Petaluma couple aids refugees in Greece

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Find out more: refugeeimpact.org

Mary Beth Leland will never forget the otherworldly sound of a woman screaming as she and her newborn were tear-gassed by police as they found themselves suddenly caught in a protest at a refugee camp in Greece.

The week-old baby and mother survived, but the 2017 scene from the island of Lesbos still haunts Leland. It was just a slice of the horror the Petaluma woman said she witnessed after spending three summers in Greece with thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Africa who fled from violence, often crossing the treacherous and sometimes deadly Aegean Sea from Turkey.

Helping families living in squats and refugee camps in Greece and on the island of Lesbos has become a mission for the 44-year-old Leland, who moved from Fairfax to Petaluma in June to teach special education at Sonoma’s Adele Harrison Middle School. She and her husband of 22 years, Eric Leland, 46, support families in limbo through various efforts with Refugee Impact, including the “Refugee Hopelet Project,” where they offer for donations bracelets made by refugees from life jackets they wore during their sea crossings.

They were inspired to do this work after seeing in November 2015 “Mediterranea,” a movie about African refugees.

“The images and the storyline put me in such a dark, dark place in terms of humanity and what we do to each other,” she said. “It’s the pain and suffering caused, not from famine or natural disaster, but from each other. It sort of launched me into this depression about humanity.

“I thought the only way I could pull myself out of it is to do something about the images I felt so dark about,” Leland said.

The only way to “satiate the hunger” was to go to a place where she could have an impact: Greece, a country where refugees live in uncertainty as they wait to be considered for asylum, Leland said. One family, she said, is awaiting a 2020 hearing with Greek immigration officials.

More than a million migrants and refugees arrived in Greece in 2015 and early 2016, a number that declined after the European Union entered a deal with Turkey, which agreed to take back migrants in exchange for billions of dollars in aid.

This May, there were more than 60,000 refugees and migrants in Greece, including about 14,000 on the islands.

After working with Greek contacts, Leland went alone to Athens in 2016, despite a mountain biking accident that left her with a concussion and two broken arms, she said.

In Athens, where she helped launch a school, Leland said she saw horrific sights, which she captured in a diary: thousands sleeping on cement floors, a 7-year-old girl lighting her face on fire and women wandering with blackened eyes.

There, she also met families who changed her life.

“My heart was totally exposed to things and though they were awful, they were not even a scratch on the surface on how awful it was, and at the same time, there was love and care that exists,” she said. “My heart was bleeding and exploding and shooting rainbows, all at the same time.”

Leland and her husband began raising funds to help families she’d personally met reunite with relatives, travel, buy food and clothes, launch a business or receive medical care. They raised money online and through art and food sales and speaking events. They also enlisted friends, collecting about $4,000 to help a dozen refugee families, she said.

Want to help?

Find out more: refugeeimpact.org

Eric Leland said they keep donors posted on the families’ progress.

The couple traveled together to visit camps and volunteer in 2017, and Mary Beth Leland returned in July from another solo trip, she said.

She was struck with the idea for life-jacket bracelets on her second visit to Greece, when she met a group of African men outside an overflowing camp. They used material from life jackets discarded on the shores of Lesbos to weave bracelets, an effort that raised $500 for the men.

This year, Leland has received about 1,000 bracelets made by an extended Afghani family of 26 who crossed by sea. The bracelets can be purchased online, she said. The couple also is searching for Petaluma stores to sell the bracelets.

“People are really traumatized by the water and yet the life jacket is what gave them hope,” Eric Leland said. “Why not recycle, reuse and rejuvenate?”

The Lelands also have volunteered with other humanitarian organizations. They created a website for “Home for All,” a nongovernmental organization working to feed and provide normalcy to refugees, developing a fundraising page that raised $25,000.

They supported an educational project and raised about $1,500 for Dirty Girls of Lesvos, a charity that washes clothing and UN-issued blankets given to refugees and redistributes them to those in need. The charity, which is fiscally sponsored by Redwood City-based nonprofit Cardea Center for Women, was started in 2015 by Alison Terry-Evans, a 64-year-old Australian woman.

Proceeds from the bracelet project will in part support Dirty Girls, Leland said.

Terry-Evans said she brings to refugees the discarded life jackets and sends the bracelets to America. The life jackets are purchased by refugees at Turkish shops for 60 euros — or roughly $70, she said.

The effort, and others by Mary Beth Leland, are critical, Terry-Evans said.

“Mary Beth just really exemplifies that a person can just come over here and find their niche to help,” Terry- Evans said, speaking by phone from Wales.

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or hannah.beausang@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.

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