After… from Lesvos to Turkey

I don’t know what to say, I’ve had writer’s block for months. Since I haven’t been writing, I have been acting.

I know a lot more about the war in Syria than I did when I wrote my “before” piece, but I would rather write about the solutions I’m taking part in. My experience in Lesvos was life changing, most definitely. I cried every single night after I got back from Lesvos last November. What has ensued is beyond my comprehension. I was heartbroken and unequivocally inspired by my experiences. I have moved on from heartbreak and continue to be inspired in Istanbul.

They are not all Syrian, the “refugees”. If you have read the news, you would know this by now. However, I was very surprised when I was volunteering in Lesvos, to meet people fleeing other countries by the masses. As you may have seen or read about on the news, this has caused quite an upset throughout Europe as countries continue to change their border policies in deciding who can and can’t come in based on the asylum seeker’s nationality. This is no longer interesting, rather it is extremely frustrating and tense. If only there were a better system…

I would like to take a moment to highlight something from my Lesvos experience, which is the individual efforts of humanitarians from around the world who responded to a real and urgent humanitarian crisis. I only volunteered in Lesvos for 5 days and it is so very apparent for me that I cannot express enough that I think that we can do so much better to aid the refugees arriving in Lesvos and all the other “hot spots” in Turkey, Europe, and the Greek islands. Wow, just, wow. By “we can do so much better” I DO NOT mean the volunteers and all the people who have already dropped everything and put efforts forth in helping the situation (volunteers on the ground, those coordinating efforts and funds from afar, etc). Much love to all of you ANGELS, SAINTS, picking up trash, used diapers, water bottles of piss, left over life jackets and dirty thermal blankets from the roads, scrubbing toilets, swimming out to make sure there’s nothing floating underneath a rogue life-vest, getting your feet wet, working 16+ hours per day, making endless amounts of sandwiches, playing taxi, reconnecting families, being the bearer of often horrible or bad news, pulling all-nighters in the cold, and basically setting aside all of your own needs to be of service to everyone else who so direly needs it. Seriously, bless all of you.

There are still many refugees taking the dangerous journey from Turkey to Greece by boat every day. Yes, they are welcome in Turkey; BUT life in Turkey is hard, even for Turkish people. Until very recently, Syrians were not allowed to apply for work permits which means they couldn’t legally work in Turkey. This policy has changed, but there are no jobs. There are over 2 million registered refugees in Turkey alone, (many are still not even registered), and the job market was very competitive before the war and before the new influx of people into Turkey.

There are so many problems with current systems and lack thereof it can be hard to grasp or even approach problem solving. The biggest problems I have personally seen is an overwhelmingly large gap of information: what rights does an asylum seeker have once they leave their country? once they have information, how can they move forward in a life where they are seemingly stuck? It has become a personal mission of mine to actively participate in the solution(s) to these problems.

I am currently involved in a variety of projects in Istanbul, aimed at getting children enrolled back in school, providing social support, integrating displaced persons into life in Turkey, attending to immediate needs, directing volunteers where needed, creating and renovating schools/homes/spaces to build and bring together communities, literacy classes to bridge language gaps, skills trainings, and well, just trying to empower and give strength and protection to people who need help. I still give food out on a daily basis, it’s not always a sandwich, but it’s usually a hearty meal for the day. I am telling you this because if you are reading this, I am asking for your help. My friends and I can’t do it alone. We need funding. We need to keep the conversation going. We need to make sure that just because Turkey is “keeping” the refugees, it doesn’t mean Turkey is taking care of all of them; because they aren’t.

You will see a lot of updates from me regarding the efforts I’m involved in. If you really want to help, you can help, even if you don’t think you can, I am telling you that you can. Volunteers are needed in Turkey. We need items for community centers I volunteer with (school/classroom/office supplies). We need money to build and renovate homes and buildings so the kids have food to eat and clean water to drink. Yes, this is a developed country. Yes, I’m aware there are greater needs in the world. But this is my immediate cause, therefore I am focused on this disaster for now. We could use help with website design, picture editing, contract writing, grant writing, and many other things that can be done from afar. We’re taking donations of food, clothing, and housing needs. We want to build and we want to help the refugees help themselves in the end by providing safe places that they can call home no matter how little or long they decide or are able to stay.

