The place where Zainab worked as a volunteer.
Dubai - Zainab Kufaishi was forced to leave Iraq during the first Gulf War to seek asylum in the UK
Ever since the European refugee crisis broke out in 2015, recurring harrowing TV images have made audiences numb towards the pain millions of displaced people experience when leaving home.
But Zainab Kufaishi, Dubai-based resident, knows how it feels. She was forced to leave her hometown Iraq during the first Gulf War to seek asylum in the UK where she spent 19 years of her life.
Now a financial sales professional at Invesco, Kufaishi volunteered at a refugee camp in Greece last year. For the Year of Giving, she's already planning her next trip, urging UAE residents to dedicate their time off to volunteering.
"My family first fled to Algeria so my parents- academics at the time- could teach in universities. But we lasted less than 2 years due to unrest and rise of Islamic militants who were murdering on the streets."
Kufaishi added that while the UK gave her family the chance to remain, seeing such images amidst the outbreak of the refugee crisis triggered a thought in her head. "I could have been one of these people."
"I thought about my future children, when they ask me where I was and what I did during some of the worst times in humanity," she said.
Nearly 370,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe in 2016, most of them by sea. And more than 173,000 have arrived in Greece and more than 167,000 in Italy.
Kufaishi took a month's unpaid leave during the summer in Dubai and volunteered with Intervolve, an army-accredited NGO, for three weeks of August 2016 in the camps around Thessaloniki in Northern Greece.
The camps, housing between 1000-3000 people, are often in abandoned warehouses, factories, fields, or military compounds in secluded areas.
The Syrian civil war and rise of ISIS meant that a third of Syrian people have been displaced within Syria while over 4 million have fled the country.
"One of the camps I worked at, called Softex was an old toilet paper factory. Given that outside tents near a ravine in 35c heat, there were insatiable mosquitos everywhere," said Kufaishi.
The tents, she said, don't offer enough protection in the stifling summer heat of Greece and during winter, the camp is never ready for the rain.
As a native Arabic speaker, Kufaishi's biggest contribution was translations especially when taking patients to hospital.
"But also just to listen to their stories, empathize and make them feel like they haven't been forgotten. It's easy to overlook that one of the biggest obstacles that refugees face in this situation is losing their voice and their dignity," she said.
Kufaishi also bought and distributed essential medicines and hospital appointments, clothing , hygiene products, fruit and vegetables, school books, and eid gifts for the children.
While a catering company distributes food three times a day, the Red Cross provides primary care and long term conditions are left untreated. Small NGOs fill gaps in distributing hygiene items and trying to protect the most vulnerable cases including the elderly, unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, and the sick.
Making a difference
During her trip, Kufaishi met Ola, an 11-year-old girl who had been born with a cleft palette, where the split extends from the roof of her mouth to her throat. "This girl's family had a house, a big lawn and a car but now have nothing," said Kufaishi.
After a dinner speech Kufaishi made to her Europe-wide sales team about the experience at the camps, a donor offered to pay Ola's entire operation and medical costs.
Kufaishi said the girl's operations went well and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees moved the family out of the camp to an apartment until their asylum process is complete. "It felt so good to know that I made a difference even after I left the camp," she said.
Eight months after the trip, Kufaishi said she still thinks about the people in camps every day, calling it a life-changing experience that made her stronger in facing life's daily challenges.
"The brief time I spent there has truly humbled me, and made me thankful for everything I take for granted. I have come back to work feeling enriched, re-energised and re-centred. I was mentally and physically stretched at times but witnessing the strength of the residents has made me braver and stronger," she noted.
Kufaishi is still in touch with some of them until today.
How to volunteer in camps
- If employees can't take long leaves, a 10-day stint can do wonders.
- Research the trip and familiarize yourself with the crisis, the demographics of the camps and how you can help.
- Contact an NGO who can organize the trip.
- Book a flight and accommodation.
- Pack a waist bag, and carry a mosquito repellent in summer or waterproof boots in winter.