LESVOS DAY 4: Saturday October 31st, 2015

Happy Halloween everyone! I spent my morning sleeping before starting the 3-11pm volunteer shift with our new friends at Oxy- the Starfish crew! (Small startup NGO with a big big heart). Today we had a few busses of wet rescues come in and my job was to greet them & hand out tickets for food and bus for transport to their next destination as well as a welcome booklet with information in either Arabic, Farsi, or English (a “welcome to Europe” guide for refugees if you will), it’s extremely helpful! Another task where organization and communication (especially amongst the volunteers working together) is super key. I worked the welcome tent window with our friend Emily from Canada and she was strict! There was an amazing younger guy who was trying to help us communicate with incoming refugees by translating in Arabic and it got a little chaotic at times but never really anything we couldn’t handle. I felt a pang in my heart when Emily lost her patience with him and told him to go away but after he whimpered away I explained to her how important it is to use any translation services we can get. Can you imagine going to a new country, no idea what’s in store next, and people are trying to help you by speaking your language and they get shooed away!? We laughed about it at the end but I did send another volunteer to bring the guy back so we could put him back to work in his area of fulfillment.

One of the most beautiful things about my experience on Lesvos, and I have seen other volunteers and journalists write about it, is the self-appointed volunteers. The refugees who are jumping in and helping whenever and however they can. I felt so proud to be part of such an amazing community today doing the smallest of tasks. Today we learned the importance and ease translators can bring to us, as well as the fulfillment they can get from providing their translation services just helping volunteers communicate in the lines (lines for food and bus tickets, lines to get on the bus, lines to get medical services, etc). Even the mess other people left behind of water bottles, wet clothes, trash, etc; the refugees I met were right there with us helping us clean Mother Earth. In the welcome tent, Emily and I kept busy by organizing tickets so they could be reused. When the refugees arrive, they are given one food ticket good for a meal at the food tent nearby. Their meal consists of a sandwich, fruit (apple and banana), protein crackers, water, and choice of milk or juice for the children. In the beginning we were told that each person should only get one food ticket, but some people (especially children) came back for more. You have to understand that some of these people have not eaten in many hours, some for over a day. At first we denied them and shortly thereafter we realized how crazy that was because it was a fairly slow day at Oxy so we did give second tickets to whoever asked. I think this was an inner conflict with Emily but we got past it pretty quickly. She kept calling me “good cop” and “soft” but really I think it is just about being humane, assessing the situation and applying changes in plan accordingly, and constantly asking ourselves if we are doing the best we can to accommodate the refugees. When someone’s hungry, just give them food until they aren’t hungry anymore if it’s possible. Seems simple enough.

Each refugee also gets a ticket for a seat on one of the busses that comes to transport them to one of the camps, depending on their nationality. The children do not get tickets, we just explain to the parents or older relatives that the children go on their laps. Many families came together, big families (12-13 people) and the importance of keeping them together became very clear very quickly when a few individuals came up asking where their family members were. There was one girl in particular from Syria who was in her early 20s who had lost her family somewhere between getting off the boat on the beach and getting to Oxy. I could see the fear in her eyes as Emily turned her away saying we don’t know where her family is so I sent another volunteer to find the manager on duty to help this girl. I heard later on that she was reunited with her family at the Syrian camp, Karatepe. In between other bus arrivals I took it upon myself to clean and organize the welcome tent which was full of boxes, blankets, supplies, rain gear, welcome booklets, bags and other random assorted items. I felt such a sense of accomplishment when it was organized and the incoming volunteers later on were so grateful for the clean space. It was here that I realized that volunteering can also be providing services to help make the lives of the other volunteers easier. Service enables service.

There were many signs up inside the welcome tent with common terms in a few different languages including Arabic and Farsi. I learned that Akil means to eat in Arabic and I vastly improved my miming & Turkish in the course of 5 hours of rigorous practice in trying to communicate with individuals coming in to wait for their bus to somewhere else. The guy who helped me clean last night got all of his €700 stolen this morning so he was still there trying to find his way further away from Iraq. Some of the other volunteers who spent more time with him than I did said he might need to see a head doctor as he didn’t seem right. Apparently he hadn’t slept in many days and it seemed that he was suffering from severe trauma. A bunch of people chipped in and gave him money out of their pockets so that he could eventually pay for a ferry after going through registration. His eyes welled up with tears at their gestures and I know he will be eternally grateful. I did not see him again after this day. I really hope he’s ok.

