Paying it forward: Bay Area Jews help refugees in Greece

Flying home from Greece last month after volunteering at two refugee camps, Kathryn Winogura of Lafayette looked at the photos she had taken on her phone. On a whim, she changed some of them to black-and-white. One photo, of women in headscarves standing in a line, startled her.

“It hit me that this could be a photo from 1941,” Winogura said, alluding to Holocaust-era photos of Jews living in ghettos or refugee camps. “It is extremely powerful to find yourself as a Jew in the middle of Europe helping refugees, seeing all the people who had to give up everything and now are stuck somewhere. It hits so deeply.”

Winogura, 55, is one of four Jewish Bay Area women who recently traveled to refugee camps to help people who fled their war-torn countries. Winogura, Bab Freiberg and Bab’s daughter, Dafna Bearson, went on their own, as independent volunteers. Talya Feldman is one of some 50 volunteers from the Bay Area who signed up with IsraAID, the Israeli humanitarian agency that is in Greece lending a hand.

Some 54,000 migrants are now on Greek soil, according to recent reports citing the Refugee Crisis Management Coordination Body. Many are Syrian; some are from other war-torn countries. Most are Muslim.

“I work with Muslims all day long, and it’s never an issue because we build personal relationships,” said Winogura, who is the volunteer services manager — she’s currently looking for people to help resettle newly arriving refugees in the Bay Area — at Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay.

The current refugee crisis — the largest since the end of World War II — inspired three of the four local volunteers to make the journey to Greece because it reminds them of what Jews have faced in other times and places.

The youngest of the four, Bearson, 20, says she went to Greece in April because she wanted “to be pushed beyond my comfort zone in different countries with different people.” But like the others, she said there was a strong Jewish component to her motivation: the Jewish values she “learned at home in every stage of my life.”

“Every day [in Greece] was an exercise in applying those values — tikkun olam, patience, compassion and open-mindedness,” she said, “but nobody ever asked if I was Jewish.”

Winogura, a member of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, talked about her Jewish background with the Muslim refugees she met.

Bab Freiberg (second from left) and her daughter Dafna Bearson (second from right) with refugee family at a camp in Greece

“It was important to me,” she said. “One day I was drinking coffee with a Muslim family in their tent, and when I said I was Jewish, the father smiled and said it didn’t matter, that we all are human beings who believe in God, that the message of Islam and Judaism is the same.”

Feldman, 24, left her job as a study coordinator at an eating disorder clinic at Stanford University to sign up with IsraAID.

“I loved the idea of volunteering with an Israeli organization because some people have fear and hatred about Israel,” the Palo Alto resident said. “I grew up hearing my grandparents’ stories about living in a refugee camp in Austria, and about the people who saved their lives. When I read in the news about the current refugee crisis, I saw parallels to the crisis the Jews faced after the Holocaust. I wanted to help.”

Feldman spent four months this year, from January through April, on the Greek island of Lesbos providing psychological care for refugees and volunteers. She worked and lived with Muslims, Christians and Jews, from Israel, the Palestinian territories and the United States.

As they waited for boats to arrive, the volunteers sometimes shared stories about their cultures. “There were no conflicts and the work wasn’t ever about politics,” she said. “It was all about people helping other people.

Refugees standing in line for a hot lunch at the Idomeni refugee camp on May 3. photo/kathryn winogura

“Conditions in the camp were horrific, and there was no coordinated aid,” she said. “The magnitude of suffering in the camps was unbelievable. Hope was hard to find, but the refugees all are people who hope for a better life. And, day after day, I was amazed at their kindness.”

Freiberg, director of strategic counseling at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and a member of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, volunteered for two weeks in April and May at a camp that had sprung up around a gas station in northern Greece. More than 3,000 refugees were living there in domed tents, she said.

One Muslim woman hoped for something different to wear in the hot weather. She was eight months pregnant, and the only garment she had was a long wool coat.

“The woman was very devout, and kept everything except her face fully covered,” Freiberg said. “She asked me to look in the warehouse, where donations were stored, but I couldn’t find anything appropriate.”

The two women became friendly, Freiberg said, able to converse with the help of Google’s online transla   tor. “I wanted to tell her I was Jewish, but decided that bonding with her was more important. The family kept to themselves a lot, but I was able to convince her to let her two sons come to the school at the camp.”

