2017-06-01 / News

Biddeford woman acts on urge to help Syrian refugees

By Grant McPherson Staff Writer


Biddeford resident Mary Beth Nolette helped greet a group of 54 refugees that landed on Lesvos in the beginning of the week. Nolette and her daughter will return to Maine by the middle of June. (Grant McPherson photo) Biddeford resident Mary Beth Nolette helped greet a group of 54 refugees that landed on Lesvos in the beginning of the week. Nolette and her daughter will return to Maine by the middle of June. (Grant McPherson photo) BIDDEFORD – According the United Nations Refugee Agency, nearly 5 million people have fled Syria since 2011 because of conflict between the Syrian government and rebels. In 2015 a report from Geneva stated more than 1 million people, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, had fled to Greece in an attempt to reach Germany and other European Union countries. On the island of Lesvos in the northern Aegean Sea there remain more than 5,600 people, about 2,000 more than the refugee camps’ intended capacity. Those figures come from a 2016 story filed by Aljazeera.

For one Biddeford resident, the call to action to help these refugees cannot be ignored.

Biddeford resident Mary Beth Nolette, 60, will travel to the island of Lesvos and stay in the city of Molyvos, also known as Mithymna. She will fly out Thursday, May 25 and stay for two weeks before returning home. Molyvos is on the northern shore of the island and faces the Turkish coast. One of Nolette’s primary tasks will be to use binoculars to spot incoming boats that might be headed for the island and to alert emergency crews. She said she’ll also be on call if a boat lands on shore to help provide supplies or transportation to the nearest hospital.

Nolette said she was inspired by her sister, Marie Ilvonen, a social worker and Rockland resident who travelled to the island to help with volunteers who experience PTSD upon arrival.

“Not everyone was prepared for boats that were nearly on the shore capsizing, people drowning and bodies washing up. Island wide there was a lot of trauma because of the number of people and the horrific conditions they are coming from,” Nolette said.


The wall of a volunteer office and cemetery on the island of Lesvos in the North Aegean Sea, just a few miles from the coast of Turkey. Boredom is an issue many refugees face as they wait for entrance into Greece or another country seeking asylum. As overloaded boats capsize near the island, volunteers and locals are left to take care of the bodies that wash ashore. (Marie Ilvonen courtesy photo) The wall of a volunteer office and cemetery on the island of Lesvos in the North Aegean Sea, just a few miles from the coast of Turkey. Boredom is an issue many refugees face as they wait for entrance into Greece or another country seeking asylum. As overloaded boats capsize near the island, volunteers and locals are left to take care of the bodies that wash ashore. (Marie Ilvonen courtesy photo) Ilvonen stayed for two weeks during her first trip in May 2016, but after returning home decided to raise money and return to Lesvos. She was inspired to help after witnessing the coverage of the crisis on the news.

“I saw trauma on the faces of the refugees and volunteers,” Ilvonen said. “All those people are suffering from some form of traumatic distress or PTSD.”

Ilvonen worked with a translator during her first trip to help lead a group stress reduction among refugees. She said the group was comprised of mostly Syrians, but there were also Egyptians and one person from Iran. The refugees needed to vent, Ilvonen said, and share their experiences. Ilvonen helped direct them in grounding exercises, noticing where they felt the stress in their bodies. Ilvonen remembered the story of loss one woman shared.


Grand Marshall of the Old Orchard Beach parade Jerome Plante rides ahead of the procession down First Street toward Veteran’s Memorial Park. Plante, 82, is chairman of The Ballpark Commisson. (Grant McPherson photo) Grand Marshall of the Old Orchard Beach parade Jerome Plante rides ahead of the procession down First Street toward Veteran’s Memorial Park. Plante, 82, is chairman of The Ballpark Commisson. (Grant McPherson photo) “She said, ‘It was very kind of you to come, but if you think teaching us to take deep breaths is going to make a difference, it’s not going to make up for the fact that I lost my sons to one bomb,’” Ilvonen said.

Despite the horrors refugees have faced, Ilvonen said they take solace in the smiling faces of volunteers.


Plante listens to Charlie Summers, Maine’s former secretary of state, speak at Veteran’s Memorial Park. Summers thanked the men and women past and present who served in the U.S. military. Summers served in Iraq and Afghanistan and became the executive director of the Military and Veteran Services New England in 2016. (Grant McPherson photo) Plante listens to Charlie Summers, Maine’s former secretary of state, speak at Veteran’s Memorial Park. Summers thanked the men and women past and present who served in the U.S. military. Summers served in Iraq and Afghanistan and became the executive director of the Military and Veteran Services New England in 2016. (Grant McPherson photo) According to The Migration Policy Institute, the United States has resettled 18,007 Syrian refugees between October 2011 and December 2016. Between November 2015 and December 2016 Canada accepted nearly 40,000 Syrians, while Germany has received almost 41,000 since 2013. Nolette said that the United States is not stepping up.

“We’re not taking people in, we’re not sending aid. People are willing to get into an inflatable raft with up to 90 people onboard with life jackets that are sometimes stuffed with cotton. To put a child in a boat like that you have to be desperate,” she said.

Nolette’s daughter, Bethany Snow, who attended middle school in Biddeford, is in Lesvos helping to manage a warehouse of donated items mostly from Europe, Australia and the U.S. Nolette said Snow helps unpack items, sort them, repackage them and redistribute them to refugee camps. Personal health and hygiene items are among the top priorities for refugees, as well as clean underwear.

A small sub economy of volunteers has begun to emerge on the island, Nolette said, from volunteers who stay in hotels and buy items from local shops. However, she said the people of Lesvos are struggling since the crisis began and taxes increased under austerity measures. Nolette said she’s aware of a small element of nationalism that doesn’t want volunteers coming to the island to help. She said in the town of Molyvos the locals are reluctant to rent vehicles to volunteers.

“There is an anti-immigration sentiment, people feel emboldened by the rhetoric in Europe,” Nolette said, “(The people of Lesvos) have been burdened the most, the U.S is not pulling their weight. We created a lot of the instability that caused this, it’s up to individuals to help however we can.”

Nolette said she was brought up in a family where helping each other was the expectation. Watching the news, seeing people being bombed out of their homes and being forced to flee she said she wondered who was going to offer help.

“I believe that if you give to others, if you give to the common good, there is a ripple effect that makes a difference in so many other ways. Some of it may come back as a reward and some of it may not. I just think the universe likes a giver, that’s how I feel,” Nolette said.

Nolette doesn’t know exactly where she’ll stay upon her arrival. The only other person on the island she knows is her daughter. Nolette said she is neither worried nor afraid of what she might witness.

“These people deserve to have some dignity in their transition to whatever it is their next step is.”

Donations to help purchase supplies for refugees can be mailed via check to: Mary Beth Nolette (For Refugee Relief) C/O The Ripple initiative PO Box 1826 Rockland, ME 04841.

Donations can also be made at http://lesvossolidarity.org/ index.php/en/ and https://www.lesvosmosaik.org/en/

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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