Another guy from Iran shared a lot about philosophies of life and becoming famous. I will never forget his name, Jamal Jhamal. He had the most beautiful outlook on life and was very open in sharing his perspective of how he thinks humans should interact with one another. Jamal claimed that Allah (his conception of God) makes everyone good. He explained to us in detail how everyone is born with a good heart, and that the evil in this world is created by ideas and extremes and literalism in society. I could have talked with him forever, he was the nicest guy. Jamal was in his early 20s and he when we asked him where he was headed he responded ever so non-chalontly that he didn’t know. His response was so carefree that it made me think about what my response would be if I was in his position. He was just so happy to be away from Iran. He told us how the government in Iran beheaded a friend of his simply for being a part of a demonstration, a protest that the government didn’t agree with. I wouldn’t want to live in that space either. Jamal wrote down his name for me and told me that he is going to be very rich and famous one day and that he will marry the queen of Europe. He told me how happy he was to be in Europe and that he will never look back. He begged me to add him as a friend on facebook which I vowed to when I returned to wifi. We laughed together when another refugee seriously asked for the wifi password at the transit stop. What a dose of reality. He even gave our volunteer friend from Denmark an autograph:) I could not find Jamal on facebook later, but I do not worry about him. I know that he will succeed no matter what life has in store for him. We ran out of mens socks & shoes tonight so that will be a serious donation.  I was so happy and grateful to end my day with a very long, hot shower back at Hotel Akti followed by conversations with other volunteers. Tomorrow will be my last day volunteering here in Lesvos as I have an early flight on Monday morning. I am not quite sure how I will return to normal life. The world of Lesvos has touched me, it has forever changed me.

Lesvos in the News: October 31st, 2015

LESVOS DAY 3: Friday October 30th, 2015

Day 3 started with a slightly early morning volunteer meeting down at the harbour where we signed up for some volunteer shifts with a fantastic organization- Starfish. The meeting was led by a lovely young alternative-looking (her hair was the coolest shade of pink!), British woman named Trace and it was really nice to meet some of the other people from this amazing organization that we had met directly and indirectly throughout the past few days. The meeting was held at the Starfish organization’s home base, The Captain’s Table (a restaurant on the harbour in Molyvos- the north shore of Lesvos), and it was extremely eye-opening and informational. I don’t remember if I did, but Trace if you are reading this, thank you for taking the time to explain everything to us; it was very helpful! Here is where we also met a few other volunteers who we would be working with for the next few days. Emily from Canada (the hardass), Ana from Portugal (who we had met at our hotel Akti prior), Calvin from California (the humanitarian photographer, like many including our French fry Brice), and Adam from New York (on a humanitarian holiday). We did not contact Starfish ahead of time; if you are on the island, there are organizations like Starfish that have volunteer meetings every morning where they welcome you with open arms to do whatever is needed after providing you with specific information about their organization and how they are providing aid to the refugees. What became very clear to me in this meeting is that the most important thing in volunteering here is showing up, and showing up to work! Because they are always limited in volunteers (short), many of the volunteers are working very long hours, sometimes double shifts, every day. At least they did have a shift system going, which was nice to try to plan our day and/or night. After a two-hour informational meeting, we signed up for a few shifts including that night and for the weekend to come. The volunteer shifts were broken up into 7am-3pm, 3pm-11pm, and 11pm-7am; the overnight shift. We signed up for the overnight shift for that night at Oxy.

Once we were finished with the sitting and listening part, we packed up a bunch of donations in our car, delivered them to the Starfish storage space, dropped Calvin off for a much needed nap before his night shift (he had just arrived from California on no sleep), and then we headed to Oxy for a small training/intro on what we would be doing later- mainly working in the clothing tents.

Oxy is a transit stop, however (& as much as they try to avoid it), Oxy is somewhat of a small camp where people must wait for a bus to pick them up to go to a camp to go through the registration process. What happens is when people get off the boats on the beach, they walk to the nearest bus stop and then they are transported to Oxy. It is named Oxy because that is the name of the nearest, largest building, which just so happens to be a nightclub, however it is closed for the time being. When we arrived at Oxy around 12pm, it was fairly busy, with a line to the women’s and children’s clothing tent already beginning to form (the men’s clothing tent did not have enough donations to be open at this time). We snuck inside the tent and found ourselves among cardboard boxes of stacked donations which were somewhat organized by tops, bottoms, shoes, winter wear, and feminine products- but there was still a lot of organizing to do. The thing with the clothing tents is that the donations stay organized for about 30 seconds and then… good luck! Since there is urgency with people (especially children) being wet or cold and without proper attire, there really is no good time to organize while people are waiting, so a system must be created to attempt to be effective in doling out what people NEED.

