An orange raft, an angry sea, a huddled group of frightened refugees. A toddler crying, a lifejacket full of straw, wet shoes. A 12-day-old baby, scores of pregnant women, men separated from their wives and children, a heart patient whose medicine has been thrown overboard by smugglers. Megan McIntosh Frenzen witnessed these stories and so many others like them, over and over, as a volunteer in Lesvos, Greece, this past month as she provided assistance and relief to Syrian refugees crossing the Aegan Sea from Turkey. The Shelburne native, who now lives in Burlington, traveled with a group of fellow Vermont volunteers and spent a week overseas providing clothing, food, warmth, emergency medical care and compassion.
Frenzen and her husband, Seth, volunteer yearly at a hospital in Uganda, and the pair traveled to Haiti for extensive relief efforts after the earthquake in 2010, so this type of volunteer work is in their bones.
Last fall the refugee crisis in Europe intensified to the point where inaction was no longer an option. Frenzen said, “I got fed up with the hateful rhetoric surrounding refugees and just hit my breaking point. Ignorance is never an excuse for cruelty to others, and I felt compelled to act.”
Frenzen gathered together a group of fellow medical professionals (Frenzen is a health economist and her husband is an orthopedic surgeon), some of whom she had volunteered with before, and as the logistical coordinator of the group soon organized a group of seven who were passionate about going to help. The rest of Team Vermont, as they call themselves, included an Arabic interpreter, three nurses and two physicians. The group rented a house through VRBO.com, close to the Moria refugee camp, and set to work.
The reality of the situation is unlike anything she could have imagined, Frenzen said. “Every single day, thousands of lives, uprooted and beaten, on the run, human beings with nothing left. Thousands of them. Every day.”
Frenzen jokes that when she saw the first raft pull up to shore, her thought was, “Oh yeah, these people are definitely trying to sneak into America to blow it up.”
The aftermath and the following days left little room for humor, though, as she pulled countless refugees from the sea—which she will never look at the same way again, she said. One image that stays with her is being handed a freezing cold and soaking wet toddler on the beach as his boat came ashore. As a mother, she couldn’t help but think of her own child, safe and warm at home.
The Frenzens left behind their son, Felix, who is 15 months old, and were lucky enough to have Grandma as a babysitter. Though it was difficult to leave him, Frenzen said the importance of their mission made it easier to go. “Leading by example is the most powerful way to teach, and I hope my son grows up treating the less fortunate with kindness and compassion,” she said.
The first boat she encountered contained a boy her son’s age. “My heart skipped a beat,” she said. “I had to put it out of my head or I would have been useless on the beach. Children should not have to endure what these children are enduring. No question.”
Over half a million refugees have arrived in Lesvos since January 2015, all of them making harrowing journeys in lifeboats, crossing dangerous and unpredictable waters. Many think that Americans, or Vermonters, should focus on fixing problems and helping people in our own state and country before reaching out to others, but Frenzen asks those people to expand their minds and urges them to consider the children.
“I would challenge everyone reading this article to imagine three drowned toddlers,” she said. “I know it’s awful, hurtful and nauseating, but we need to recognize the magnitude of this crisis. Those three children, that was just one random day in early January 2016. An estimated 800 children are assumed to have drowned in the Aegean since the start of this crisis. Eight hundred children. That should make anyone’s heart break.”
Despite others’ reservations about assisting refugees, Frenzen said her family, friends and many strangers have overwhelmed her with their kindness and generosity. “We were so grateful for the amount of support we received before we left and during our stay on Lesvos. We received donations from countless friends, total strangers, church groups, you name it. It’s clear to me that there are a lot of Vermonters who want to lend a hand and open their hearts.”