I was an asylum seeker in America. I just had to help refugees in Europe


LESBOS, Greece — For Neda McGuire, coming to the Greek island of Lesbos to volunteer was a personal decision, rooted in her own history.

“My family immigrated to America, we were asylum seekers and we had to flee. I know what it feels like to leave things behind. I don’t know what it feels like to put it all in one backpack; I took my own experience and then extrapolated from that,” she says.

She fled Tehran when she was 18 and moved to Virginia, in the United States. Years later, she has found herself helping others fleeing conflict and hardship.

McGuire worked in hospital administration and as a gerontologist before coming to the island — skills that are coming in handy now. Like half of the refugees who arrive on Lesbos, she also speaks Farsi.  

“I’ve been asking, why did you leave?”

“During the Afghan war a lot of them immigrated to Iran, but in Iran they’re seen as a lesser human, of a lower status, they’re given the menial jobs.”

McGuire has been working closely with another volunteer, Jackie Heim, on the island. They met on the volunteer coordination Facebook page before they ever came to Lesbos, then in person when they arrived at the airport.

They've been roommates at a hotel for two weeks already. As volunteers, they do everything together. 

“We’re opposites,” says McGuire. “I’m a planner. I like to plan things.” Heim likes to go with the flow: “Neda is left brain, I’m right brain.” 

More from this series: This man walked out of Syria in the middle of a war, twice 

Neither had ever done anything like this.

“I woke up one morning to a huge pull, I needed to come,” Heim says.

For McGuire too it was a quick decision. “It started with the news, that picture of the four-year-old boy on a beach. It really affected me. Somehow I found the volunteer coordination site on Facebook and posts from people who were already here writing about it. In less than two weeks I told my husband, ‘I have to go.’ Certain things in your life there’s a knowing it has to happen. ”

She and Heim have spent a lot of time in a camp for vulnerable cases. McGuire says hearing the stories firsthand was difficult.

“It’s all the losses that people were telling me about. … Yesterday I was talking to a woman and she said she lost her husband and son … She said in the boat they were on she herself went down [underwater] two times. … Somehow she came back up again and was rescued. Her husband and her other son were on a plank. She said 'I think what happened was that the plank hit them in the head because their heads were smashed [when she later saw their bodies].'”

Another told her about losing her husband and 10-year-old daughter. Another lost her 7-year-old son.

“Losing a child is horrible in itself, but to be in a country where you know nobody, your family is not here to support you through your grief process, you don’t speak the language, you don’t know what lies ahead.”

McGuire is used to counseling families through difficult moments. In her professional life, she worked with families making decisions about how to care for their older relatives.

“If you have elderly grandparents living alone, older children living far away, no one can take care of them anymore, sometimes they have dementia. I help families navigate these decisions, and raise community awareness regarding aging.”

Heim wanted to provide people with a very simple comfort after the difficult experiences they had had. “I wanted to make tea and give them tea, a hot cup of sweet tea.”

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.