The key word here, is NEED. Because there are thousands of refugees arriving daily, the donations go fast. Therefore, we were told that only people who are soaking wet or don’t have shoes will get donations. It was a struggle to figure out an effective system when giving out donations because sometimes it was more efficient to bring the women into the tent with their child(ren) for sizing, but then when you do that they begin shopping for themselves (not all, but most of the time). This became very frustrating with language barriers in trying to explain that they don’t just get a change of clothes just because… those donations are reserved for emergency basis. Many parents and children became frustrated with us as we tried to be patient with them and also rush them in and out so we could attend to the next people. Some people we made wait at the door or window of the tent as we searched for their sizes in limited light under the shelter of the enclosed tent. This proved to be a flawed system because we had some women and children waiting wet, out in the cold while others were inside, essentially wasting time, picking out “just the right color”, or “just the right size” which of course did not exist for anyone. The clothing tents were still in the early stages of organization at this point, so there was not a developed “efficient method” or best way of doing things. We really did our best, and learned as we went (as most everyone on the island experienced in volunteering). God bless you Brice, thank you for being the assertive bouncer at the door of the tent. I think Katie and I would have just let everyone in, turned on some music and had a clothing tent party. Also, Brice has an amazing memory for faces, I might add. As people tried to trick us by coming back multiple times with different children with different missing items or supposedly “wet” clothes; Brice was amazing, thank you Brice.

Another thing with the clothing tents… how do you tell someone that smells like piss or other bodily fluids that they can’t have a whole new outfit because most of them is dry? How do you stay calm with children who don’t understand that the blue boots are all we have and even if they are a size too big at least they will be warm? How do you communicate to ppl whose language you don’t speak to tell them we are doing our best & this is not a yard sale? If your clothes are dry & your shoes & socks are good, then you are OK for now- Oxy is after all, a transit stop, and there are actual camps that people

are bussed to which also have clothing tents (although I am not sure the conditions there). We did that job for 4 hours, I didn’t think the line would ever end but more volunteers showed up so our car full could go home and rest before going back for the night shift.

Oxy was extremely quiet/empty when we came back around 10:30pm & I think we were all grateful for that. We sorted A LOT of clothes with our new friends Ann and Kunal (another fellow Californian), but at least there was light which was more than I could say for the day before at another location. Volunteering the overnight shift was a nice but cold experience, the wind is not forgiving in the dark & many men slept outside in the open wrapped up in blankets. The whole place was trashed with wet clothes, cigarette butts, food wrappers, banana peels, used diapers, damp cardboard boxes, used foil thermal blankets, half drank water bottles, dirty shoes and so much more. While I was picking up trash in the middle of the night I saw eyes staring at me from the dark shadow of a tent it scared me! Then I saw it was a guy in his 20s and he was thanking me for picking up trash (in arabic) and gave me some fruit he was eating. He was from Iraq and he asked me for some gloves & ended up helping the volunteers clean up the whole camp at all hours of the night! He told me he was the captain of the boat he took to get here & that his boat capsized & they had to be rescued by the coastguard. I don’t know what happened to everyone on his boat, I assume they made it safe but I taught him how to count to 40.

Another younger guy, from Iran woke up in the middle of the night & told us about the smugglers that loaded his boat with 25+ ppl & pushed them out to sea from Turkey. He said their boat engine died& when they called the guy who sold them the boat to say they were in trouble, the man told him to start rowing. He also gave them a fake number to call the police to come save them. We ended our night by sleeping on the ground in the clothing tent, very cold. I did not sleep I just laid there shaking & thinking to myself how blessed I am that I have more than I want and everything I need.

Every individual that I have met that has made the journey here has moved me in different ways. I want to save them all, I want to wrap them up in my jacket to give them warmth, I want to help them live with dignity even in their worst conditions, even if it means looking 5 more minutes for a shirt that doesn’t have sparkles on it for a little boy so he won’t get made fun of. We are out of shoes & socks & clothes for men so these are important donations whether it be actual items, or monetary donations which help purchase items on the ground here in Lesvos, and in turn help the Greek economy which is also struggling a great deal right now.

We ended our night shift by opening the men’s clothing tent very briefly around 7am and we were only able to help a handful of men get shoes and a few shirts to keep warm but after 10 minutes the doors were closed again. The women’s and children’s clothing tent was very organized thanks to our overnight sorting efforts, but we knew it wouldn’t last long, and we didn’t stick around as the morning shift volunteers jumped right in while the first arrivals of the morning began to come around. The small sense of accomplishment I felt (I cannot speak for Brice and Katie), as we walked away leaving Oxy in a better condition than it was when we arrived (even if only for a few hours) was still very fulfilling. You don’t need to be a superhero to volunteer, sometimes the most meaningful tasks are the most tedious, and that was what I took away from day 3. Bless you, sandwich makers, clothes sorters, food and bus ticket makers, translators, toilet scrubbers, trash picker-uppers, socializers, sympathizers and everyone in between and beyond. Working in the clothing tent at Oxy was just as vital an experience as helping people off the boats on the beach. Every little job counts, every little volunteer counts. Everyone can make a difference individually and collectively, everyone and anyone. As exhausted as I was, eating breakfast on the way home to get some rest from day 3, I couldn’t wait to wake up and get back to Oxy to see what the rest of day 4 had in store for us.

