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Medical Teams International CEO returns from refugee camps a changed man

Tigard charity works with Syrian refugees in Greece, Lebanon

MEDICAL TEAMS INTERNATIONAL  - Medical Teams International CEO Jeff Pinneo races make-shift wheelbarrows down a dirt road in a Lebanese settlement camp for Syrian refugees. Pinneo recently returned from a trip to Lebanon and Greece to work with Medical Teams operations helping Syrian refugees.Jeff Pinneo stands next to a pallet of boxes, each earmarked for the other side of the globe.

Inside the boxes are towels, diapers, and other essentials. They and several other pallets will be delivered to thousands of Syrian refugees in Greece who have fled their homes in search of safety.

Pinneo — the CEO and president of Medical Teams International, a Tigard charity that provides medical help and humanitarian aid to disaster-zones around the world —returned from a trip to Greece and Lebanon last month where he worked with fleeing Syrian refugees.

Pinneo said he flew to Greece and Lebanon to work with Medical Teams operations already on the ground and to meet with Syrian families and talk about their struggles and their journey.

“My purpose was to connect deeply with our staff, partners and most importantly the people affected by this tragedy,” he said. “I wanted to become well informed and learn how we can do more, and do more effectively.”

Syria’s civil war has been raging for four years, made even deadlier by the rise of the so-called Islamic State, a deadly extremist militant group that has control of a large section of the region.

Medical Teams responds to crises all over the globe, offering aid in disaster zones such as Nepal's deadly earthquake and ebola outbreaks in West Africa earlier this year.

Pinneo said it’s about helping neighbors.

“These are neighbors no longer defined by geography, but by circumstance,” he said in a press conference on Friday, Dec. 4. “The same principle applies. If your neighbor was going through even 1/10th of what these families were going through, you’d be helping them. The only difference is that they are on the other side of the world, and their adversity is 10-times as great.”

Medical Teams volunteers are packing care packages for families, including diapers, towels and other essential items. Pinneo said 10,000 packages will be sent to refugees in Greece by Christmas.

What to do with refugees?

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jeff Pinneo, CEO and president of Medical Teams International.

The swelling of refugees fleeing Syria has sparked international debates, as countries have grappled with how to handle the massive refugee population.

After the terrorist attacks in Paris in November, American politicians began to wonder if the U.S. should take in any refugees, saying that they could include Islamic State terrorists in disguise.

Pinneo said that protecting American lives is essential, but said that there is still plenty that can be done to help the families fleeing war and terror.

“I’ve witnessed, at one level, all the appropriate concerns being raised around national security and attention to safety in our homeland and in Europe,” he said. “At the same time I’m seeing firsthand, people where the furthest thought from their mind is anything other than their own survival and reaching the next stretch of trail where they might have an opportunity and a basic level of hope. Both are critically important.”

The US takes in hundreds of thousands of refugees from all over the world, Pinneo said, and has a lengthy two-year process for vetting refugees before they arrive.

“I’ve become both convicted and convinced that our attention to these security issues and ensuring the safety and security of people at home is absolutely appropriate, and we ought to be very attentive to it,” he said. “But we need to absolutely be just as attentive to living up to the best of our traditions, such as being attentive and welcoming to victims of atrocities like this. The former cannot be an excuse for not being attentive to the latter. We can do both, and we are doing both.”

Fleeing their homes isn’t something that families do lightly, Pinneo said.

“It’s important to remember that no one wants to be a refugee,” Pinneo said. “They get to that point after a building of pressure surrounding circumstances that forces them to say, ‘We’ve got to go.’ They get to that point because of bombings at school, kidnapping of neighbors or relatives and ultimately safety and security concerns that make them say, ‘It’s risky, it’s costly, but we’ve got to go.’”

Want to help?

Medical Teams International is looking for volunteers at its Tigard headquarters, and is accepting cash donations to purchase necessary supplies.

Lebanon or Greece?

Fleeing Syrian refugees have two real courses of action, Pinneo said. They can head to Lebanon — Syria’s neighbor — or cross Turkey to Greece and the European Union.

In Lebanon, the overwhelming number of fleeing refugees has caused a serious problem. An estimated three million Syrian refugees have landed in Lebanon, nearly doubling Lebanon’s population. (Lebanon is a country of only 4.5 million people).

To get to Greece, families must cross Turkey and hire smugglers to get them across the Aegen Sea to one of Greece’s islands.

“They have to get across a four-mile-wide channel to the Greek islands where they make landfall,” Pinneo said. “This is not sanctioned, it has to be arranged through human traffickers. It’s precarious, and costly and risky.”

Most smugglers charge more than $1,000 per person to steal them away in the dead of night, Pinneo said.

“They give them an onboard motor, a life jacket and a compass heading to cross the channel,” he said. “It’s always at night because what they are doing is illegal.”

More than 70 refugees have drowned in the crossings to Greece, Pinneo said.

“For those that do arrive, it’s the completion of just one leg of long journey to establish themselves safely and get back to their lives," Pinneo said. "That’s why I went.”

Many families are living in squalor while they wait to move forward in the process, he said.

“The Lebanese government has a posture of non-cooperation with the (United Nations) for facilitating organized refugee camps,” Pinneo said. “They make homes with whatever they can procure, on a piece of ground that they negotiate with a local farmer. Anything else they need, any other service, has to be arranged.”

Medical Teams International has had a base of operations in Lebanon for the past four years, working with local settlement camps of refugees to get them necessary supplies, Pinneo said.

‘People are counting on us’

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Medical Teams International is working to fill 10,000 kits of Syrian refugees, which will be sent to Greece by Christmas.

When refugees leave their homes, they also leave behind their careers and their aspirations, Pinneo said.

Pinneo said he spoke with a 22-year-old woman who was about to finish her degree in computer engineering when she fled to Lebanon with her family.

“Now she’s working in a potato field picking potatoes and gleaning for their food,” he said.

Her family of seven is waiting on her brother, who just arrived in Sweeden, to get a job and start earning enough money to bring the rest of the family over, one at a time, Pinneo said.

“She stoically and wisely told me that survival trumps future and opportunity,” Pinneo said. “She said, while we might lose our future, we can’t lose hope.”

Pinneo said he came back from the trip a changed man.

“You cannot immerse yourself and walk with people effected by tragedy or disaster or conflict without it changing you,” he said.

This wasn’t Pinneo’s first trip abroad. Before he was named president in 2013, Pinneo spent seven years with the organization as a volunteer. His wife, a registered nurse, has worked in Uganda, Haiti, El Salvador with MTI, as well as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

It’s a hard job, Pinneo said, but it’s one that Medical Teams will continue to do as long as they are needed.

“People are counting on us to get this right,” Pinneo said. “Everything we do has an impact on people who lack access to things we take for granted. Basic support, basic encouragement.”

By Geoff Pursinger
email: gpursinger@commnewspapers.com
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