IF nothing else, you can freely share the content that I share openly with you. When I did my fundraiser to help the refugees in Lesvos, $1500 was raised in 4 DAYS. That was because my AMAZING friends and family not only donated, but were moved by the cause and shared my content and stories and their friends and families were moved. I was blown away by the connections I made with people I had never met who donated to that cause, so I am hoping to achieve the same outreach success through my current and ongoing efforts.

I will list fundraising links at the bottom of this post for anyone who wants to donate to our current projects or help spread the word and thank you from the bottom of my heart for doing so:)

The most important thing I have learned in this process, is that everyone is in a position to help someone else. We can do more. Wherever you are, whatever your situation, make a decision each day to be better than you were the day before. Look for similarities rather than differences. Recognize that everyone is human. If you aren’t already, get involved in your community. Think about the information you share through spoken word or social media, is it true? positive? negative? necessary? thought provoking? how would you respond to yourself?. Never stop asking questions. Advocate for and make a point to protect people that are more vulnerable than you. Work toward including those people in your community. Learn about other cultures. Be good to yourself so you can be good to others.

Fateh, Yahia, and Mohammed are all doing good. Fateh and Yahia are finishing their degrees in Cyprus and Mohammed is teaching English in Istanbul. Mohammed has become my personal translator as I communicate with people on the streets of Istanbul that I pass by every day. I call him every time I want to speak to someone on the street who only speaks Arabic to find out if they need more than just a hot meal for the day. He picks up his phone 100% of the time and always encourages me to call him for this purpose any time of day or night. By the way, we have helped some people with some serious medical issues get the help they need, just by getting over the language barrier. Fateh will finish school and return to Istanbul this summer. He is excited to get involved with our volunteer projects.

So, how can you help me help people? These are three groups I am affiliated with, please share the information freely, and donate if you can. I can say for 2 out of the 3 organizations that there are absolutely no overhead costs because they are not registered NGOs, rather they are community projects. I will not get into the bureaucracy of what it takes to register as an NGO in Turkey, but I will say that the two community projects are just kicking off as organized groups (as opposed to individual efforts) and as the needs and projects increase, plan to register if needed. For now, 100% of the funds will go directly to the people who need it the most, and we would like to keep it that way:

YUSRA– This is a community center that my friends and I are opening this month which will cater to about 300 neighborhood children (many of them are not enrolled in school), plus their families who have all been displaced by the war. We saw the need for a space for donation collection and distribution in the neighborhood of Balat, Istanbul (where many Syrian families are living in very bad conditions). After months of going to Balat on the weekends and meeting all of the families and catering to basic needs and a few extra special medical cases, we found a space to operate out of and plan to provide everything from food, to kids programs, to basic needs donations, to literacy classes, skills trainings, refugee resources, and community events. We have paid for the space for 1 year and currently the landlord and his team are fixing the place up for us to move in and open the doors in the next week. We need many things for this project, especially classroom materials (white board, notebooks, art supplies, books, projector & screen, etc). We are also looking for assistance with the monthly bills which will be somewhere around 200TL per month ($70 USD/Month). This is the most immediate project I would prefer anyone who is able to donate, please donate to YUSRA’s cause HERE. By the way, YUSRA means “ease” in Arabic:)

TURKEY VOLUNTEERS– This is a community effort that covers all of Turkey, with many projects based in Istanbul. Our team is currently working with local Syrian schools and medical professionals to assess needs and develop and fund projects. We also coordinate volunteers from all over the world and will work with other groups to funnel volunteers where they are needed most. I am blown away by the response we have received after launching our website last week. You can view our website and find out more information about our group, participating partners, efforts, and view a comprehensive list of all organizations helping refugees in Turkey (at least that we know of) HERE.

SMALL PROJECTS ISTANBUL– This is an officially registered NGO located in the Fatih district of Istanbul. I have been participating in their weekly Sunday night activity group and providing help to students displaced by the war who are studying for English proficiency exams as they prepare to apply for university abroad. They have many great programs including language classes, kids classes, skills classes, and they also partner with other organizations to provide resources to persons displaced by the war. You can read more about their incredible organization HERE.

So, that’s it for now (short and sweet, right?). If you made it this far, THANK YOU for your time. THANK YOU for caring enough to read this all the way through. THANK YOU for sharing. THANK YOU for donating. THANK YOU for your continued support. I promise to write more often from now on, and I promise to keep it short and sweet… maybe.

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:

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…