it was,” said Brown. “The women are not oppressed. They’re feisty and independent thinkers, and I have never been so respected by men in my life.”
Brown said she would encourage people in Idaho and across the United States to talk with Muslims in their community in order to learn what the religion is really about and stop the hate.
“These refugees are educated and kind and so calm,” said Brown. “I am humbled to see their reactions to these awful situations and how, at their core, they are peaceful. I couldn’t say the same about myself in that situation.”
Brown also worked on the beaches of Lesvos, helping refugees as they arrive on boats. She has seen what refugees went through on the voyage across the Mediterranean Sea, a voyage that has killed more than 200,000 refugees in the last year, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Brown said that in Turkey, refugees will pay anywhere from US $1,200 to US $2,500 for a boat to Greece.
“They’re put on the boats at gun point by smugglers, and these boats have warnings on them that they’re only supposed to hold six people,” said Brown. “We’ve pulled in boats with over 65 people.”
The refugees often have to leave their belongings in Turkey because they won’t fit on the boats.
The boats are outfitted with old motors that often break down, and the refugees are given counterfeit life jackets stuff with things like packing material or glass, according to Brown.
“It makes sense that we have so many bodies washing up on shore,” said Brown.
When refugees arrive in Greece, volunteers are there to provide basic medical assistance and help them navigate to camps like Moria. However, it is illegal for the refugees to pay for taxis, stay in hotels or leave the country until they have been processed.
Once at the camps, refugees can be stuck in lines for days waiting to be processed, according to Brown.
“At the height of the crisis, it took seven days to process someone,” said Brown. “Until the past month and a half or so, a lot of people didn’t have food available.”
She said that until recently refugees waiting to be processed often had no access to basic necessities such as food, water or blankets.
According to Brown, during the height of the crisis, they would see thousands of refugees arriving in Greece each day. The majority of the refugees are from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, but Brown said she has also spoken to people from Morocco, Eritrea and Palestine.
Brown said sometimes the numbers would drop, usually because of weather, but even on slow days, they would see a few hundred new refugees.
She said that numbers dropped again after the European Union and Turkey struck and deal in October in which Turkey received more than $3 billion in exchange for hosting refugees.
“Turkey is in complete control of who gets through,” said Brown.
After being processed in refugee camps in Greece, Brown said many of the refugees head north to Macedonia, usually making their way to Austria. However, Brown said Macedonia has recently closed in borders, only allowing refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan through.
According to Brown, these changes haven’t stopped refugees from making their way to Europe. She said the consistency of their arrival has changed and many of the smuggling routes have been altered but refugees continue to arrive on the shores of Greece every day.
“They just want to be in a place where they and their children will be safe,” said Brown. “Which country they go to is not a big concern. They just want to be anywhere but here.”
Brown is now home in Arkansas for the holidays with her husband, Dean Brown. Her father, Pocatello native Paul Steed, who joined her in Greece earlier this month, is still volunteering refugee camps Europe. Brown will be returning to Moria in January to continue assisting refuges.
Brown said she is frustrated that so many Americans are against accepting refugees into the country and saddened by the anti-Muslim rhetoric she’s heard from politicians and the media.
“It comes down to that we need to decide what side of the fence we want to be on,” said Brown. “This is such a massive global misunderstanding, and if the tables were turned, they would be far less judgmental of us than we are of them.”