Moved by the images she’d seen on TV of helpless refugees desperately making their way to safety and the humanitarian crisis that’s struck the small nation of Greece, Kara Kallenbach, a military spouse, is taking her skills as a veteran and social worker to the island of Lesvos to offer her assistance.
Images began surfacing earlier this year of Syrian refugees escaping their war-torn country, many making their way through the island of Lesbos. The island, with a population just over 80,000, has been the landing point for an estimated 111,000 refugees in October alone. Some estimates claim close to 4,700 refugees arrive each day to the island, thousands dying before they can even reach land.
“As soon as we started hearing about the humanitarian crisis in Greece, I started reading more about it and studying more about it, the more I wanted to go there, the more I said there’s some way I can help,” said Kallenbach.
Kallenbach made up her mind that she was going to find a way to help with the crisis and began doing research. She spent over a month reading and learning about the situation so as not to be blindsided by anything.
Kallenbach, who currently resides in Germany with her husband serving in the CAF, finally found her calling when an acquaintance reached out, looking for volunteer counsellors.
Before the refugee crisis, Lesbos was a popular holiday spot for many Europeans. Kallenbach’s acquaintance, a psychologist from Holland, had a home in Lesbos and like Kallenbach felt he couldn’t sit by and do nothing. He reached out in an effort to find volunteer counselors who could debrief the volunteers working in Lesbos before they return home.
“It’s very important when you’ve seen traumatic things or experienced traumatic things to be able to talk about it, to be able to have someone who is a safe person, who will not judge you or expect anything from you. You need to talk to someone about what you saw, the good, the bad and no fluff,” explained Kallenbach.
Kallenbach decided this was her calling and with the support of her family set Nov. 29 as the departure date for her mission.
She will be staying on the island for a week trying to assess the situation since the initiative to debrief volunteers is fairly new. However, Kallenbach expects she will return.
The ex-military member has been mentally preparing herself and is hoping the military training she once received will come in handy. She has also been reading the emotional stories coming out of the island.
“Two weeks ago there were 200 children lined up on the beach in Lesvos that they couldn’t burry, they’d all drowned, and they couldn’t burry them because the island has run out of room in their cemeteries and they don’t cremate people…So those kinds of things I’ve been reading and watching to prepare myself so I’m mentally ready,” said Kallenbach.
Kallenbach also has many years of experience both as a social worker and a former member of the CAF. She first joined the military at the age of 21, retiring in 1997. She’s had her share of challenges with mental health and PTSD and understands the people she wanted to help. After retiring from the military, she went to school for a degree in social work.
“It taught me how to deal with my own mental health issues and part of the reason I joined the military was because I wanted to help people who couldn’t help themselves… I always wanted to help military families. That’s why I took social work, so I can have a better grasp of how to help them,” explained Kallenbach.
After receiving her degree, she gathered experience in social work as she moved from base to base with her husband, an aerospace controls officer. Over the years, the compassionate social worker has worked with abused women and homeless teens.
After arriving in Germany, she began volunteering with the Red Cross. One of her strongest passions has been to work with military personnel and their families and so Kallenbach has been heavily involved with MFRCs and serves on the advisory council for Military Family Services Europe. She’s also helped military members returning from Afghanistan, and other foreign missions, navigate the challenges of OSIs.
At the end of the day, Kallenbach says the most important thing to her is helping others, no matter their background.
“Anyway I can help, that’s my life. Anyway I can put a smile on someone’s face, it’s made my day. I believe everyone’s equal…we all bleed red, we all cry tears, and we all want to protect our children,” said Kallenbach.