The 2010 economics alumna spent a powerful month helping Syrian refugees
If it weren’t for the Jesuit emphasis on immersion, social justice and solidarity, Colleen Sinsky would have spent December finishing up a two-month vacation, not helping form a human chain to lift children out of sinking rafts, or handing out blankets at 3 a.m. to traumatized Syrian refugees.
In November, Sinsky was in the middle of a two-month Mediterranean backpacking trip when she saw Syrian refugee families sleeping under a bridge in Istanbul, Turkey. Her training as a homeless-outreach advocate —which started as a JVC Northwest volunteer — and her acute social-justice consciousness — honed in two University immersions in El Salvador and Nogales — quickly kicked in. She apologized to her traveling companion, and got on a ferry to Lesvos, Greece, which her online research had indicated had become a hub for refugees bound by treacherous boats for Europe. She didn’t have a plan.
“I thought that with my social work background, Wilderness First Responder certification, and ability to spend a significant amount of time there, that I could find a way to be helpful,” she says.
Sure enough, once there, she found “an amazingly compassionate international community of volunteers,” and signed up with a Norwegian rescue group A Drop in the Ocean.
The next month was a whirlwind of exhausting emotional and physical work. In addition to helping refugees off boats that nearly killed everyone on board, she spent days and nights manning a lookout tower for boats in distress; providing tea, warm clothing, and a compassionate ear to refugees in the camp; cleaning beaches of castoff belongings; and getting an up-close view of the frightened and hopeful people that many countries were quickly demonizing as potential terrorists.
Eager to get the word out and change the xenophobia gripping the U.S. and Europe, Sinsky has blogged and posted numerous stories on Facebook about the human crisis she encountered there. The pieces are filled with vivid details, many heartbreaking, some uplifting. She wrote about a 5 year-old girl, blinded in one eye by a rocket blast in Syria, whose near-death Sinsky witnessed before the girl’s boat and family was saved miraculously by a fisherman. In another, she talks about the growing mountain of life vests accumulating on Lesvos’s shores, and what they mean to her now:
More than a piece of trash, each vest represents a life story. Of bombs destroying neighborhoods and random police raids, and children going to bed afraid. Of the agonizing decision to pack and leave the only home you've ever known because a war zone isn't a home, and to become a placeless family at the mercy of an unmerciful world. Of forcing your children to keep walking through the night and to lie silently so that you won't be discovered. Of beatings at the border and remembering the favorite food you'll never have again.
Sinsky says Santa Clara University was profoundly influential to both her social-justice bent and her ability to write compellingly about the crisis. She credits Prof. William Dohar’s course “Witches, Saints and Heretics” with helping her better understand the problem of labeling, scapegoating and demonizing Muslims. And senior lecturer Claudia McIsaac’s course “Creative Writing for Social Justice” helped her writing come to life with details and drama. Indeed, her story about an Iraqi man who sacrificed himself to stop a sinking raft from going under quickly went viral, shared more than 30,000 times on Facebook and elsewhere.
“I’m amazed by the power of storytelling to move people,” she says. “I would like to incorporate storytelling for social justice into whatever it is that I do.”
Sinsky’s currently looking for her next meaningful chapter, hopefully involving more work with refugees. It’s clear from her blog Five Stories From Lesvos, that whatever it is, it will be in pursuit of social justice:
I wish that I could propose a solution....each time another overcrowded raft makes its way to shore and terrified refugees pile off of it and into our arms, the terrible reality hits me again, and I remember that our futures are bound together and that we are collectively in the same slowly sinking raft.