Lesvos in the News, October 30th 2015

LESVOS DAY 2: Thursday October 29th, 2015

Brice, Katie and I woke up somewhat early on Thursday and we headed straight for the beach to greet and help incoming boats. What a day! My friends who had volunteered a few weeks before had described their experience on Lesvos as “boat after boat after boat” and they weren’t kidding. Although I heard it was a somewhat “slow” day, there were many boats that came in. We helped many people to shore, to safety. I didn’t know what to expect really, but I found it interesting how each boat had a different tone about them.

We could tell which groups had a traumatic experience and the boats that had a lot of elderly or small children aboard were definitely more grave than the boats with mostly young adults. For example, the first group to arrive was terrified with screaming crying children & women. And then we had other boats full of people cheering & taking selfies with us as we pulled them ashore. They must have asked 100 times if we were in Greece, just total disbelief and relief they made it. They still have a long journey ahead… Everyone on every boat was wet, to be expected. And almost every group reported engine troubles, even the ones who made it to shore without assistance from the rescue teams on the beaches. It was crazy to me how close Turkey was, my Turkish sim card worked in my phone on the beach. We could see the coast and we could almost see the boats as they departed those coasts (even without binoculars). We were told, just look for the orange life vests! As we waved people to shore with left over life vests and lit black inner tubes on fire to create smoke to lead them to a landing point, more and more boats came into our vision. My heart raced for every boat I saw, but I knew they would make it to safety. All but one of the boats that we greeted were smaller rubber dinghies built for approximately 15-20 people. Most of them had 20+ people aboard. All of them had motors and people waiting on shore to take the motors rather than help the people inside the boat reach safety. The beaches were COVERED in life jackets.

Once ashore, we helped everyone change clothes or get warm if possible, and then we sent them on their walking journey to the nearest bus stop to be transported to either Oxy or one of the camps (Moria- mostly for non-Syrian nationals, and Karatepe- mainly for Syrian nationals). I was amazed to hear stories of refugees using GPS to guide them on their journey but then be utterly clueless as to where they had found shore. Perhaps they were just in shock; one man told Katie after she confirmed where they were, “I love Greece”. Unfortunately this was just the beginning of a very long journey ahead. Volunteering on the beaches was very emotional and included a LOT of clean-up. I wonder where in the world they take all of those life-jackets, thousands and thousands of life-jackets.

There was one very rocky landing in particular where I carried a grandmother to shore, she was covered in vomit. It took every ounce of brain power to not drop her as I was silently gagging. The things they go through for this trip, the stories are unreal. A lot of people were on a large wooden boat today; they said their Turkish captain jumped out of the boat & left with his buddy in another boat the SECOND they crossed Turkish into Greek waters. Nobody knew how to drive the boat, but they somehow zigzagged to our volunteers waiving them down on our shores; can you imagine, what would you do!? We helped a family today (pictured above) & they were by far my favorite people we helped all day, especially the youngest little girl who kept coming in for smiles, hugs, and high fives.

After 5 hours at the beach & a massive life vest beach cleanup among other volunteers and a small presence of media and photographers, we switched gears & went down to the Harbour (where we had worked last night) & spent the rest of the day there (5 more hours) organizing donations in the dark & getting coastguard rescues into dry clean clothes. It was a very busy, physically tasking, long day, but so fulfilling. Today, the volunteer team received 10,000 thermal sleeping bags for the camps ABSOLUTELY AMAZING & people definitely slept a little better that night. The numbers of deaths & missing persons were very wrong in the news reported on the shipwreck from yesterday (low). Actually there is no way of knowing/accounting for all of the people who make the trip by sea because there is no real count when they send them off on the raft; the traffickers don’t care about anything but the money. We heard a lot of stories of people being forced on boats at gunpoint. They are selling unrealistic dreams to people & then shoving them in an undersized, overcrowded dinghie & slamming the door shut behind them, so to speak.

