Take my hand
By Joni Moths Mueller
After attending a lecture on human rights, Andre Craig shifted from pre-med to law studies. He couldn’t do justice to his calling without first experiencing work on the ground.
From January through March, Andrew “Drew” Craig, Arts ’09, stood in the darkest hours of night, looking out into the even darker Aegean Sea to spot a black or grey rubber dingy weighted down with individual travelers or families in flight. When a dingy reached a certain point along the coastline of Lesvos, an island off the coast of Greece, Craig dashed into the cold water to reach and pull women and men, mothers, children and fathers onto terra firma. Sopping wet refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq were welcomed at this transit camp outside Skala Sykamineas run by Lighthouse Relief. They received dry clothes, food, a spot to rest for the night and transportation to a stage-two camp farther inland.
In these moments, often awakened by an alert that a vessel had been spotted on the water, having slept in a wetsuit so as to be ready to run on a moment’s notice, Craig found what he craved since attending a lecture his junior year at Marquette. The lecture by a lawyer who worked on human rights issues in the Middle East helped shift Craig’s academic intention from pre-med to law. “My time at Marquette solidified that,” he says. “I had a general interest in international affairs; I knew I wanted to live and work abroad.”
Craig studied law, deepening particularly his knowledge of international humanitarian law, at the University of Iowa before graduating in 2013. The day after entering the Iowa Bar, he boarded a plane and flew to the city of Ramallah on the West Bank to work on regulatory policies and issues. “We worked with Israeli and Palestinian groups, NGOs, negotiators. The policy work was extremely interesting to me, but I was pretty much stuck in an office. I had a strong feeling that I wouldn’t do the work justice without experience working on the ground. Worried is too strong a word to describe how I felt, but I was anxious,” he admits. “I wanted to do refugee work.”
After a good friend joined Lighthouse Relief, she wrote to tell Craig that the work she was doing on the shores of Lesvos was exactly the type of refugee work he sought. After reading her note, Craig says, “I gave notice.”
On Feb. 26, Craig Blogged: “A small speedboat driven by a Turkish smuggler sped toward the Greek shore, forced 19 or so passengers into the water and sped back to Turkey,”
He was on the ground in Greece on Jan. 4, 2016, joining hundreds of volunteers committed to serving refugees arriving daily at Skala Sykamineas, the primary destination on Lesvos for boats ferrying refugees from Turkey. “I learned a lot about humanitarian work from those people and will continue to apply it as I move forward in the field,” he says.
According to Craig, smugglers in Turkey supplied all the boats. “The boats came over mostly independently with the smugglers putting a refugee in charge of driving a boat across the waters with no prior boating experience,” he says. “Some were just lucky enough to have the Coast Guard or a rescue boat lead them safely to shore.”
They reached the camp that sits amid an olive grove, with trees separating tents occupied by families from tents providing a first aid station, small kitchen and toilet facilities. Craig worked daily with teams of volunteers to expand these amenities and build a women’s clothing distribution tent, a prayer tent and picnic tables. They installed solar lighting and a tent equipped with a wood-burning stove and gas heaters to warm hypothermic patients. Nights were spent in a vigil, watching the coast.
“The single biggest misunderstanding is who the refugees are,” Craig says. “These people are doctors, lawyers, teachers, architects, mechanics and the list goes on. They make the same sacrifices and take the same risks that we would if we were forced into the same situation.”
Craig describes using his best Arabic language skills to help a man understand the registration process and what would happen next. “He just smiled,” Craig says. “He was really saying, ‘I have my kids and wife, I left home, I don’t know where I am or where I’m going, I have no money, my cell phone is dead so I can’t research anything.’ That would be so frightening to any one of us, and that’s everyone over here.”
Throughout those weeks in Lesvos, Craig kept home and family up to date with a sporadic blog. On Feb. 26, he wrote: “A small speedboat driven by a Turkish smuggler sped toward the Greek shore, forced 19 or so passengers into the water and sped back to Turkey.” His March 9 post described the situation at Eko Station, a camp that sprang up organically at a gas station where buses of refugees were stopped and suffered interminable delays: “This is not Skala Sykamineas anymore. … The Greek border with Macedonia is miserable. … People pulling wet clothes, plastic, anything out of the dumpsters in order to burn it to keep warm. I’m not sure I put a tarp on a tent without hearing a little kid coughing or crying inside.”
Craig learned that what may be described in this country as a political situation is a humanitarian issue on the ground. “When we see people coming across those waters, carrying their four-month-old baby or freezing cold themselves, and they’re doing this because, despite the dangers of that journey, it’s a better option than staying home in their war-torn country, we really have a deep understanding of why we’re here.”
Craig’s travel visa ran out April 2. Reluctantly he returned home to Cedar Rapids to renew his passport — and apply for another over-seas post. He joined ACTED, the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development, and is now based in Jordan while focusing on aid issues in Yemen.
In a recent report on the situation in Yemen, the United Nation’s Human Rights Council noted: “The large-scale internal displacement, which is currently affecting some 2.5 million people, is expected to continue, if not increase, in 2016.” Alarming, yes, but not a deterrent for Craig. The experiences of the past year affirmed his choice to abandon the safety net of the office. “I can’t describe in a way to convey how big this is, this crisis specifically, but also all types of conflict where we have a moral responsibility to help people who are going through heinous experiences,” he says.