Aid group found its start on the front lines of refugee crisis

Hayley Smith, founder of Lifting Hands International and Christina Atwood, who opened a Phoenix chapter, joined Jon King and Peter Christian at KGVO early Wednesday to discuss their work support the needs of global refugees. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

When the raft overturned in the Aegean Sea, those based at the Moria Refugee Camp in Greece had just moments to prepare. The occupants of the raft would arrive on the island of Lesvos soaking wet in freezing temperatures, and they were in dire need of warm, dry clothing.

Hayley Smith and her small team of volunteers separated the men from the women, asked them to remove their wet clothing and gave them blankets to keep warm. But as they turned to the boxes of donated items, they found the clothing unsuitable for the season, and there wasn’t enough to accommodate the boat’s survivors.

“They were in those tents for hours because it took us so long to clothe them,” Smith said. “The donations that came were not sorted and were not the appropriate clothing. They didn’t have enough clothing that we needed for a single boatload of refugees.”

In that moment, Smith knew things had to change. The world was embroiled in the largest refugee crisis since World War II and showed no signs of slowing down. Workers serving on the front line of the crisis needed help – appropriate clothing sorted for emergencies like this, fresh food and support from donors back home.

It was there where Lifting Hands International found its start.

“I decided that when I came back to the U.S., we were going to fill containers of items that were actually needed, and items that were presorted,” Smith said. “So when something like this happens and a volunteer like me is trying to clothe someone who has lost everything, we can do it quickly and efficiently.”

Smith and Christina Atwood of Lifting Hands International joined members of the Montana World Affairs Council in the KGVA radio booth on Wednesday morning to kick off their two-day stop in Missoula.

Hosted by the Qatar Foundation, the nonprofit leaders took to the airwaves to dispel deep misunderstandings around the refugee crisis. America has a moral obligation to help, they said, and the vetting process endured by the scant few who are accepted into the U.S. is more than rigorous.

“We’re not a political organization and we’re not policy makers,” Smith said. “The reason we do this is because these people have lost everything. That’s something we lose sight of, because the refugee issue has become such a political situation – such a political hot topic – that we forget there are millions of people who have lost everything.”

Smith wasn’t always destined for the front lines of the refugee crisis. She studied Arabic at Brigham Young University and earned her master’s degree in Middle Eastern affairs at the University of London.

While she planned on working for the government, she graduated during the recession and went to work instead as a teacher at Boston Public Schools.

Not until Smith moved to Arizona and began following the news more closely did she realize the gravity of the crisis unfolding in Greece. Like so many others, she was moved by images of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned on a Turkish beach.

“I’m embarrassed to admit that I was so busy teaching that I’d lost track of the news and lost track of the Syrian civil war,” said Smith. “Like so many other people in the country, the picture of the little boy who had drowned and washed up on the beach really affected me, and it affected me deeply.”

In the years that followed, both Smith and Atwood have formed a better understanding of the refugee crisis, and what those who escape violence for the safety of another country have endured to get there, including the few who reach the U.S.

Those who do arrive in America didn’t chose to come but rather, Atwood said, they were selected from a rigorous vetting process and scored against a scale of vulnerabilities. Less than 1 percent are ultimately accepted for resettlement in the U.S.

“Only the most vulnerable people are considered for resettlement,” said Atwood. “Vulnerability factors include women and girls at risk, people who have been victims of torture and violence, family reunification and medical. Those are the four categories for your vulnerability assessment.”

The vetting process includes eight federal agencies that review an individual’s information. Six different databases are searched for security and five unique background checks are conducted.

Atwood said they also undergo biometric security checks, a series of in-person interviews and two interagency security checks.

“These people are the most vetted people that come in any way to the U.S.,” said Atwood. “When they arrive, they actually get a bill from the U.S. government for their airfare. They’re given 90 days to resettle and they’re expected to provide for themselves.”

That’s where Lifting Hands International has found its niche.

After returning home to Phoenix from Lesvos Island, Smith set out to do what she had vowed to do that night with the shivering refugees. It took two months to fill an entire shipping container with appropriate clothing before the items were shipped off to Lebanon.

Since then, Lifting Hands International has gathered donations for emergency aid, which it deploys to Greece and France. Additional containers have been sent to the United Kingdom and Lebanon, while a team of full-time volunteers has been placed at the Serres Refugee Camp in northern Greece.

The organization also has a large team of volunteers based in Phoenix to help resettle arriving refugees, much like Soft Landing has done in Missoula.

“The fact is, refugees are coming to the U.S. whether you like it or not, and we’re going to help them,” said Smith. “We have global obligations to help. I personally believe that if the U.S. is going to be a leader in the world, we have to take refugees. It’s part of our global responsibility.”

Smith and Atwood also acknowledged the politics that have swelled up around the refugee crisis. The word itself has become charged and divisive, pitting political parties against each other and dividing some communities.

For the refugees, however, the choice remains simple. They can stay home and die, or flee and face an uncertain future, Smith said.

“Why has this humanitarian crisis become such a political crisis?” Smith said. “Why has the word ‘refugee’ become such an inflammatory word? People are fleeing their country because they absolutely have to. Instead of focusing on politics, we’re helping the people who have already left and don’t have food they need to survive.”

Smith will give her talk, “Refugee Crisis: A Discussion of Global Importance,” at 7 p.m. on Thursday night at the Double Tree Hilton Hotel.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com