“Where am I?” is often the first question refugees ask when they reach the shore of the Greek Island of Lesvos, where Middlebury Institute alumna Kathryn (Kate) Sokol MPA ’10 is coordinating emergency efforts for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Kate says close to four thousand refugees have landed on the shores of the island every day this month, most of them arriving in overcrowded rubber boats and in need of everything from basic information to urgent medical care. Kate, a member of the IRC’s Emergency Response Team, has worked for the organization since graduating from the Institute in 2010. When a veteran of some of the most challenging crises this world h
When Kate arrived on the island in the eastern Aegean Sea two months ago, first responders were mainly volunteers who brought limited supplies of water, food and clothing to the refugees. The majority land in the northern part of Lesvos, only about five miles from mainland Turkey. From there, refugees must walk forty miles to Mytilini, the island’s government seat, to register with the coast guard, which is required in order to purchase ferry tickets to Athens, the next step on the refugees’ journey. Kate and her colleagues at IRC and other aid organizations have been working on addressing the most pressing problems such as providing safe transportation and other services, but there is still “not nearly enough capacity.” Kate says she expected more from Europe and that it has been frustrating to experience the slow responses of national governments to this crisis.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 320,000 refugees have arrived in Greece this year, with 192,000 arriving just since August. Kate says the IRC is preparing for a long-term response and advocating for “safe, legal ways for people to apply for asylum, as well as safe passage to reach their destination.” The UNHCR estimates that most of the refugees or 71% come from Syria and that 84% come from the world’s top 10 refugee producing countries. “This is a global problem,” says Kate, “and an extension of protracted wars.” Most of the refugees she talks to say they love their country, but that it is not there anymore, and they had no choice but to leave. “Think about your own life,” Kate says, “and how desperate you would have to be to decide that boarding an overcrowded flimsy boat is the best decision you can make for your family.”