Colleen Sinsky cut short a vacation to aid refugees in Greece last year.

Colleen Sinsky: Impromptu Solidarity

By Deborah Lohse 

March 3, 2016 — If it weren’t for the Jesuit emphasis on immersion, social justice and solidarity she received as an undergrad at Santa Clara University, Colleen Sinsky would have spent December 2015 finishing up a two-month vacation, not helping form a human chain to lift children out of sinking rafts, or handing out blankets at 3 a.m. to traumatized Syrian refugees.

A Greek lifeguard tries to calm and slow an approaching raft with refugees.

In November, Sinsky was in the middle of a two-month Mediterranean backpacking trip when she saw Syrian refugee families sleeping under a bridge in Istanbul, Turkey. Her training as a homeless-outreach advocate — which started when she spent a year with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest after she graduated from SCU in 2010 — and her acute social-justice consciousness — honed in two university immersions in El Salvador and Nogales, Arizona — quickly kicked in. She apologized to her traveling companion and got on a ferry to Lesvos, Greece, which her online research indicated had become a hub for refugees bound by treacherous boats for Europe. She didn’t have a plan.

A young Afghan girl waits in line with her family to register with Greek authorities.

“I thought that with my social work background, Wilderness First Responder certification and ability to spend a significant amount of time there, that I could find a way to be helpful,” she says.

Sure enough, once there, she found “an amazingly compassionate international community of volunteers,” and signed up with a Norwegian rescue group, A Drop in the Ocean.

Sinsky (left) and other volunteers with a fisherman from Iraq. He traveled with his children and grandchildren and broke into tears when they managed to secure his family a dingy plastic shack for the night in a camp on Lesvos.

The next month was a whirlwind of exhausting emotional and physical work. In addition to helping refugees off boats that nearly killed everyone on board, she spent days and nights manning a lookout tower for boats in distress; providing tea, warm clothing and a compassionate ear to refugees in the camp; cleaning beaches of castoff belongings; and getting an up-close view of the frightened and hopeful people that many countries were quickly demonizing as potential terrorists.

A brave Syrian girl, moments after landing safely on the beach with her father.

Eager to get the word out and change the xenophobia gripping the U.S. and Europe, Sinsky has blogged and posted numerous stories on Facebook about the human crisis she encountered there. The pieces are filled with vivid details, many heartbreaking, some uplifting.

An international troupe of volunteer clowns brings a rare moment of joy and laughter to the refugee families in a muddy camp on Lesvos.

She wrote about a 5-year-old girl, blinded in one eye by a rocket blast in Syria, whose near-death Sinsky witnessed before the girl’s boat and family were miraculously saved by a fisherman. In another, she talks about the growing mountain of life vests accumulating on Lesvos’ shores, and what they mean to her now:

“More than a piece of trash, each vest represents a life story. Of bombs destroying neighborhoods and random police raids, and children going to bed afraid. Of the agonizing decision to pack and leave the only home you've ever known because a war zone isn't a home, and to become a placeless family at the mercy of an unmerciful world. Of forcing your children to keep walking through the night and to lie silently so that you won't be discovered. Of beatings at the border and remembering the favorite food you'll never have again.”

The “Life Jacket Graveyard” where thousands of discarded life jackets are piled in the hills of Lesvos.

Sinsky says Santa Clara University was profoundly influential to both her social-justice bent and her ability to write compellingly about the crisis. She credits the SCU course “Witches, Saints and Heretics” with helping her better understand the problem of labeling, scapegoating and demonizing Muslims. And her “Creative Writing for Social Justice” course helped her writing come to life with details and drama. Indeed, her story about an Iraqi man who sacrificed himself to stop a sinking raft from going under quickly went viral, shared more than 30,000 times on Facebook and elsewhere.

Refugees helping with chores around the camp.

“I’m amazed by the power of storytelling to move people,” she says. “I would like to incorporate storytelling for social justice into whatever it is that I do.” 

In April, Sinsky will head back to Lesvos for three months as a volunteer coordinator with A Drop In the Ocean. It's clear her Jesuit education fueled her passion for social justice. “Prior to experiencing the poverty and trauma of post­war El Salvador as an undergrad, I planned to pursue a future working in economics in the Bay Area. Instead, I’ve been able to pursue a Jesuit­-inspired career of service.” 

A young Iraqi refugee with Sinsky.

This story was originally published on the Santa Clara University website. Photos by Colleen Sinsky.

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