1 of 5
Alex Goodlett, Deseret News
Lisa Campbell, a refugee camp organizer in Greece, speaks at the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy on Wednesday, April 5, 2017.

Lisa Campbell raised four children and 13 foster children.

Now, she says, she’s become a mother to 550.

The 53-year-old EMT and certified disaster relief coordinator is manager of Oinofyta Refugee Camp near Athens, Greece.

Most Oinofyta residents — 94 percent — are from Afghanistan. In their former lives they were actors, doctors, computer scientists, lawyers, policemen, genealogists, engineers, plumbers, shopkeepers and shepherds. They include men, women and children, such as 4-year-old Mustafa with his Coke-bottle glasses, and a young couple who had to flee the Taliban after marrying for love and had their first child in the camp. Some at the camp are translators who worked for the United States military in Afghanistan at great personal risk and were promised help in return, but have now been told they will not be granted visas.

Campbell has worked in disaster relief for 25 years. A military daughter and military wife, she has moved an average of every two years, living in 11 states and three countries. Now a grandmother of six, she lives in Virginia with her husband of 34 years, but for the past 10 months has been based at the camp in Greece.

"In some ways, he's sacrificed more than I have. Because I have people around me, reliant on me, caring about me, I'm caring for them … I have that," she said. "I'll come home at night and be teary-eyed and missing my family and missing my husband and it happens, I do miss them, but not the same way that he does. He misses me being home."

Lisa Campbell, a refugee camp organizer in Greece, speaks to a group after her presentation at the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy on Wednesday, April 5, 2017.

Campbell co-founded the nonprofit disaster relief organization Do Your Part in 2006 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and it has been continuously active since then in the U.S., Haiti, Nepal and the Philippines. She was working with refugees in Greece when neighboring Turkey and the European Union struck a deal in March 2016 to stem the flow of migrants streaming in from war-torn countries across the Middle East. Campbell immediately knew Greece would have to build refugee camps to house the 60,000 people stuck there as a result of the agreement.

Campbell joined forces with the Greek government and other relief organizations to build Oinofyta, one of the first of dozens of camps in the country. From the beginning, she said, they designed it to be a place where refugees would not just exist, but live. The first thing they built was a school, followed by cooking spaces, a teen center, a barber/beauty shop, a mosque, and a multi-purpose space where they host movie nights and visits from local acupuncturists to help residents manage stress.

Lisa Campbell, a refugee camp organizer in Greece, speaks at the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy on Wednesday, April 5, 2017..

Campbell said she has drawn from the principles of self-reliance she learned as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Offer a hand up, not a handout, and empower people with choices. Oinofyta is one of the first camps to create employment for residents through a cottage industry (in this case, they sew and then sell tote bags from old canvas tents). It also has three computer labs equipped with 42 computers, and Campbell’s goal is for 100 refugees to have full-time, paid jobs that they can do remotely from the camp by the end of the year.

The Deseret News spoke with Campbell during a recent visit to Utah, where she gave a presentation at the Islamic Cultural Center of Utah on April 5 about her experiences at the Oinofyta camp and the current refugee crisis. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: How did caring for four kids and 13 foster kids prepare you for the work you're doing now with refugees?

Lisa Campbell: We were never an official foster family, but we ended up being the house where kids would come and live. We would talk to their parents and their parents would say, yeah, it's OK for them to live there. Teenagers who still needed structure in their lives but for whatever reason needed to be not in the structure of their home. A couple of them were pregnant girls, a couple of them were in families where the mother had gotten remarried and the new spouse was probably not the best reason for them to be in the home. They were all girls. A couple of them were girls who had delinquency issues that my kids met or a baby-sitter friend brought to our house.

All my life, growing up, we always were the house that had extra kids. We always picked up the strays, as my parents would say. So it's just been natural for me my whole life to bring people in, to love them, to let them know that they are cared about. Everybody needs to know they're loved and they're worth loving.

DN: What's the current situation of refugees waiting in camps in Greece?

LC: It depends on the nationality. The Syrians are moving forward because they are considered war refugees. The Afghans, the Pakistanis, the Moroccans, the Iranians, the Iraqis — they're on a much longer wait.

(Officials are) not deporting people from the mainland camps in Greece. They are doing some deportations from the islands from the detention centers, but even that is a sticky situation because it's hard to say it's safe to return them to Turkey.

