THE BUZZ II: Rallying for Relief

By on December 22, 2015

A Jacksonite carves a new life trajectory while helping refugees on the island of Lesvos.

Left: Syrian refugees arrive to the Greek island of Lesvos from Turkey. Right: Sharif Zawaideh and other volunteers help a hypothermic boy to shore. (Photo: sharif zawaideh, basil sawalha)

Left: Syrian refugees arrive to the Greek island of Lesvos from Turkey (Photo: Sharif Zawaideh). Right: Sharif Zawaideh and other volunteers help a hypothermic boy to shore (Photo: Basil Sawalha).

Jackson, WY – While Donald Trump bumbles on with his anti-Muslim tirades, more Americans, shaken by the recent Paris terrorist attacks, are becoming increasingly xenophobic. A recent Bloomberg Politics poll found that 53 percent of Americans do not want to accept any Syrian refugees. Thirty governors have publicly opposed Syrian refugee resettlement in their states. Wyoming Governor Matt Mead is among them. This has not, however, assuaged an opposition group in Gillette that formed after the recent construction of a mosque. Some residents there say they fear it will somehow attract refugees to the small Wyoming town. Meanwhile, the mainstream media is compounding Americans’ refusal to accept refugees by disseminating narratives of “us versus them.” That’s why differing tales, which help peel away the unwarranted fear some are clinging to, hold special weight.

Jackson resident Sharif Zawaideh has positioned himself on the turbulent path used by Syrian refugees to escape war. Working with the nonprofit Salaam Cultural Museum for the last month, Zawaideh sometimes begins his day on the Greek island of Lesvos at 2 a.m. Other times he works for 24 hours straight. When a call comes in that a boat has been spotted, he and his crew, comprised of people of all stripes, coalesce and spring into action.

“Our team, which is just a little microcosm of this effort, is made up of Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists. We have staunch Republicans and a member of Hillary’s staff working together,” Zawaideh noted. “Muslim refugees are hugging Jewish doctors when they reach shore here. Islamic, Israeli and Christian organizations, and non-religious, non-political groups have all come together for the same purpose. It gives me a little hope for what seems to be a polarizing world.”

As boats of refugees pour in from the Northern Aegean en route from Turkey, Zawaideh greets faces of desperation – men, women and children often suffering from hypothermia after braving the disorderly sea in small inflatable vessels. He has seen the anguish of mothers estranged from their young children after boats have capsized. And he has witnessed the shift from fear to hope when he pulls shivering, crying children to shore. But after receiving a warm blanket and the promise of safety, demeanors soften completely.

“I had one boy shouting ‘La, la, la,’ when I tried to take him off the boat (‘no’ in Arabic). He started trying to choke me,” Zawaideh recalled. “He was maybe 5 or 6, probably younger. I had to fight with him to get him off the boat safely, but by the time we had gotten him out of his lifejacket, dry and changed, he was so playful.”

Following another rescue, Zawaideh remembered a little girl who wouldn’t get on the International Rescue Committee bus to the refugee camp until she had hugged every single female aid worker on the beach. “It brought a few of them to tears,” Zawaideh said.

Landing on the shores of Lesvos is just a portion of a long journey for many families, however. Their trajectories trace paths to Western Europe from Greece to Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and finally Austria. A laminated sign that begins “Dear Refugee,” tacked along the shores of Lesvos’ beaches warns that travel through Bulgaria can be very dangerous. And if you are caught in Hungary illegally, the sign cautions, you may be imprisoned for up to five years.

Slated to spend about three weeks volunteering with SCM, Zawaideh found himself in the midst of a calamitous situation that garnered global headlines this past week.

On Wednesday, after receiving word that a wooden boat was wrestling particularly bad weather at sea, aid workers went to Eftalou Beach to investigate.

“I spotted the boat with binoculars and they looked to be having difficulties,” Zawaideh said. Moments later the boat split in two and sank. “More than 80 people were bobbing about in the water and you could see the specks of orange drifting and spreading out across the sea.” Rescue boats quickly arrived to the scene, plucking people from the frigid sea and bringing them to shore. “The first boat came in full of hypothermic children,” Zawaideh said. “Cold, blue motionless faces, screaming, crying. Everyone was soaked and desperate … One infant was in cardiac arrest.”

Although some children perished that day, drowning in the water after the boat split, aid workers were able to save everyone who made it onto rescue boats despite many that were teetering on the brink of death.

That day others took note of Zawaideh’s calm, composed direction as he acted as emergency response coordinator until the head medical coordinator arrived. After the incident Zawaideh was asked to stay and head SCM’s mission for the next month. And it has him thinking about how he can help after that.

“I’ve always been able to remain calm in super stressful situations,” he said. “It’s funny – I get stressed out by what to order or about being punctual, but when things are intense and really matter I’ve always been able to focus, assess, prioritize and make effective decisions.”

A Jordanian American who has lived in Jackson on and off for the last 15 years, Zawaideh cut his teeth on disaster management of a different kind. He has headed logistics and site management for about 10 years, developing the operations plans for various music festivals and large scale outdoor events through his business Global Operations and Logistics. But a void in his work, once a soft whisper, was growing louder.

“Over the past few years, I have become a little jaded on the party scene that often accompanies these events and decided that I wanted to try to utilize my skills for something more helpful,” Zawaideh explained. “I’ve interviewed with various international NGOs over the years and tried to shift my business’ focus from event production to disaster management but hadn’t had much luck.”

Although he says he is slightly overwhelmed at the moment by his new set of swelling responsibilities, Zawaideh knows it’s the right thing for him to do now. “Wasting your talents because you don’t know what they are is one thing, but genuinely knowing what you should be doing with your life, but being either too lazy or too hedonistic to not pursue them (which I have been for quite some time) is not the path to a truly fulfilling life.” PJH

About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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