In 2015, Joan Naylor’s whole life changed.
That’s the year she and her husband Andre Naylor first heard Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” describe the refugee crisis as the biggest humanitarian issue in the world today. Gilbert challenged her fans to decide what role they would take to help those suffering at this time in history.
Joan Naylor said she began to question herself. Would she have been willing to hide Anne Frank in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands? Would she have taken in a pregnant Mary, mother of Jesus, if she’d been living in Bethlehem when she came knocking on the doors of the local inns 2,000 years ago? And wasn’t the refugee crisis more or less the same thing?
There are an estimated 65 million refugees in the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and roughly half of them are children.
What could a single couple do in the face of such a staggering statistic? The Naylors might not be able to help everyone who needed it, but they could help some.
So that’s what they resolved to do.
The Naylors hail from North Carolina but currently live in Glide. They are occupational therapists who often travel for work, so living out of a suitcase was nothing new for them.
But they were about to enter a world few Americans ever see.
The first refugee camp the Naylors visited, during three weeks in March 2016, was on the site of a former toxic waste dump in Calais, France, where volunteers estimated 10,000 of the world’s most destitute people were living. (French authorities estimated the camp’s population as less than half that.) Naylor believes about 1,000 of the residents were unaccompanied children.
These refugees were people who had made their way from Syria or Afghanistan to Turkey, many climbing mountain ranges in bare feet, carrying children on their backs. Many suffered from trench foot, their skin rotting away, because of those journeys. They had taken rafts to Greece and crossed borders across Europe to arrive in France.
They came because they hoped for a better life than what they had in their home countries, where they’d seen family and friends murdered before their eyes.
Calais was a natural choice for the Naylors, since Andre Naylor’s heritage is French, and many of his relatives live in that country.
Before she left home, Joan Naylor said she was asked by other Americans if she feared the refugees. Some were fearful they might be terrorists.
In France, these refugees were not much loved either. Some of Andre Naylor’s relatives were supportive of the couple’s efforts, but others no longer speak to them because of their work with refugees.
The Naylors joined other volunteers at a warehouse organizing and handing out sleeping bags, tents, clothes and food. There was never enough.
In the end, the Naylors came to believe the refugees had more reason to fear the French than vice versa. Near the end of that trip, the Naylors experienced a police action that still haunts Joan Naylor two years later.
She said riot police entered the camp and used tear gas to clear refugees out. A hired demolition crew then obliterated half the camp. They tore down tents and plywood shelters and took away anything that was in them — clothes, food, legal papers. Much of the work volunteers had done to improve conditions for the refugees was destroyed.
Somehow, a fire broke out. The police blamed the refugees. The refugees blamed the police. Naylor recalled volunteers scrambled to get propane tanks out of the area to prevent the entire camp going up in smoke.
This year, two years after the France trip, the Naylors decided to help out at a refugee camp in Greece.
Prior to leaving home, the Naylors, backed by churches, online donations through GoFundMe, and a whole lot of volunteer help, created 300 animal hats to give out to the children. They knitted hats and sewed stuffed animals on top. The kids loved them.
One place the Naylors definitely did not want to go was to Camp Moria in Lesvos, Greece. Apparently, God had other plans, she said.
Shortly before they were to arrive at another Greek refugee camp, Camp Alexandria, the Naylors received a call from a friend volunteering there. She said the nonprofit group they planned to work with there was being kicked out by local officials. So the Naylors went to Camp Moria instead.
At Camp Moria, crime is rampant. It’s a place where 8,000 people are crammed into an abandoned prison originally meant to house 1,600. Women wear diapers at night rather than risk being raped if they go out to use a bathroom at night. The refugees are so desperate for supplies that it wouldn’t be safe for volunteers to distribute supplies there. The trash and the toilets are never cleaned. People are starving.
“It’s hell on earth,” Joan Naylor said. “It’s beyond words.”
The Naylors did not go into Camp Moria itself. Instead, they joined volunteers who had rented a warehouse about an hour away from the camp. The volunteers had invited refugee leaders willing to walk the distance to design programs to help themselves and other refugees. The refugees wanted a place where they could be useful. A teacher wanted to teach children, a barber wanted to cut hair for free, and a person who used to own a gym wanted to help refugees exercise. There was a free lunch program, offering 800 meals a day, and a school.
They called it One Happy Family.
Joan Naylor spent much of her time volunteering in the daycare. The kids she helped were mostly between 2 and 7 years old, and so traumatized they would just sit in a corner at first.
“Kids would come into our daycare and just sit behind a potted plant and maybe get a toy and hold onto it and just sit there. You’d see their eyes kind of roll back in their head. They were in trauma,” she said.
After a week or two, they’d play with another toy.
“Then they might start laughing. It’s amazing to see the transformation,” she said.
The Naylors have experienced a transformation of their own. Their lives are bound up with refugees they now consider part of their family.
The Naylors informally “adopted” a grandson who was 14 when they met him. He had traveled from Afghanistan, crossing mountains and riding into France underneath a semitruck. He had been beaten and tear-gassed by police during previous attempts to reach France. His parents had been killed in Afghanistan, and he had watched his best friend die.
“What these kids have been through, they should be 90. No human being should ever go through it. And somehow they keep going. Their strength is phenomenal,” Joan Naylor said.
Their adopted grandson eventually made his way to Britain and is living in a foster home. They regularly talk to him on the phone.
Naylor said the refugees she’s met are among the best people in the world. Helping them makes her feel alive.
“These are the good people on the earth. They’ve been weeded out by bombs and anything you can throw at them and still they survive, and they still love, and care, and laugh, and dance,” she said. “There’s incredible joy in the midst of the worst conditions that people can live in.”