Jeff Pinneo experienced an up-close glimpse into what Syrian refugees are going through in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley and the Greek islands of Chios and Samos. The Medical Teams International (MTI) president and CEO recently returned from an eye-opening and heart-wrenching one-week journey to gain firsthand insight into the work that his charitable organization and its partners are doing in response to the refugee crisis.
Based in Portland with its Western Washington headquarters in Redmond, MTI is a global relief and development organization serving people affected by disaster, conflict and poverty around the world.
MTI predominantly raises money for medicine and health products with long-established partners to distribute to refugees. At the end of November, MTI mailed 10,000 care kits — many of which were assembled in a Redmond warehouse — to Lebanon, Greece and other countries.
For the last four years — since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the first wave of refugees that fled their homeland — MTI has focused its work in Lebanon, which now has 1.2 million Syrian refugees.
“The level of vulnerability there we deemed much higher and so we focused our efforts there,” said Pinneo, who was accompanied on his trip by a videographer.
MTI now has an 11-person staff, which includes a doctor, a dentist and other community health professionals who have been there for about a year and half or two years. Health workers — including a dentist who is a Syrian refugee — try to make twice-monthly visits to the 40 different refugee settlements that MTI focuses on in Zahle.
Pinneo described the MTI-focused settlements as a loosely planned series of structures that are tied into a power grid with open power boxes to create some electricity. In harsh weather, the refugees are exposed to bacterial waterborne diseases and must deal with other health issues.
“Nothing’s guaranteed at all. They’re so resourceful in terms of gathering, garnering support on just basic food and water,” said Pinneo, who noted that in at least one camp, children were attending school. “So they’re able to keep some semblance of normalcy going for some of the kids.”
Pinneo said that his conversations with some of the refugee families were often tear-filled.
One 23-year-old woman was just entering her fourth year of university in computer engineering on the day her seven-member family had to flee from Syria. The neighbors two houses down had been kidnapped and a school was bombed: They had to pack what they could carry and get out post haste.
“The future that she was that close to reaching, was taken from her. And to talk to her about that was really humbling for me, ‘cause I had this presumption that her giving up her future would be like the biggest grief. But her tears came when she talked about her brother in Sweden, worried about him and just worried about his future and their future together,” said Pinneo, adding that the brother made his way to Sweden with family money — partly from the sale of their 300 head of sheep in Syria — to find a place to live, finish his education, find a job and save enough money to bring the rest of his family there.
The family lives in a settlement they made for themselves, adjacent to a potato field where they work.
Pinneo said the 23-year-old stoically told him that she hasn’t lost hope, and “she offered that in a way of encouragement to other 20-somethings around the world.”
In Greece, MTI has a long partnership with two agencies — International Orthodox Christian Charities and Apostoli — and has sent containers with medicines and health products to them to distribute there.
“With the emergence of this (refugee crisis), they went right into action,” Pinneo said.
With Greece being the first port of entry to the European union and months and months of red tape to cut through to enter legally, thousands of people are contacting black marketeers to arrange illegal crossings from Turkey on the Aegean Sea. After a four-nautical-mile trip to the eastern Greek islands, they hit the shore and begin the process of registering with the United Nations (UN) and applying to move deeper into Europe.
“It’s a very risky crossing, depending on weather and circumstance and all that, but mostly it’s one that is facilitated by human traffickers, profiteers,” Pinneo said. “They’re charging on average about $1,200 to $1,500 a person. And they’re doing it by supplying rubber rafts with outboard motors and lifejackets, piling everybody in and then appointing somebody, just say, ‘You steer it over there and take it over across the island.’ So hundreds of drownings have occurred since the little boy that washed up on the shores in Greece that brought the world’s attention.”
Pinneo shakes his head in disbelief when he told of seeing the beaches littered with lifejackets and popped rafts, and families drying their clothes by draping them across boats. The living conditions in camps are rough while they’re waiting to move along on their journey.
“The interviews with the people were the most poignant. For them, this was their first landfall on (European) soil,” Pinneo said. “As difficult as everything had been to that point, as traumatized as they were, there was a hopefulness now that they were there, so that was really wonderful.”
One mother, son, aunt and sister had a difficult crossing and were looking forward to being reunited with the father, who was already ahead in Germany.
Pinneo said that from his observations, there was adequate security for the refugees in Lebanon and Greece.
If an uprising broke out in Lebanon, armed forces or intelligence support would be called on site. MTI checks in many times a day with the two organizations as they go about their work. In Greece, the UN in conjunction with Greek authorities are on hand if tensions flare up.
Pinneo felt safe on his journey and said they make a sophisticated assessment of the situation and adhere to security protocols and are attentive to allowed routings.
“I came back inspired to form a trip of concerned and connected donors who, on fairly short notice, could carve out a week to do what I just did. To go back with me, and to come back more deeply informed, go to their Bellevue rotaries and be able to talk to others about it, to generate more support for the effort,” Pinneo said.
“This is a work where you don’t have to manufacture any motivation for need,” he added. “So many people (are) counting on us to get it right every day, and I’m just so proud of the way our team is all motivated by that. Our faith inspires us to show up and they show up very, very well.”