Crowds of refugees waiting in line. A Syrian girl pressed against a fence in Greece holding a torn blanket. A drowned refugee boy.
Those news images were all it took for Colin and Latifa Woodhouse of Great Neck to go to Greece early this year to help the growing refugee crisis.
“Frankly, I broke down in tears,” Colin Woodhouse, 68, said, recalling that he thought “I must go.”
Latifa Woodhouse, 63, who grew up in a family of imams in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Colin Woodhouse, a former Peace Corps volunteer and professor at the University of Kabul in Afghanistan, were honored this month for their work that grew out of that thought.
The Woodhouses shared the images with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, where Latifa is on the board of trustees and both serve on the social justice committee.
The congregation had awarded a “large crisis grant” of $200,000 to support two nonprofits providing humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees. But allocating money to help organizations wasn’t enough for the Woodhouses, who turned to crowdfunding and raised $16,000 in three weeks. That money was distributed directly to refugees in Greece, Colin Woodhouse said.
On Jan. 24, they flew to the island of Lesbos, Greece, where thousands of refugees are housed. The stayed for three weeks as volunteers with Praksis, a Greek independent humanitarian nonprofit, at a volunteer center next to Camp Moria, a former detention center for Greek prisoners.
Most of the refugees had one set of clothes and no money. “They’ve lost everything, and they still have the determination to go to Europe to make it,” Latifa said.
The Woodhouses were assigned to a medical facility, Colin as a construction worker and Latifa, a retired English as a second language teacher who speaks Farsi, Pashto and Arabic, as a translator. Colin, who operates his own financial planning firm, kept refugees busy with construction work: building a stairway, walkways and channels to keep water moving through the camp.
They returned to Long Island in mid-February only to see the refugee crisis in Europe worsen.
The Woodhouses said they felt obliged to return and left again in August for 17 days in Greece, promising to bring the refugees’ stories back to the United States.
Their work led to a trip to the White House on Sept. 12 to meet with members of Congress and Holocaust survivors at a screening of a new PBS documentary, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky. The film focuses on Unitarian minister Waitstill Sharp and his wife, Martha, who rescued Jews, dissidents and children in Nazi-era Europe. Joukowsky is their grandson.
On Sept. 13, Joukowsky’s family foundation awarded the Sharp Rescuer Award to the Woodhouses for their humanitarian efforts in the spirit of the Sharps.
“I believe Americans are wonderfully empathetic people, they’re charitable in their hearts, but there has been an effort, given our current climate, to make these people ‘the other,’ ” Colin Woodhouse said. “They’re not. They’re moms and dads, widows, widowers, children, orphans, they’re sick . . . they’re humanity.”