Refugee camp visits lead couple to start charity

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Latifa Woodhouse of Russell Gardens most recently visited refugee camps in Greece this past February. (Photo courtesy of Latifa Woodhouse)

By Kristy O’Connell

 Since her first trip to Greece in 2015, Latifa Woodhouse and her family have visited about 15 different camps, she said.

Now, she and her husband Colin Woodhouse, both Russell Gardens residents, are in the process of starting their own nonprofit organization after returning from their third humanitarian volunteer trip to Greece this past February.

As the social justice chair of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Shelter Rock and an advocate for human rights, Latifa Woodhouse said she is deeply inspired to bring stability to the refugee situation, particularly in Greece.

“You look in their [refugees] eyes and see hope, determination and a smile on their faces, even though their stories are absolutely heartbreaking,” Latifa Woodhouse said.

Woodhouse said many of the refugees she’s met in the past have lost their loved ones in horrific tragedies and are now living in fenced-in military camps, isolated and offered little health care, access to nutritious meals, warm clothes or education.

Since the European Union has closed its boarders to refugees, the situation has gotten worse, she said.

Woodhouse has utilized her involvement in her congregation to raise money supporting refugees in the Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi crises. The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Shelter Rock has approved two $200,000 grants to support refugee assistance through various nonprofit organizations.

While the European presence was notable in the various camps she visited, Woodhouse said it was concerning to realize that the American presence was not as strong.

Many of the organizations she and her family have worked with in the past are actually small nonprofits like IMU, Swiss Cross, Team Humanity of Denmark and Lighthouse.

While large organizations may have funding and large teams of volunteers, Woodhouse said she has personally seen the most effective work done by smaller organizations.

She and her husband have since begun developing their own nonprofit called Shared Humanity. The goal, she said, is to raise more funds that can be used to bring comfort and normalcy to refugees living in the severe conditions of prison-like camps.

“To see the desperation and to see that there aren’t programs that allow them [the refugees] to live a normal life, live the life of a human being is heartbreaking,” she said.

Some level of normalcy can be brought to the refugees by teaching them about language, the environment, cultural differences and how to dress for winter.

This December, Woodhouse said, she and her family learned that the winter was so harsh in Greece that many refugees were dying.

After raising funds to visit in January, Woodhouse along with several friends and family members visited the refugee camps again with donations and 11 boxes of jackets for those in need.

During that stay, they learned that three men had just died of hypothermia.

“There is no need for such suffering,” Woodhouse said. “We must provide them with normalcy, education, care for their mental and physical health…”

Woodhouse said she is looking for opportunities to speak in local schools, places of worship and other community facilities to share her experience and bring awareness to this issue.

While some people may not be able to visit these camps themselves, she said, they can still provide economic support to nonprofits like Shared Humanity or contribute to fundraisers that support the volunteer trips of fellow humanitarians.

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