‘Team Vt.’ brings aid to Syrian refugees

LINCOLN — “We didn’t sleep very much,” says Mari Cordes of her recent week on the Greek island of Lesvos.
No, it was not a winter vacation in search of the sun. The Lincoln resident went to Greece to provide humanitarian and medical aid to refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, who continue to arrive by the thousands, often on dangerously overcrowded inflatable dinghies, drenched and shivering as they flee their war-torn homelands.
“On an average day, there were thousands of refugees coming ashore,” said Cordes.
“These are not terrorists,” she continued. “These are people who know they could die making this crossing. They know that it’s a perilous journey. These are people who are fleeing such horrific war scenes in their homeland that they’re willing to risk even their children’s lives to get out of there and to get their children out of there.”
A registered nurse who works at the UVM Medical Center, Cordes, 56, went to Lesvos as part of a seven-member team of volunteers put together by Burlington resident Megan Frenzen, a health economist. Calling themselves “Team Vermont,” the group included two physicians, three nurses, and a young Syrian immigrant named Ruba Orfali. Currently a student at St. Michael’s College, Orfali acted as translator for the group during their time in Lesvos, Jan. 2 through 9.
Frenzen had approached Cordes around Thanksgiving to ask if she would join the volunteer medical team. Cordes said yes because she knew that with her nursing skills she’d be able to make a small but valuable contribution and because she was distressed by so much of the rhetoric labeling the refugees as terrorists — especially in the aftermath of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks.
“Both of us were getting more and more agitated by the hateful rhetoric that was being voiced in our country and in our state,” Cordes said.
Cordes is no stranger to pitching in on international relief efforts. In 2010, she helped organize the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals’ relief effort in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, and she was among the first to arrive in Haiti.
“We sent a fresh team every week for six months,” Cordes continued, “literally hundreds of people.”
Cordes led several relief trips to Haiti. And individuals from that group of volunteers also provided medical relief after Hurricane Irene, Hurricane Sandy, and the 2013 tsunami in the Philippines.
For this month’s “Team Vermont” relief effort on Lesvos, Cordes and Frenzen knew that they wanted to organize their group independently, rather than go as part of a larger nonprofit such as Doctors Without Borders.
“We’ve learned as people who respond to disasters that while there are some larger organizations that truly are helpful, as a smaller and independent group we’re more efficient. The donations and the huge support we got from our families and communities gets funneled directly to the people who need it. There’s no overhead. We’re more facile. It’s not for everybody, but for us, it’s best if we go independently and then plug in.”
Frenzen coordinated with the nonprofit Off Track Health, which has ongoing relief efforts on Lesvos. The group runs a 24-hour clinic outside the official boundaries of the Moria refugee camp, on a spot called Afghan Hill. There are too many refugees to fit inside the camp itself, said Cordes, and Afghan Hill is one of the places where spillover people set up a temporary homes while they wait to be processed and allowed to move on to mainland Greece and then, hopefully, on to new lives elsewhere in Europe. That was the goal — get to Greece, a member of the European Union, and from there disperse throughout the continent.
Cordes and the Frenzens raised funds for the trip through the Gofundme website. Cordes herself raised over $4,000 in about a month. To make the trip doable, she took unpaid leave from UVM and both her mortgage and her car lenders agreed to defer her monthly payments. UVM Medical Center donated supplies.
“The money we raised helped us get there and then buy hundreds of blankets for refugees, (and) shoes,” Cordes said. “We brought over 11 huge duffel bags full of medical supplies and clothing that people had donated.”
Cordes explained that the group knew they wanted to purchase blankets and as many other supplies for the refugees as they could in Lesvos, where the beach-based tourist economy has taken a hit because of the thousands of refugees pouring onto the island’s shores.
Once on Lesvos, Off Track Health paired up Cordes and Team Vermont pediatrician Jenna Arruda on the 3 p.m. to midnight shift at the clinic, which Cordes described as “a total M.A.S.H. unit — plywood and a tent.” The rest of the Vermont medical team was assigned to the overnight shift.
