New Lebanon woman recounts stint helping 'traumatized' refugees


NEW LEBANON — Cari Naftali thought her expertise in craniosacral therapy might be needed when she decided to go assist refugees arriving on the Greek islands at the end of 2015.

The reality she found was much more stark.

Every day, rubber boats intended for 20 people, actually packed beyond 60 by smugglers, began washing ashore at dawn.

The refugees — mostly Syrian with a significant amount of Afghanis and some Iraqis and Iranians — were almost to a person in shock, soaked to the mid-section, sometimes suffering hypothermia and more significant medical conditions.

They needed warm clothing, hot tea and soup, a sympathetic presence to hug, speak to. Craniosacral therapy, which involves gentle massage of the skull to relieve pain and tension, would have to wait.

"We are just a welcoming station where their immediate needs are addressed," Naftali wrote in a blog post. "They still have a very long hard road ahead."

Naftali, 44, of New Lebanon, spent a total of three-and-a-half weeks on the Greek island of Lesvos beginning in mid-December. She and her partner, Regina Walther, raised funds on the website to make the trip after "months of reading daily stories of the horrifying plight of refugees" in 2015. Walther was expected to remain in Lesvos for at least several more weeks.

Before making the journey, Naftali and Walther consulted a Lenox woman, Janice A. Bowersox, who had recently returned from volunteering herself.

"These are extremely traumatized people. Many of them had seen their homes and villages completely demolished. Some of them had seen family members gunned down or executed," Naftali said in an Eagle interview. "They were leaving places with no food or water. They had [gone] weeks without adequate anything."

She added, "No one in their right mind would get in one of these boats unless they were desperate, knew they were going to die if they didn't. They don't have a choice. There is nothing left in their countries."

The two ultimately volunteered for a Swedish organization called Lighthouse Relief, which provides emergency relief to refugees in Lesvos.

"Our goal is to act like a lighthouse — to stand firm in harsh conditions, lighting the way to guide people in need," the organization's website reads.

Naftali kept a blog about her experiences.

"My arms are aching and I am just now realizing that I spent the last five hours carrying and holding babies," she wrote. "As I handed the last little one, a 2-year-old boy, to his mother, who was from Syria and seemed to speak no other English, she looked at me and said 'He loves you' and 'Thank you so much.' "

Also recounted are details about how relief operations and refugee camps. Naftali tells of so-called "dirty girls," who go around collected hundreds of pounds of wet clothing coming off the refugees every day so the materials get recycled rather than end up in a landfill.

"You have to keep yourself together to help them," Naftali told The Eagle. "It was after I got home every day that I would let it all go. I cried every day."

In July 2015, the United Nations Refugee Agency reported that the total number of refugees from the Syrian Civil War, ongoing since 2011, had for the first time exceeded 4 million, making it the world's largest refugee crisis in more than 25 years. An additional 7.6 million people are displaced inside Syria, the report also stated.

Almost 1 million refugees swamped Greece in 2015, with the average daily count of 1,910 in January, according to the United Nations.

U.S. media underreports the plight of Syrian refugees and the resulting lack of sympathy and understanding of the scope of the problem among the country's population, Naftali said. It partially explains the marked lack of American volunteers helping in Greece, where the most refugees arrive.

"There's no end in sight [to the civil war]," she said. "Some Syrian cities are literally being starved out. The Syrians are running from ISIS or the Assad government. We're bombing, Russia's bombing — People I talk to since I've returned are shocked to hear this because we are not seeing this in our media."

Smuggling operations are run by local mafia, who charge $1,000 to $2,000 per head to transport refugees, overfilling boats, supplying occupants with fake life vests and then telling them to make their own way.

"People who fall into the water drown faster than if they had no life vest at all," Naftali said.

Relief efforts are mostly run by nonprofit organizations who attempt to use their human and other resources in the best possible ways. Much of their work is done on social media, used as both a recruiting and reporting tool.

Judy Zimmer, of New Lebanon, an acquaintance of Naftali and Walther, was able to follow the pair's experience on Facebook.

"Every day I was getting posts and seeing how horrific the situation is there," Zimmer said. "It was breaking my heart to see so much suffering. [Relief efforts] are not an organized venture. This is grass-roots."

Added Naftali, "The U.S. and the EU need to do something to help people, because this is genocide."

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.

Naftali kept a blog of her day-to-day experiences. Read it at


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