Steve McAndrew knows the horrors resulting from the Syrian Civil War all too well, having directed three operations on behalf of the Geneva-based International Federation of the Red Cross Red Crescent – first in Syria, then in the surrounding countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and most recently in Greece.
The Santa Monica resident, who is Head of Emergency Operations for the International Federation, shared his experiences recently at the L.A. Region headquarters for Red Cross volunteers, employees and special guests.
Millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homeland to surrounding countries and then to Europe beginning in 2015. The Red Cross Red Crescent movement is the rare aid organization that has offered assistance at all levels of this humanitarian crisis, from providing essential lifesaving aid within Syria to assisting migrants on the road (the majority of which- 65% – are women and children), to helping resettlement in their new country of residence.
McAndrew recounted many of the unique difficulties he faced in Greece where families were in desperate need, but refused to stay in one place for more than a day or two. For most people, Greece was not the final destination and any lost time risked being turned back because of closed borders.
Red Cross volunteers provided refugees with items they could take with them like a small transparent tarp that provides cover from weather and a Red Cross backpack that one guest in attendance had seen migrants carrying as far north as Norway.
“The most needed resource though is information,” said McAndrew. “In Greece we had people getting off of boats who were excited because they thought they were in Germany,” said McAndrew. While operating critical facilities all around the Greek Islands and the mainland, the Red Cross has focused on the islands where other aid organizations cannot effectively operate. “We’re in the hard places”, commented McAndrew, “with steep cliffs and difficult rescues.”
McAndrew showed a photo of one of these rough cliffs, waves crashing below, to demonstrate the unique capacities of the Red Cross to deploy assets like specially trained rescue swimmers or night vision binoculars, all in an effort to effectively assist migrants where others cannot.
McAndrew has managed some of the largest Red Cross responses, including the recent Nepal earthquake, the Ebola outbreak, and the earthquake that devastated much of Haiti.