The only way that March 2016 agreement is going to be maintained is if they are sending people back to Turkey so that Syrian refugees registered in Turkey can be moved somewhere in Europe. But the whole theory of Turkey being a safe place to send refugees to, or Afghanistan being a safe place to deport people to — that whole theory is being tested all over the place. There are cities in Germany that refuse to send Afghan refugees back because they realize it's not a safe country. And yet the International Organization for Migration is still pushing the voluntary repatriation back to Afghanstan because (they claim) it's a safe country and we can do that.

Rachel and Austin Hill speak to Lisa Campbell after her presentation at the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy on Wednesday, April 5, 2017.

DN: How does the political situation affect the refugees in your camp as they see it unfolding on the international stage?

LC: They are so very aware politically of what's going on. They're very aware of every directive that applies to them, they're aware of the laws in Europe, they're aware of who the presidencies are, who the prime ministers are — they know all of that and they know their viewpoints because it's so important to them.

They're all slightly disappointed in the United States. We're an Afghan camp, and Afghans weren't included in the Muslim ban, as it's called, but those who qualify for special immigration visas were basically told don't even bother. It's a very frustrating thing for them. They're aware of what's happening and they are still trying to find a good spot. It was quite shocking for most of them.

DN: What have been some of the happiest and saddest moments in your camp?

LC: Babies being born in some ways are the happiest and the saddest. They're the happiest because it's a new life, and it's wonderful and everybody gets excited. It's sad because they're children who are being born stateless, who are being born in a refugee camp, and their parents have no idea what their future holds.

The saddest? We had a death in our camp. Not in our camp itself, but one of our residents drowned near the camp. That was hard.

People ask me what's the hardest thing about the job, and I think the hardest thing is saying goodbye. So many of these people are leaving with smugglers, and even when we've had a few that have been leaving for family reunification, as joyful as that is, it's still really hard to say goodbye to people you've been with for 10 months. It's a small community. Everybody knows everybody. You all know each other, you know whose kids are whose, you can listen to a child crying and know whose kid it is — you don’t even have to see the child. It's a very small, tight-knit community, and the goodbyes are hard. It’s like raising a family of 550 people.

DN: What do you wish Americans understood about the refugee crisis?

LC: I wish Americans understood that the people who have left their countries, that the decisions they've made have been made with the most courage that I've ever seen. That they're not coming here to take your job, they're not coming here to bomb your place. They are coming here because they are running from bombs, from Daesh (ISIS), from the Taliban, from seeing their husbands and their sons and their brothers and their fathers being blown up or being conscripted. If you can't see what they're running from in Syria, you absolutely aren't watching the news.

They are an asset to communities. That's what I want people to know. Stop being so worried, stop being so hateful. Stop it! Get to know them. Spend 10 minutes talking to one of them. Get to know who they are before you pass these judgments.

I had some guy tell me, “I'm never going to do anything for a refugee until there isn't another single homeless vet.” Well you know what? I am mortified that there are vets in the United States that are homeless. I also know that there are thousands of programs in the United States to help homeless vets. In previous disasters, Do Your Part has specifically helped homeless vets. It doesn't have to be one or the other. Care is not a finite quantity. It doesn't have to be one or the other.

Lisa Campbell, a refugee camp organizer in Greece, sells bags to support her camp at the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy on Wednesday, April 5, 2017.

DN: The agreement with Turkey was meant to stop the flow of refugees into Europe. Since the agreement, have you still seen people trickling into Greece?

LC: Oh, definitely, and it's starting to pick up right now. The weather’s getting nicer so there are more boats coming to the islands, and the people coming on those boats are saying there are more people coming.

It hasn't stopped, and it hasn't stopped because life in Turkey for a refugee is miserable. While life in Greece may not be great, at least you are in Europe and there's hope that you could go somewhere else eventually. (Greece is) picking up a tad bit on the asylum processing, so that is moving a little bit faster, but still not nearly as fast as it needs to. Less than 10,000 asylum cases have been processed since March 20 last year. When you have 60,000 that were estimated to be in the country at that time, that's six years? It needs to move faster because people are still coming.

DN: What might happen next?

2 comments on this story

LC: The Greek minister of migration just basically said the EU can't implement Dublin III, the part of the Dublin agreement that they'll send refugees back to the first country where they landed in Europe, which is going to be Greece. Greece can't take 800,000 refugees back in. They can’t take what they have. Something's got to change.

Part of what they're starting to do is expedite the processing for the Pakistanis. They say this is a good thing, but basically they're going to get all the Pakistanis registered, they're going to take them all to their asylum interviews, they're going to deny them all asylum, and they're going to deport them. I don't think they're going to listen on a case by case basis.

Email: apond@deseretnews.com