It was amazing to check in online at the end of the day, exhausted, to find many more donations and words of encouragement; but sadly, it was still not enough. We ran out of shoes, socks, hats, and jackets again today but the situation was a bit calmer than last night over all. Tonight I go to bed fully exhausted with a beaming heart. We are here giving everything we can until Monday. Tomorrow I hear there is an official inspection of one of the refugee camps to assess conditions, lets cross our fingers they recognize the gaps & attempt to help & fix them with a legitimate plan of action…

Lesvos in the News: October 29, 2015

A beautiful video & accurate portrayal of a day in the life of a volunteer here, by the Al Imdaad Foundation *Please note, this is NOT my video, I just wanted to give you guys a better visual:)

October 28th, Lesvos Day 1

As I have written a “Before” piece on my experience volunteering in Lesvos, Greece for the refugee crisis; I have decided to post an individual day by day account as well (some details were already posted on my facebook, but a lot were not) so as to contribute to giving a better overall picture and summary of my experience in my “After” piece (which you will see as a separate, concluding post at the end of my 5 day series), that will not be so focused on all the fine details I care to share with you in these day by day postings. To me, every experience was important. But perhaps it will be more useful to someone who is looking for specifics (perhaps a potential volunteer, it’s OK to just be curious too!) to read about what my daily experience was like. Whereas those of you who cannot physically come to volunteer in person, an overall summary of my experience might be more useful to you and hopefully provide a better idea of what is being done currently, what needs to be done, and how you can help. Either way at the end of the day, this format made the most sense to me for purposes of documenting my experience, so read on…

LESVOS DAY 1: Wednesday October 28th, 2015

My first day in Lesvos I was scared. I felt an overwhelming sense of impending doom in presence on the island. It also felt incredibly calm before I made my way to the camps and the points of entry. I was feeling confident in my efforts, having launched an online fundraiser in hopes of buying some supplies on the ground. My new French friend Brice, whom I hosted as a couch surfer in Istanbul weeks before, greeted me at the airport; he had been on the island for a few weeks before me. Brice had already been volunteering in the camps and on the beaches so I was relying on him for the “inside scoop” but nothing could have prepared me for the experience. We met our rental car at the airport and started our day with a much needed nap; I did not sleep the night before due to my overnight layover in the Athens airport and we knew we had to pick up our other friend Katie at the airport later that day. The action did not start for us until later that night.

When we returned to our hotel in Molyvos later from the airport in Mythilini (about an hour drive north), the employees at the hotel informed us of an earlier SOS for all volunteers to go to the Molyvos harbor, a short distance away from where we were staying. A double decker boat had capsized, leaving 300 people in the sea to be rescued. It was dark at this time and I actually considered not going because it seemed for a moment that maybe everyone had reported and everything was under control. But Katie pushed to go and so go we did. I’m so glad we did. When we arrived to the harbor there were hundreds of people everywhere. News teams, cameras, lights, life jackets, clothes, volunteers, refugees, locals, medical teams giving assistance, translators; it was complete chaos and far from under control. The first thing we walked up on was a shivering, wet man being interviewed under bright camera lights. He was crying, and talking about bodies floating everywhere around him. I will never forget his face.

Since it was so chaotic, there wasn’t really time to ask what to do or where to go so we just jumped right into the ginormous pile of donated clothes and started helping people get out of their wet clothes and finding dry, clean clothes, preferably to their size. This was extremely difficult in the dark but we managed. To be honest, I think I was in shock at how gravely I underestimated the situation, and for that reason I think my few hours of help there that night are somewhat of a blur. “What do you need?” and “Are you ok?” was lost in language barriers and my miming skills came in extremely handy while helping people pick out clothes. Some people seemed to think it was a yard sale, “shopping” for an entire wardrobe. It broke my heart to be stern with them in denying them assistance because their clothes were “dry enough” and they didn’t seem physically injured. There just weren’t enough donations to give out “just because”.  It was the quiet ones we were told to worry about. The ones who were in shock and didn’t even realize they needed to change out of their wet clothes because of the trauma they had just been through. I was briefly informed at the beginning of our time there that this boat was the biggest tragedy the island had seen thus far and that is when reality of the situation set in. Initially the number of deaths reported was under 10. This happened on Wednesday, by the end of the weekend it was confirmed that 47 people died from that boat capsize alone. And this was not the only boat to capsize that day. Nor was it the first, and throughout the weekend, it certainly was not the last. I was told the two story boat was built for approximately 125 people and since it was holding about three times the accommodating weight, the top deck collapsed onto the bottom half, sinking the vessel immediately. Many of the survivors were in the water for 5 hours before being rescued by the coast guard. This is also when I learned about the business of faulty life jackets being sold on the coasts of Turkey, they actually retain water resulting in a faster sink.

