Amid global conflicts and crises, the story of refugees is as old as humanity. How a culture treats strangers in the most vulnerable of conditions says much about its moral integrity. Of course, economic and social systems complicate a country’s ease with receiving and integrating those refugees, and benevolent citizens may have to step beyond their governments’ capacity for compassionate action.
Such was the experience of Lake County Judge Jonathan Shamis, who once told the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “No, I preside over the highest court in the land.” Shamis raised both his children in Carbondale and now splits his time between here and Leadville.
During a sabbatical in 2018, instead of enjoying a leisurely trip to some beach, Shamis elected to serve three months at a refugee camp in Greece, taking the lead of local artist and fellow judge Calvin Lee.
“My mother was a refugee,” Shamis told The Sopris Sun, “and I wanted to better understand her journey.” Born in Italy and raised in Shanghai, she boarded a boat to Brazil at the age of 17 but got off in San Francisco instead. Another motive for Shamis to volunteer at the camp was to better understand the experience of the many refugees residing in the Roaring Fork Valley.
With the Norwegian organization A Drop in the Ocean, he went to what was at the time the largest transitional camp in Europe, housing 5,000 families. “Our collective perspectives of refugees are so inaccurate,” he found. Within the camp he encountered “the most educated, functional people — who had resources” and could afford to escape turmoil. “Some had significant money, but were careful not to flout it.” These were savings for wherever they may end up starting a new life.
“It completely baffles me how instead of trying to create the opportunity for people who were successful, who want to be successful — want to contribute to making us better and stronger — we turn our backs and reject these people who desperately need our support and compassion,” said Shamis. “There’s no logistical, objective reason other than fear.”
Instead of three to six months, as they anticipated, some families would spend years in the camp living in repurposed shipping containers. “By the time I’d gotten there, people had been there for three years.” Shamis described entire families, up to a dozen people, sharing half a shipping container with not enough room for everyone to lie down at the same time. During this time, their resources slowly dwindled, compromising their chances for success wherever they may eventually land.
Some refugees would escape and risk being undocumented in Greece, vulnerable to deportation if caught. Shamis compared it to the United States’ “dysfunctional” immigration system. “They were confronted with impossible choices.”
His work at the camp, consisting of 10-hour shifts, six days a week, sought to dignify the experience of refugees with art and language classes, textiles and sewing machines and shopping simulations to distribute rations. He set out hoping to establish a sort of community justice court, observing “no mechanisms for dispute resolution” in the camp.
“It seemed like kind of a cool idea,” he said, “to create a more civil community while people are there” that would also help them assimilate in a country with western systems of justice. Running against various barriers, Shamis pivoted his expectations.
In the end, his most impactful service was to help organize a field trip with 100 families to a botanical garden for a picnic. “The day we did it, families dressed in their best Sunday clothes,” he said. “They had a normal day … it was the coolest thing — to break in the cycle of despair by providing them with ‘normal’ for even just a few hours.” Also, he helped secure the installation of a $15 sprinkler for children to play in after a battle to receive permission from the Greek army.
“What would we do to protect our family? How would we want to be treated wherever it is we’re able to escape to?” Shamis reflected. “To have that understanding, I’ll carry it for the rest of my days.”
“For years, people live in these camps devoid of color… how impactful to introduce that back into their lives,” Shamis told The Sopris Sun. Courtesy photo