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Detroiter travels to Greece to help first-hand with Syrian refugee crisis

Many of us have seen the heartbreaking scenes and photos from the Syrian refugee crisis and wondered: how can I help? There are plenty of charities to donate to and even ways to help here in Michigan, but Detroit-based entrepreneur Razi Jafri took it a step further.

Jafri just returned after spending nine days helping refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos and he spoke with Stateside about his experience.

“I was definitely inspired and motivated by a lot of the imagery that I had been seeing and reading about: about the crisis, about the civil war in Syria, and an opportunity appeared to me through a friend of mine, who was a Detroit-based dentist,” said Jafri. “He asked me if I would be interested in joining him on a medical mission to Greece to help the refugees."

Many of the refugees are risking their lives as they flee Syria through Turkey and across the Aegean Sea into Greece. There was clearly a need for additional help as many of the people need medical attention, but Jafri thought his lack of medical training and the lack of funds to travel to Greece would be a roadblock in his ability to help.

Luckily for Jafri, the organization behind the mission, International Medical Relief, does not require a medical background, and he was told he could crowdsource the funds to cover his travel costs.

With the help of Launch Good, a crowdfunding website for Muslim projects that was launched by some friends of his, he was able to raise the $3,900 he needed in a little over a week.

Here's a video Jafri shot of one of the boats arriving on Lesbos:

When he arrived in Greece, his expectations of what his role would be changed drastically, as he found himself helping any way he could. He was surprised to find out that not all of the refugees were from Syria, and he became an interpreter. There were many people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Algeria, Morocco and even as far away as Ghana.

Since Jafri can speak Urdu and a little bit of Farsi, he was able to assist with many of the refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan. He even went so far as to organize a class for basic Farsi phrases to help people communicate.

[The refugees] are craftsmen, they're attorneys, they're educators, professors, physicians, and they can add a lot to our society, they can contribute, and they're ready to contribute.

“It’s definitely made think a lot about gratitude and how much we have [in the United States] and the abundance that we have here and to be grateful for all of the things that we have,” said Jafri. “These people are sometimes coming with whatever they have on their backs. We met people who didn’t have shoes, we met people that had very little clothing, and they were grateful for whatever you can give them.”

As someone who has seen the refugee crisis first-hand, Jafri has a message to share with people at home who are watching the crisis unfold from afar.

“These people are human beings, first and foremost,” said Jafri. “Often, the conversation in the United States and in much of Europe is filled with a lot of suspicion and vitriol against immigrants and against refugees. Many, if not all of them, are leaving their countries not out of choice. They are leaving their countries because they are facing an existential threat to themselves, to their families, to their livelihood. Many of these people are highly educated, highly trained. They are craftsmen, they’re attorneys, they’re educators, professors, physicians, and they can add a lot to our society, they can contribute, and they’re ready to contribute.”   

Listen to the full interview below as Jafri tells more about his experience in Greece and some of the inspirational people he met while working there. 

Josh Hakala, a lifelong Michigander (East Lansing & Edwardsburg), comes to Michigan Radio after nearly two decades of working in a variety of fields within broadcasting and digital media.
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