As we wrapped up our hectic night at the harbor in Molyvos, there were still many refugees there who would stay the night in make-shift tents or cardboard boxes because there simply wasn’t enough transportation or room in the camps to take them in. Normally the refugees are bussed to the nearest transit stop, Oxy (named for the nearest building which just happens to be a nightclub closed for the season). And from Oxy, or the police station (everyone rescued by the coastguard is technically under arrest upon arrival), they are taken to one of the camps to be registered so they can take their papers to seek asylum in a further European country. Thousands of refugees slept out in the cold that night, thousands more than normal. We met so many people from so many different countries. There was one older man who spoke Turkish (maybe mid 40s) that I got to practice my broken Turkish with. He just would not take no for an answer when it came to multiple outfit changes. He was the only one to make me smile that night as he set up his bed in the middle of our clean-up operation and started snoring abruptly, his hairy belly hanging out. As we jumped over him going to and fro, Katie and I decided to wrap him up in whatever we could find and left him a very warm, as comfortable as you can be man, wrapped in foil thermal blankets with rocks on all sides to keep the wind from blowing the sides up, talking in his sleep and waking himself with his own sounds. I am fully convinced he was perfectly content and it was just one tiny victory but we really needed it that night.

There was one family in particular we tucked in at the end of the night (about 2am). The children jumped into an oversized box, the women and children found a tent, and we helped the men make make-shift “beds” out of yoga mats, towels, blankets, and boxes to shield their heads from the cold breeze coming off the water. This was the coldest night in every sense of the word. We did everything we could and they were so grateful but my heart sank as we walked back to our car knowing that we were going to sleep in comfortable beds in a warm room and they were sleeping on the cold hard ground. Welcome to Europe. At this point I still had no idea of the journey they would need to endure in the next days or weeks. But they made it to shore, and that was good enough for them for that night. With a broken heart and a heavy soul, Brice, Katie, and I headed back to Hotel Akti; now fully prepared for the weekend ahead.

October 28th, 2015, Lesvos in the News

Artwork by Sheba Gray

BEFORE LESVOS: Part 1 of 2

Written on Sunday, October 26th, 6:01am (Turkish Time, since they delayed DST until Nov 8th after the Nov 1st Election)



I don’t know much about the refugee crisis in Syria, but being from the US, I know that I am more informed than many of the people in my life (particularly back home). I moved to Turkey on January 19th of this year, on a whim. I actually didn’t know that I would live here when I came here… I just came to get my CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults). The plan of the universe has filled my life with joy, culture, travel, and professional development in a new career (just to name a few). I have been so comfortable being out of my comfort zone that rarely anything phases me anymore. Except for going to Lesvos, Greece, in two days to take a firsthand look at the Syrian refugee crisis and hopefully lend a hand and spread some warmth, and smiles.

My good friend and brief ex-roommate Fateh inspired me to write this “before” piece. He is from Syria. I met him and Yahia as my roommates a few months ago, and they are two of the sweetest, most respectful guys I have ever met. They are both in their mid-twenties, university students. They told me about their lives in Syria pre-war. They told me how beautiful Syria used to be. They told me about disaster and heartbreak, real heartbreak. They told me and showed me pictures of how the government has and still is killing its’ own innocent citizens. Not once did they ever say or even sound like “poor me” victims. Everything they told me was in a very matter-of-fact manner. They left Syria with their families over two and a half years ago, but they know people that are still there, suffering. And I feel that they are at a loss for words when confronted with the idea of “home”.

I met Mohammed at International Training Institute in 4 Levent (Istanbul). We took our CELTA course together and even though English is his second language, I believe he got a better grade than me in the course! Mohammed, Fateh, and Yahia are selfless. They give so much to the world and they have given me more than they will ever know, they still do. Mohammed just went to IKEA with me yesterday and helped me shop for furniture for my apartment out of the kindness of his heart (and maybe a little boredom of his day). Really! We had a nice talk on the M2 line on the way back about karma and bonded over the idea that the more we give to the world, so the more the world gives to us. We agreed it is a universal truth and if everyone had the same outlook, the world would be a much better place.

About Syria. I know that Syria is a small country that borders Turkey. When I read about Syria in the news, it sounds like such a large country because the news focuses so much on the war that is going on there and when I think about war, I think large scale. To me, war translates to “large fight”. I think big weapons, big armies, big egos, lots of violence, and I always forget about the innocent civilians. These are the first thoughts that come to mind. But there is so much more to war than the action of it. I believe that most of the pain comes in the aftermath actually. For an often complex situation, I believe it can be generally simplified into “it’s not the fall that defines you, but how you rise up”. Even though conditions are worse than anyone could have prepared for, I believe Syria could be a great country again. Maybe I am being naïve though, since I just heard yesterday that they are beginning to teach Russian in the schools that are still standing. Why do Syrians need to learn Russian?

