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Faculty, Staff Members Help Middle Eastern Refugees

Two women from Minnesota State Mankato were on same Greek island at different camps.

Kristine Goodrich, Mankato Free Press, 3-19-2016

In top photo, Heather Hamilton sews together discarded life jackets to make a water-resistant tent floor (photo courtesy of Hamilton). In bottom photo, Beth Lohrenz takes a selfie during her trip to Greece to help refugees (photo courtesy of Lohrenz).

Of the many heartbreaking stories Heather Hamilton heard while aiding Middle Eastern refugees on a Greek island, one tale from a Pakistani student stands out.

The young man told the Minnesota State University, Mankato associate professor of theater that his mother was shot by Taliban terrorists on her way to the market. The 19-year-old named Shamshaid, who was studying computer engineering, said he fled his home country after his university was attacked by the Taliban.

He said he was then attacked and kidnapped by an Iraqi and held for ransom. His uncle sold his business to pay the ransom.

The teen found passage via a smuggler to a refugee camp on the island of Lesvos. He’s now stranded there waiting for an opportunity to resettle somewhere safe.

When Hamilton returned from 10 days building tents and distributing supplies in Lesvos, she contacted Beth Lohrenz, Minnesota State Mankato’s international student recruitment and retention specialist. Hamilton wondered if there might be a way Lohrenz could help get Shamshaid to Minnesota State Mankato on a student visa.

Lohrenz advised that would not be possible at this time.

Lohrenz also had a coincidence to share when the pair talked Monday. She had also recently returned from serving in Lesvos. The university colleagues realized they were on the island at the same time in different camps just yards away from each other in the city of Moria.

Lesvos is just off the coast of Turkey and has become the primary stop for refugees fleeing from Syria and other conflict-ripe areas of the Middle East. From the island they move on to mainland Greece and from there many seek to make it to other countries in Western Europe.

Numerous nongovernmental agencies are on the island aiding the Greek government in managing the influx of refugees.

Lohrenz traveled to help with a group from her hometown church. They were volunteers with an organization called Greater Europe Mission that assists in government camps. She spent two weeks on the island.

Hamilton volunteered for 10 days through an organization called Better Days for Moria, which runs an overflow camp for refugees who can’t gain admittance to a government-sponsored camp.

Both Minnesota State Mankato humanitarians helped distribute food and supplies to the refugees. There were far fewer resources than there was need, they said. But no refugee got upset when they were turned away, Lohrenz and Hamilton both observed.

“They were so grateful for any thing we could give them,” Lohrenz said.

“With all of our wealth, we give them crumbs and they say, ‘thank you,’” Hamilton said. Lohrenz also helped families settle into the former prison that had been transformed into a government camp. In addition to providing logistical support, Lohrenz said her duties included welcoming people into camp.

“We tried to make them feel like human beings again who were cared about,” she said.

Hamilton also helped build tents, clean vacated tents and dig drainage trenches. The male refugees frequently insisted on helping.

“These are enlightened, hard-working people who are running away from ISIS,” Hamilton said.

Lohrenz said one of the most memorable refugees she encountered was an elderly woman who had just broken her arm while getting off a boat. She was in pain but still elated to have arrived to safety.

A while later the woman handed Lohrenz the phone on which she had been speaking. In broken English, the man on the line said he was the woman’s son. He asked Lohrenz for confirmation that his mother was OK and in a safe place. Lohrenz said the man responded to her reassurances with a multitude of relieved-sounding “thank you’s” and “God bless you’s.”

The camps were overcrowded but well-run and at least met the refugee’s most basic of needs, Hamilton and Lohrenz said.

They fear, however, that the camps will soon become overwhelmed now that Macedonia has closed its doors to refugees, shutting down the main migration route into Western Europe. Many of the refugees on Lesvos are staying put instead of moving on to mainland Greece.

Both humanitarians said the worst part of their journey was leaving.

“It’s really hard to leave knowing that the work is unfinished,” Lohrenz.

They both said, without a moment’s hesitation, they hope to soon return to the island.

In the meantime they said the aim to share their experiences with anyone who will listen in hopes of raising awareness about the refugee crisis. They also hope to inspire people to provide financial support to relief organizations or perhaps even to volunteer in a refugee camp like they did.

“This is history happening right now,” Hamilton said. “You have a choice.

You can look away or you can try to help.”

The pair are planning to have an information table at the university’s International Festival on April 10. Hamilton is planning to have her filmmaker husband help her create a short video with some of the footage she collected, including interviews with English-speaking refugees and clips of refugee ships arriving to the island.

The art professor is also writing an academic paper about the few music and art opportunities and other creative outlets available to refugees at the camp at which she served. She’ll propound that offering creative outlets even during a crisis operation has a substantial impact on beneficiaries’ mental well-being.

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at

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