Two Durango women are putting their post-college graduation freedom to philanthropic use and will travel to the Greek island of Lesvos this month to assist Syrian refugees fleeing war-torn countries.
Durango High School alumnae and lifelong friends Julie Nass, 22, and Jenna Mulligan, 23, will depart Wednesday for Lesvos, where more than 10,000 Syrian men, women and children have sought refuge from war zones primarily in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nass and Mulligan, who graduated from northwestern colleges in May, will join volunteers from all over the world in Lesvos to provide relief to migrants who arrive off the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts in boatloads each day.
“I’m at a time in my life where I have the space and freedom to pursue this,” said Nass, who hatched the idea and persuaded Mulligan to join her. “I’ve always been interested in traveling and volunteering and doing something along these lines.”
The first dinghies overloaded with transients drifted ashore in 2010. But in 2014, those numbers increased rapidly. In December, the refugee count in Europe reached 1 million, with most landing on Greek islands. The island of Lesvos, which is home to some 85,000 permanent residents, is a hub for tourists, and now over 10,000 Syrian migrants. The nautical trek for some is as little as a couple miles, but it’s grueling and only a fraction of the journey for the refugees, who face issues obtaining documentation to leave the country and endless unknowns about where to go next once they reach dry land. Reports also indicate some refugees riot once they reach Lesvos and clash with native residents.
Of all the wide-eyed humanitarian endeavors that might appeal to a fresh graduate, the Syrian refugee crisis struck a chord of relevance in Nass.
“This came from reading about what was going on in the news and being stricken by that. It’s been called a crisis for a reason,” she said. “This felt like something I could do, given the skills and experience I have right now. And also the fact that it’s happening in a place I thought I could get to and travel on my own.”
Nass is a wilderness first responder. She thinks those skills may assist her in Lesvos. Though this endeavor does not relate to Nass’ math degree, she and Mulligan hope the journey to Lesvos will give them the traveling experience that’s easiest to obtain in youthful, post-college years.
Concerns for Nass’ and Mulligan’s safety has worried friends and family more than the two women; they said their consternations stem from wanting to make a positive and effective impact.
“A lot of my first reservations were making sure I was informed enough and in a position that I wouldn’t be imposing any sort of, ‘Here I am to help you’ attitude,’” Mulligan said. “That deters me. I just wanted to make sure I knew as much as I could about what’s going on.”
“I know this sounds cliche, but if I can just make a small difference in somebody’s life, that will be enough,” Nass said. “Just to be a positive force in the midst of this really horrible situation.”
The two will work with the Starfish Foundation, a nonprofit committed to supplying new arrivals in Lesvos with food, water, medicine and other accommodations, and helping them reach their next destination.
Mulligan will stay for a month, Nass at least a month and a half, possibly longer if money allows. They are raising money to cover personal accommodations as well as to donate to refugees.
When Nass and Mulligan arrive in Greece, they will be assigned tasks ranging from food and clothing distribution to patrolling the beach for the boats that appear on the horizon each day. When they reach shore, most of the refugees stay only for a night before they’re boated to the country’s mainland once they obtain papers. Volunteers also help facilitate that process.
As a journalism graduate, Mulligan said she wants firsthand knowledge about the crisis she can get only by traveling to it herself.
“A month is such an insignificant amount of time,” she said. “I’m not sure I’ll come away feeling like I did a helpful thing, but I don’t know that that’s necessary. I just want to not stand by, but get face-to-face with something and walk away with a feeling that I wasn’t living in a bubble far away from it.”