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Ode: An immigrant's daughter drops everything to help Syrian refugees

Francys Chavez
Ally Karsyn


1980. The war in El Salvador  was at its peak. Thousands of families  were separated and displaced all throughout the world. Among them was my father, a 16-year-old boy who came to know fear as a way of life. One night, actually the very last night that he ever spent in his country, a mass shooting took over the streets. My father, along with his siblings, hid under the bed, hoping that the bullets wouldn’t find them.

He lost two cousins that night. Growing weary of the violence, my grandparents asked my father to go and seek asylum in Mexico.

With little more than some clothes and his high school diploma packed in a sack, he walked about 25 miles to the next town, where he paid someone to guide him through Guatemala. He traveled about four days on foot to get across the river. In Guatemala, when their inflatable raft wouldn’t hold air, he clung to chunk of wood to get across the river into Mexico, where he got on a northbound bus, headed for Mexico City.

The whole ride, he kept reading the Mexican national anthem over and over again just in case he was stopped by the military along the way, usually in order to prove your nationality, individuals were asked to sing and recite the national anthem.

Mexicanos, al grito de guerra

El acero aprestad y el bridón;

y retiemble en sus centros la tierra

Al sonoro rugir del cañón.

For the most part, he kept his mouth shut. Because Mexicans and Central Americans speak somewhat differently. So when a question was asked, he kept his answers short and sweet – si, no, muy bien.

He arrived in Nayarit, and after finding a place to live, he sent out a letter to my grandparents, saying that it was OK for them to go. My grandparents followed in my father’s footsteps to reunite the family. Eventually, my father graduated as a vet and settled in Ixtlán del Río, the town where I “grew up,” but I use that phrase lightly because my father was a nomad at heart and he loved to take me with him.

When I was in fourth grade, he asked me to go to California with him. Not knowing what to expect, I simply went. The years that followed have been unforgettable. I, along with my siblings, have grown accustom to miss Christmas, each other’s birthdays, graduations and even deaths. But you see, I don’t say this from a place of sorrow because, growing up with a nomad father, you quickly learn to adapt. You learn to be the new one, and you accept that.


You learn to love. You learn to act, and sometimes, simply, you just learn to let go.


My father’s work eventually brought us to SIoux City. In my mind, it was temporary. Whatever the situation, it had always been temporary. One year turned into two and then two into three and then suddenly, I ended up graduating from West High School while my mother stayed in Mexico. She was a teacher at the time.

I suppose I was like my father in my wandering ways because, during my second semester at Wayne State College, I decided to study abroad in Greece. I lived like the locals did. After getting a taste of other cultures, I wanted to travel more, to live more, to simply do more.

During my travels, I learned that there were people like my father all over world who were displaced, searching for stability, searching for a better life, which led me back to Greece.

January 2016. While I was driving to work one morning, listening to NPR, the latest news took a hammer to my heart. I’d heard others like it as more than one million refugees and migrants fled to Europe by sea last year and, of those, the UN Refugee Agency estimates 3,735 men, women and children did not survive the journey as they boarded dangerous vessels, often run by smugglers.

Once again, the airwaves carried one of these familiar stories. Hundreds of refugees had died when a boat capsized.

That night, I had enough. I remember I was sitting down on my couch and I pulled out my laptop. It only took – click, click, click – and I closed my laptop. I walked to my mom and I sat next to her and said, “Mom, want you to know that I love you very much.”

She knew me well enough just to ask, “Where are you going?”

“Lesvos,” I said. “Lesvos, Greece.”

I didn’t contact any humanitarian aid agency before I went. I simply went.

I didn’t book any hostels or hotels, either, so when I sat down on the connecting flight from Istanbul to Athens, I saw this guy coming down the aisle, and I thought to myself, “I’m sleeping with you tonight!” But not like that. We got to talking because he happened to sit next to me. I found out that he was a medical student living in Athens. He sheltered me for the night just like the Greek magician who I met and offered me a ride out to the boats that go to Lesvos the followed day.

Eventually, I met one of my friends who was flying out from South Korea to meet me.

When I arrived on the coast of the Greek islands, I saw everything that a tourist would want to see – the beautiful beaches and awesome coffee shops. But then we took a taxi inland and we left the beautiful scenery behind us.

That beautiful scenery was replaced by heaps of dirty clothes and tall, big fences.At the camp, when we arrived, I saw this woman and this woman was wearing a UN jacket and carrying a crying baby. I proceeded to go up to her, and I said, “Hello, my name is Francys. I’m here from America. What do you need help with?”

The lady looked at me. The baby was crying. She was looking at the buses arriving with more refugees. She looked back at the camp and then at me and said, “I’m sorry. We have a lot of volunteers already. You better just find somewhere else to volunteer.”

I remember standing there with my backpack, my friend next to me, and I thought, “Lady, I did not just book a ticket, take unpaid leave from work and have all these people help me  get to Lesvos to be turned away at the gates.”

We just walked straight into the camp. As my friend and I sat down at the top of the hill, overlooking the tents in the camp, at least 30 bodies had been found at shore on previous days. People dug holes for the dead.

I didn’t know what to do, but then I realized I was asking the wrong question. In a moment of crisis, you don’t ask, “How can I help?” You simply act. You simply do.

I walked up to somebody, this guy from Minnesota who also happened to drop everything to go to Lesvos. He told us where to leave our bags, and then we went to work.

As the day wore on, I tried not to think about how tired I was or hungry or any of these other things because all I wanted to do was help these men and women who were seeking asylum just like my father sought asylum all those years ago for his family.

After some hours, over the CB radio, I heard that there was a woman in white coming in with a child, and we had about 10 minutes to change him because he needed to be carried over to Doctors Without Borders in dry clothes or he will die. He had severe hypothermia.

The woman came in, speaking to me in Arabic, pointing at the things she needed. She kept giving me all of these sizes that she needed for her baby.

I walked back to the tent with massive bulks of clothing. I rested my dizzy head against the side of the tent for what felt like many, many minutes, but in reality, it was about five seconds. You snap out of it and then you just act. And then you just act. And you just act.

Time went by and the boy was carried out and he was gone. I don’t know what happened to him.

For 13 hours, we welcomed drenched masses of people, offering them dry clothes.

Buses arrived to the camp every hour with more refugees. Children with hypothermia, broken legs. Mothers crying and many others bearing the pain of family members who lost their lives in attempts to reach the Greek islands. I could smell the pain and suffering and scarcity while watching love and compassion in action unfold before my eyes. Two dichotomies working in the perfect rhythm.


Francys Chavezteaches at Western Iowa Tech Community College. Her job focuses on Adult Education. She is an activist, whose passion centers on immigration and service.

Ode presents an evening of true stories, told live outside at Koffie Knechtion, 419 Golf Road, in South Sioux City at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23. Storytellers will share personal essays crafted around the theme "Just Work."

For more information, visit Ode on Facebook. Click here to listen to stories from past events, recorded and broadcast by Siouxland Public Media.

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