As I sit here listening to the morning prayer call, I think about the idea of God. I think about my conception of the idea of God and I try to understand the Islamic faith a little more each day. I definitely appreciate it more with each passing prayer call. I used to get annoyed by the prayer call but a good fellow American friend also living in Istanbul once said that he stopped fighting the prayer call and chose to use the five times a day to reflect on what he was grateful for that day. Every Syrian I have met so far in Turkey seems to somehow still muster up gratitude, through each passing day, through each passing picture, through each painful thought, through each joyful memory, through each slap of reality to the face, the “refugees” I know, they are walking through it with gratitude and faith. It is truly something to be admired and I feel blessed to be witness to this courage and strength.

What is it like to be a refugee? I see people begging on the street in Istanbul every day. I don’t know if they are refugees but if I had to guess, I would say that a majority of them are. They are speaking Arabic, which often means they are refugees if they are on the street, or so I’ve been told. I want to help all of them but I don’t know how. Is it an everyday effort? Do they each need just one big break? Can giving my leftover meal to someone save them? I believe it can get them through the day and I believe that can be enough. I live my life one day at a time, sometimes one decision at a time, only I do not have the pressures of succeeding in a failing government system, or the responsibility of providing for children or family members who can’t provide for themselves.

Fateh, Yahia, and Mohammed can be considered refugees but they are not living on the street. Two of them are university students in Cyprus and Mohammed is a full time teacher here in Istanbul. They tell me about their difficulties in what are fairly easy tasks for non-Syrians or Turks. Landlords won’t rent to them. Employers won’t hire them. They cannot obtain a work permit, nor can they legally sign a lease agreement. This leaves them with little options for income- work under the table, which I do myself (except they are often exploited by employers). And they already have a lot to worry about with their families, friends, and loved ones, and country being demolished. I know demolished is a strong word but it is so appropriate for the stories they told me about the government loading oversized oil bins with explosives and dropping them on villages, cities, and towns, unannounced; regularly. Demolished. Destroyed. Death.

There are other refugees I hear about on the news and they are boarding boats in the middle of the night to sail to other countries to seek refuge in Europe, anywhere but Syria for now. I read about them in the many Facebook groups I follow. I see pictures of them and I wonder if they even know their picture has been taken. I heard most of them want their story shared, because nobody seems to care about what is happening to them until very recently. The international world has become numb to the news of war in Syria but everyone is forgetting that every person has a name and a story. Just because they might not have proper papers to explain themselves doesn’t mean they don’t have a voice. Just because there are hundreds of thousands of refugees doesn’t mean they aren’t each individuals. Humanity and society as a whole is failing the Syrians. They have been crying out to us for years. The war in Syria is not new and the European government, particularly Turkey and Greece, have been so distracted with other self-created problems, that they have completely overlooked the suffering that is happening on the ground and in the sea as these individuals are fleeing for safety.

SOS, chaos, and outrage have ensued from the sliver of footage and insight being shared with the world on the situation happening in Lesvos. How is there such an information gap? People are DYING EVERY DAY because boats are capsizing, and when they do make it to shore they wait in line for DAYS to get registered so they can continue on their journey to seeking asylum somewhere in Europe- last week in the cold pouring rain with no shelter option and limited supplies. There are volunteers on Lesvos but not enough. There are donations on Lesvos, but not enough. The donations they do have it seems there is not enough people to organize and hand everything out without causing riots. I read that 27,000… yes, TWENTY-SEVEN THOUSAND refugees have arrived on Lesvos in the last 6 days. My friends that just finished volunteering there just described their volunteer experience as “boat after boat after boat coming in”.

It sounds like the local Greeks are accepting for the most part, but I don’t think they have a choice. Syrians are literally risking their lives just to live. They are escaping because they have no choice. They may be in transit but for the most part they have nowhere to go. They are lost. There are many people who are now raising money to help buy supplies and fund medical attention to the “hot spots” where refugees are suffering the most. I just do not understand how in 2015 babies are dying on the beach IN EUROPE from weather conditions because their mother left the registration line to get food and lost their place leaving them in the cold rain for longer periods of time. How are these people being treated like animals by the police? What makes the men less important than the women and why is it so bad we have to separate them by nationality to declare one is more important than the other on the food chain of survival?

I hope I can shed some light on this very important and urgent crisis for my friends back home in America. I don’t think they have a clue about what is going on here. I will take pictures. I will get stories. And I will raise money. I will give as much as I can to these innocent people. Their current options are inhumane and if we don’t stand up for them we will fall for the government’s excuses as to why this is all happening. Syria is not a big country. We can stop this war anytime, US has the manpower. We can rebuild Syria, we really can. We can make Syria a home again for its citizens. But we have to work together and keep the egos out. People need to show up selflessly and let the universe guide them rather than the laws. We can change the situation and we can provide strength and inspiration to those who have lost it at sea.