Freiberg taught English at the school. “I also played with kids, jumped rope with them and taught them a few songs,” she said. “I would walk into the camp and be rushed by children that needed to be hugged.” She said she is still in contact with some of the families she met.

On June 2, she learned that the pregnant woman’s family attempted to get out of Greece by paying human smugglers $4,000. “They are with the smugglers now, who took them only part of the way and are demanding more money,” she said. “It’s horrible.” The woman had not yet given birth, she added.

Freiberg volunteered in Greece because, as a Jew, she felt “a shared history” with the refugees. She also was encouraged by her daughter, Bearson, who already was working at the camp at the EKO gas station.

Kathryn Winogura with a refugee who called Winogura into her tent to share her story.

After two years as an economics student at U.C. Berkeley, Bearson decided to take a year off.  She first volunteered in Morocco with a nonprofit called Round Earth Media, and then moved to Greece to help with the refugee crisis.

Working in the camp for six weeks, Bearson delivered porridge “tent by tent” in the mornings with Save the Children and distributed dinner every evening for Doctors Without Borders. She also handed out clothing from a warehouse filled with donations, taught English classes, played with toddlers, made soup for lunch, distributed milk and diapers and created a space “where women feel comfortable bathing their babies and breastfeeding.” In the evenings, she practiced her Arabic with other volunteers and some of the refugees she now counts as friends.

Bearson and other past and current volunteers post nearly daily on a Facebook page she helped create during her time in Greece (www.tinyurl.com/eko-facebook). The posts are about individual refugees and/or their families. “Our goal is to provide an outlet for people all over the world to connect to the people living in EKO on a human-to-human level, void of any politics,” she said, noting that more than $6,500 had been raised to help the featured families.

Winogura’s agency is raising money, too. JFCS East Bay has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise $50,000 in matching funds for refugee resettlement (www.tinyurl.com/welcome-fund).

Winogura volunteered at the EKO camp and also at Idomeni, where more than 10,000 people had crowded together on farmland on the border of Greece and Macedonia. Greek officials cleared that camp at the end of May, and the refugees were relocated to other camps throughout the country.

A crowd in the camp on May 10. photo/kathryn winogura

She spent two weeks distributing clothing, serving hot meals, providing cleaning supplies and helping hand out 4,000 bananas every morning under the direction of non-governmental organizations, humanitarian agencies and volunteer groups.

The experience “was hard and fulfilling at the same time,” Winogura said. She spent a lot of time with a family that had owned a printing business in Damascus, Syria. “They had a nice house and a nice car, and every day the father put on a suit and tie and went to work. Then one night, a missile hit their house. The family just made it out with the three children.”

She added, “I remember sitting with them and thinking this could be me — but for a weird luck of the draw.”

Bay Area Jewish group welcomes first Syrian refugee family

While thousand of refugees in Greek camps await resettlement, Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay prepares to welcome its first Syrian family to the Bay Area. Originally scheduled to arrive on June 21, the family is expected later this week.

“We have already resettled two Syrians through our LGBT program, and this is our first Syrian family,” said Avi Rose, executive director of JFCS East Bay.

Helena Weiss-Duman with husband Dan Duman and sons Sam and Cole Duman

More Syrians, perhaps as many as 50, are expected to arrive here later this summer. To date, only a small number of Syrians have come to the Bay Area, including a few families the International Rescue Committee has resettled in Alameda County.

Helena Weiss-Duman and Dan Duman of Castro Valley will provide the family with a place to stay for their first week in the Bay Area. They then will move to another community, where they will look for a permanent home.

“I feel this is something tangible I can do,” said Weiss-Duman, who works at U.C. Berkeley. “This is a mom and a dad with two little kids. Luckily, we have a spare room and our son will be at Camp Newman, so we can offer his room too.”

Weiss-Duman heard about the need for temporary housing for refugees when JFCS East Bay reached out to members of Temple Sinai in Oakland, where she is on the board.

“My father, Sam Weiss, was a Holocaust refugee from Czechoslovakia, and I was always moved by his story. His cousins, who lived outside Chicago, made room for him and other family members until they got on their feet. Later, in San Leandro, my father was a one-man welcome wagon, delivering food to Russian refugee families and checking in with them,” she said.

“By welcoming the stranger, we are honoring my father’s memory. It’s his yahrzeit on June 27, so the timing is very appropriate. This is the least my family can do to pay it forward.” — patricia corrigan