In a Greek Refugee Camp, Syrians and Israelis Find an Unlikely Respite From War

It sounds implausible that people from two countries in a state of war with each other could find common ground. But on an island where Syrian refugees recover from their terrible ordeals, that's happening

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An IsraAID volunteer speaks with a Syrian refugee landing in Lesvos after her boat journey from Turkey
An IsraAID volunteer speaks with a Syrian refugee landing in Lesvos after her boat journey from TurkeyCredit: Mickey Noam-Alon
Molly Bernstein
Molly Bernstein

The opportunities for interactions between Syrians and Israelis are, as citizens from countries still in a formal state of war, very limited. Those that do exist – outside the countries in question - are often likely to be marred by decades of war, mutual distrust and animosity.

But here in the refugee camp of the Greek island of Lesvos, where 47% of its inhabitants come from Syria, I've experienced a reverse dynamic. When the Israeli doctor is staffing the refugee camp's clinic, that only encourages more Syrian patients to show up.

As the Syrian civil war rages on, we, Israeli and Syrian civilians, are finding we have more in common than we often like to assume.

IsraAID, a non-profit, non-governmental organization committed to providing life-saving disaster relief and long term support, has been deploying medical teams brought primarily from Israel since the Middle East refugee crisis exploded in 2015. Today, IsraAID also runs a school on the small Greek island in partnership with the Israeli Hashomer Hatzair youth movement.

Last week, I stood at Greek Easter celebrations in the town square with a group of my Israeli colleagues as well as one of our Syrian volunteers. As midnight mass began, the street erupted in fire crackers and fireworks.

The Israelis, myself included, flinched and shuddered with every boom; our Syrian friend looked at us, "What, this? This is nothing!" As we entered the church, he joked to me that an Israeli Jew and a Syrian Muslim entering a church on Easter without anyone dying was an historical impossibility.

The relationships being built on this island sometimes seem like an historical impossibility too.

An aerial view of IsraAID and Hashomer Hatzair's School of Peace at the One Happy Family Community Center in Lesvos, GreeceCredit: Mickey Noam-Alon

But as I see it unfold around me, Israeli doctors treating child survivors of chemical weapon attacks, helping Syrian women give birth, and Israeli teachers learning Arabic from their Syrian students, I'm even more convinced of how much we share.

In a discussion late last night with the school's Israeli coordinator and one of our Syrian teachers, who was struggling with behavioral problems in his class, my colleague pointed to the harsh realities about which both Syrians and Israelis are far too aware.

Children, as he said, from a young age, are told that in the world, one must not steal, one must not kill, one must not lie. But as we grow up, especially in places like Syria and Israel, we see that these lessons were nothing short of wishful thinking.

A 4-year-old boy treated by our doctors last week saw this first hand. His father explained to me that he's been ill ever since the chemical weapon attack on their home. I wracked my brain, trying to summon a long-lost Arabic phrase from my school days expressing empathy.

I could try "Enshallah cheir" – hopefully things will get better. Not good enough. "Fuck that." Nope, can't say that. "Feel better." Well, at least it's a start.

The "Lifejacket Graveyard," a memorial space set up by volunteers in Eftalou, Lesvos, where hundreds of lifejackets were left by asylum seekersCredit: BOAZ ARAD / IsraAID

Mohammad, another teacher at the school, asked me if I could help him get his hands on a guitar. He's bored most of the day, just waiting around for the elusive blue stamp that would allow him to move on to Athens. A guitar would help him pass the time, learn a new skill, do something productive.

I quickly posted the request on Facebook and within days the guitar arrived. I brought it to our school where I usually see Mohammad, but he wasn't there.

I sent him a quick WhatsApp asking where he was. He told me he was too depressed to come to school, and asked me to meet up later and chat.

That night he told me about his day. The girl he loved had met someone else. Love hurts, I responded, thankful he didn't realize I was simply borrowing and translating the cliché of all clichés.

I pulled the guitar out of my car and gave it to him. He smiled, asked me where I got it from. His response: I never imagined I'd get a guitar from Tel Aviv, of all places.

Here, on the island, when it comes to Syrian-Israeli interactions, there is at least a moment of respite.

Molly Bernstein is IsraAID's Head of Mission in Lesvos, Greece. She is a graduate student in Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University, and a former web editor at Haaretz English. Twitter: @molbern 

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