I will write a book about this for National Novel Writing Month in November. I want to highlight the different perspectives and experiences. I want to honor the Syrians and let them know that they are not alone and that we CARE. I want them to know that pain is temporary and walk them through the process in any way that I can. I want to rejoice with them when they get their country back. I want to help them rebuild their country and their faith in humanity, because if I were them I would be doubting my faith in humanity, God, Allah, the Spirit of the Universe, whatever you want to call it if you are willing to believe… I want to be present so I can hear guidance through their stories and turn what inspiring words they do have back on them to provide motivation for a brighter future. I hope if you are reading this, you will join me in this journey.

***These are all the thoughts I had going into this experience. I will certainly write a follow up piece, appropriately “After” . Feel free to share your thoughts, what do you know about the refugee crisis? How do you stay informed? Is there anything that I can do to help you help or any questions you have for me that does not include comments about my experience volunteering with the refugees in Lesvos (which will be described in detail in the follow up piece)?

Before & After

Before & After

What if this was your home?

What if this was your home?

These are some numbers updated by aid agencies in October. Check out a larger version here: http://reliefweb.int/map/world/refugee-crisis-sea-arrivals-western-balkan-route-north-europe-countries-updates-echo-daily

These are some numbers updated by aid agencies in October. Check out a larger version here.

4,290,332 Syrian Refugees have fled their country. 51% of of them are under 17 years old.

Here are the most up to date numbers from UNHCR: UNHCR Refugees in Numbers

Thank you for reading, stay tuned…

PB&L: About the Domain Name

Those of you who know me know that I love to write, and I write a LOT. Something you don’t know about me is that I carry peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with me on a daily basis so that I have something to give to people I see struggling on the street. Have you ever walked by a homeless person begging and thought, “I don’t want to give them money because I don’t know where it’s going… I wish I had something to give to them!” Well I am not suggesting that we never give money to people (neither am I suggesting we SHOULD give money to people on the street). However, what has transpired from giving sandwiches out is beyond my comprehension. I am fully aware that not everyone likes peanut butter, not everyone likes jelly, not everyone likes sandwiches. BUT I AM fully aware that the notion of giving is not lost in the food preferences of those who are graciously receiving; at least not in my experience. What giving out sandwiches has done for me has welcomed conversation (even if only in body language), allowed for natural human connection, brings a sense of fulfillment & purpose, and supersedes all language barriers. You see for me in this situation sandwiches are synonymous with love, and I think we can all agree that the world could use more love. It costs me the equivalent of $5 per week to make 21 sandwiches and sometimes I eat one if I don’t run into anyone on the street (added bonus for me!). It takes me under 20 seconds to make each sandwich, in fact; it has become a part of my routine like filling my water bottle on my break between work and class. I just always have a sandwich on me.

A sandwich a day represents the idea of paying it forward for me. I am a firm believer that we receive what we put out and my incredible life full of joy, love, and human connection is valid proof of that. So you are busy. So you are worried. So you are stressed out. So you have problems. There is always someone out there struggling more than YOU. But the attitude I hope to exude with my “a sandwich a day” mentality is that no matter OUR circumstances, we can always help someone else, always. A sandwich a day may not end world hunger or bring about world peace, but the idea is that we all play a part in this world and I hope that my efforts will encourage even one more person to do more to help ease the suffering of anyone who is in unfortunate circumstances for whatever their reason. I am not part of any particular organization, just humanity. I want us all to “win”, and I think that only happens if we “win” together. Remember, pain and suffering are temporary. Can you think of one reason NOT to give a sandwich to someone who needs it?

A blog in the making…

Dear family, friends, and friends of family and friends,

I am Amber, but most people call me Bam! I love to read. I love to write. I love to love. I have lived an incredible life thus far and the purpose of this blog is to share my life with all of you. Besides getting all of my thoughts and experiences down on paper (electronically), I hope to make you laugh, make you think, make you act, and to inspire you. I hope one day you read one of my posts and you don’t feel alone in your thinking. I hope you can live vicariously through me. I hope we can learn from each other. I hope you don’t mind if I test different writing techniques out on you. I hope I don’t bore you, but I probably will at some point. Maybe I am boring you right now. You do not bore me, for you are why I am taking time and energy to write everything down, for you (and a little bit for me too). I hope I provoke thought. I know we will find new ideas together. I am writing this blog so that we can go through this thing called life, together.

From these blog posts you can expect storytelling, news reporting, videos, pictures, emotions, ideas, poetry, song lyrics, and lots and lots of words. Please share any feedback you have and whenever I do include links, please click on them; I spent the time to hyperlink for a reason. I love you.