While work at the clinic varied, Cordes said they treated a lot of people for sprains, fractures, respiratory infections, exhaustion, shock and hypothermia. Hypothermia, she said, was especially lethal among the youngest refugees.
“I believe that’s probably the reason the majority of the little ones die is because of hypothermia, if they didn’t drown on the way over,” said Cordes.
It’s evident, to hear Cordes talk, how important it was to put her nursing skills to work. The most intense and moving words come when she talks about her daytime assignment on the beach, where she and other volunteers would post themselves every morning, clad in reflective yellow vests that identified them as health professionals, scanning the Aegean Sea for the next boatload of refugees coming ashore.
For the relief workers, the routine on the beach stayed the same, as boat after boat rolled in — help people get out, get them into dry clothes. If no clothes were available get them wrapped in blankets right next to the skin. Distribute emergency sugar tablets or cookies or crackers for quick energy, escort the refugees off the beach, out of the wind, and into the waiting United Nations High Commission on Refugees vans for transport to the Moria camp or, if full, to one of the surrounding places, like Afghan Hill, where refugees could find shelter and get a hot drink, food and dry clothes.
Cordes described many of those arriving as in a state of shock both emotional and physiological, often battling hypothermia and complete exhaustion. These were people, she said, whose homes and communities had been destroyed by war, who’d faced incredible hunger, sometimes close to starvation, women who’d been raped, women who didn’t know where their husbands were — possibly dead or imprisoned, fathers and mothers who’d seen their children brutalized.
“And that’s on top of missile strikes in their towns,” said Cordes. “It would be like a missile strike happening in Bristol or Burlington.”
Fleeing Turkey on the small inflatable dinghies most commonly used by the smugglers who arrange the journeys is also dangerous, said Cordes. The smugglers themselves don’t make the five-mile, open ocean trip from Turkey to Lesvos. Oftentimes the boats are overloaded, the seas can be rough, the boats can capsize and the refugees drown. Sometimes the smugglers only fill the gas tank partway to make more money. Yet the refugees, said Cordes, might pay as much as $4,000-$5,000 per person. The Turkish Coast Guard might fire into the water surrounding the boats, as they did the week Cordes was in Lesvos. That week, more than 30 refugees drowned because the smugglers gave them fake life jackets.
But still the refugees keep coming.
Cordes is tough — the kind of medical professional who’s clearly at ease when humanity faces the worst. But what seemed to cut this veteran of disaster relief’s heart the deepest was the grace with which the refugees met their situation. Oftentimes, in the makeshift clinic where the group provided medical care, Cordes and the other medical personnel would try to figure out what might be happening in the extended conversations Team Vermont’s translator often carried on with the refugees.
“When Ruba was working with us in the clinic with people who needed medical help, she would translate the medical situation. But then we would be sitting there and a person would be saying something more. And we, the healthcare providers that didn’t speak Arabic or Farsi, thought they were talking about medical things. But Ruba would say, ‘No, they’re saying things like, “God bless you,” “May you have a long life,” “May you have many children”’ — like just five minutes of blessings on us. And they had lost practically everything. It just blew me away.”
Cordes says that she hopes to be able to engage her Addison County neighbors in greater dialogue about the refugee crisis. She’s been asked to speak in Craftsbury and Burlington and would welcome opportunities to speak with church or civic groups in Addison County. She intends to return to Lesvos later in 2016 and has already begun a new cycle of fundraising at Gofundme.com. Cordes also said that one does not have to be a medical professional or speak Arabic or Farsi to be a useful volunteer.
Mari Cordes can be contacted through her Facebook page or by email at [email protected]. The Team Vermont Facebook page can be found at www.facebook.com/groups/977364542311577.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].
LINCOLN RESIDENT MARI Cordes has just returned from volunteering at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Cordes works as a nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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