An Omaha doctor who spent a week helping refugees in Macedonia witnessed unforgettable scenes, some inspiring, some heartbreaking.
Dr. Sehr Haroon, who has started her own small nonprofit organization to help refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, last month distributed thousands of goods to refugees in Camp Gevgelija, a tented way station where refugees await trains in Macedonia to take them north.
Haroon and three allies in her organization, now called S.E.H.R. Mission, saw hundreds of refugees wait without disturbance for new shoes to be handed out. They saw refugees help one another, once watching two men argue for the chance to help pay for a family's pass onto the train. They saw appreciation for warm clothing and even for just a card in Arabic that encouraged them to keep the faith.
They also saw gut-wrenching scenes and misery — a mother racing to the train carrying a listless, critically ill baby. They saw people wearing shoes held together by duct tape and others wearing bags on their feet.
"Why would this be happening to them? I still haven't processed it, I'm not going to lie. It's a lot to take on," said Haroon, a 31-year-old Nebraska Medical Center hospital physician.
"But their story needs to be told."
Dr. Sehr Haroon and her colleagues raised about $40,000 to buy supplies for refugees trying to escape war at home and make it to Europe.livewellnebraska.com
The foursome's efforts, large on a personal scale, were a droplet of kindness in a tidal wave of disruption and tragedy. Millions are fleeing their homes as civil war and chaos smash Syria and other nations. One Creighton University history professor called it "the most serious refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War."
That professor, John Calvert, said hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the Syrian civil war. Syria is a modern heart of darkness, Calvert said, with horrors exceeding those of Bosnia in the 1990s, Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, and other places where brutality has reigned for long periods.
Haroon and her three friends — Leesteffy Jenkins, a bakery owner in Massachusetts; and a married couple, Pennsylvanians Ouiam Koubaa and Rashed Harun, a chemical engineer and neurobiologist, respectively — met over the Internet on refugee-related sites and formed an organization that they dubbed Humanity United International. The name was too close to that of another organization, and they changed it to S.E.H.R. Mission. S.E.H.R. represents Haroon's first name and stands for Self-Empowered Humanitarians for Relief.
Haroon said she came with her mother from Pakistan to the United States as a small girl. They had minimal possessions and received help from others to get started. Haroon's mother, Naila Haroon, is a physician in Schuyler, Nebraska.
Haroon said she couldn't handle the heart-rending photos and accounts of refugees last year — a boy dead on a Turkish beach, a woman saying she would give her daughter to anyone who would transport the girl to Germany — without taking action.
She and her three allies collected close to $40,000 and took a dozen suitcases of items. Once in Macedonia, which is just north of Greece, they went to shops and wholesalers in the city of Skopje and bought additional shoes and other items. In all, Haroon and Koubaa estimated, they distributed 1,400 pairs of shoes, 1,200 pairs of socks, 1,200 stocking caps, 700 pairs of pants, plus undergarments, baby winter wear and gallons of chicken soup.
Norma Hrdy of Omaha became aware of Haroon's plans in December. Her son, Joseph Hrdy, 62, had just died and hadn't used many vials of diabetes medication and supplies. His wife, Sally, lives in west Omaha, as does Haroon, and dropped off the medications and supplies. Haroon distributed the medication to diabetics in the camp.
"I am so thrilled," Norma Hrdy of South Omaha said when she was told where the medication went. "We couldn't handle the thought of the waste."
The refugees, many of whom have crossed the Aegean Sea in small boats or on rubber rafts or have walked through Turkey and Greece to reach the Macedonian camp, hope to reach Germany, Sweden, Great Britain and other European nations. There are millions of them. Many European nations are maxing out their ability to accommodate the refugees.
"They're just swamped," Calvert said. "The question is, what to do about it."
S.E.H.R. Mission's answer is to pitch in. One member, Jenkins, plans to return tomorrow. The three others hope to return, but it's uncertain when.
Haroon and Hamza Haqqi, a board member of S.E.H.R. Mission, said it's not only the cost that makes their trips to help a challenge. The uncertainty of the refugees' situation, with nations such as Denmark and Sweden slowing their intake or closing their borders, makes them wonder what Camp Gevgelija's role will be in a few months. Haqqi is a University of Nebraska-Lincoln doctoral student and longtime friend of Haroon's.
"It's so obvious to anyone who goes to volunteer that these are people who really have a need," Jenkins said this week of the refugees. "There's something that compels people, once they go, to go back again and again."
In one of her vignettes about the experience, Jenkins described complimenting a girl on her hat. The girl then wanted to give the hat to Jenkins. "I hugged her and said keep your hat, please, you and the hat are beautiful together," Jenkins wrote.
Koubaa said she met a medical student, a music student and many others who are students and professionals fleeing bombs in their homeland. They are just like her, she said. "War doesn't discriminate."
She saw a tent where children had drawn pictures. One showed people holding hands in the sea, with mountains in the background and sunshine overhead.
"These people are incredibly strong," Koubaa said. "Unfathomably strong."
Haroon said the camp they visited was wet and cold. People shivered. All of the S.E.H.R. Mission volunteers caught colds during the experience or shortly thereafter.
Haroon said she won't forget the mother who ran to the train, against Haroon's advice, carrying a deathly ill baby. Haroon, who has a small daughter herself, was shaken by the sight.
"You don't come back from that very easily."
SPEAKING OF REFUGEES
Dr. Sehr Haroon has scheduled talks about the refugees and the camp in Macedonia on the following occasions:
• Tonight, 6:30 p.m., 13906 Gold Circle, Suite 102.$10 donation suggested, to be used for refugees. Light snacks and refreshments.
• March 4, 6:30 p.m., Urban Abbey, 1026 Jackson St. Urban Abbey is a nonprofit United Methodist church and coffee shop.
• March 25, 7 p.m., Urban Abbey. Haroon will be among speakers at a worship service.
Haroon said she would speak on request as long as the venue is free. She can be messaged on the S.E.H.R. Mission Facebook page.