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To understand how the atrocities of the Holocaust could happen, Yale social-psychologist, Stanley Milgram set up his now famous Shock Experiment in 1963.  At the direction of an authority figure in a white lab coat, male volunteers from the Greater New Haven and Bridgeport areas delivered what they thought were real electric shocks with increasing strength whenever a confederate answered a question wrong.  The shock board was labeled from 15v (Slight Shock) to 315v (Extremely Intense Shock!) all the way up to 450v (XXX).

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Stanley Milgram’s Shock Generator. [abc.net.au]

Ringing true with the common defense at the post-war Nuremburg Trials of “just following orders,” Milgram’s results showed a stunning obedience to authority that helped drive the evil of pain infliction.  About two thirds of participants delivered what they believed to be 450v shocks even after the person on the other side of the wall had screamed in agony, complained of a heart condition, and ultimately fell completely silent. Every participant went all the way up to administering a 300v shock.

My psychology advisor in college was Christina Taylor who was the last doctoral student of Stanley Milgram as he died of a heart attack just hours after she successfully defended her dissertation.  Interestingly, Milgram used the research of another psychologist to run his “Small World” experiment where the term “six degrees of separation” was coined.  As if miraculous forces of irony were at work, he graduated high school with arguably the other most famous social psychologist, Philip Zimbardo who is well known for his Stanford Prison Experiment. 

After showing how evil could rear its ugly head in part by people acting out certain schema expectations of roles, he has devoted much of his later career to explaining the root of evil and the psychology of heroism.  In what he calls the Lucifer Effect, after the once favored angel who according to Christian theology was cast from heaven and later became the devil, Zimbardo takes the stance that humans have the potential for good, but sometimes commit evil acts.

Throughout all his writings and talks, one of the most powerful statements Zimbardo makes on the wrongdoing of individuals is a reflection of his former classmate’s work: “Evil starts at 15 volts.”  As Milgram himself reflected, something like the Holocaust does not happen spontaneously because a crazed leader comes to power and everyone decides to all of a sudden carry out genocide.  It started small with racial slurs and jokes amongst friends.  It began with people spitting on the street when a Jewish person walked by and with the speed of a book burning fire, it grew into Kristallnacht, Star of David patches, and Ghettoes.

It is much easier to stop a problem in its infancy at its 15 volt stage before it has snowballed into a 300 volt shock.  Turning a blind eye to problems in their 15 volt stage is a disease that will be fatal to all of mankind.  You wouldn’t see a small stove-top fire in your own home and then walk away, saying you’ll deal with it later, yet that is exactly how we treat many social ills that compete for our attention. We turn a blind eye as they are a glowing ember while indifference and negligence stoke the flames to full blaze.

The antidote to evil according to Philip Zimbardo, is heroism.  While that may sound like a tall order, no one is suggesting we run out and don spandex suits to fight crime (you can do each independently of the other).  The psychology of heroism broken down is really quite simple; all that’s required to be a hero is action.

My earliest sticking memory of this lesson was in my ninth grade English class.  My phenomenal teacher, Denise Cannata used the theme “Evil prevails when good people do nothing” throughout an entire unit reading Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. Now that I am a teacher, it’s a quote I have used with hundreds of students across the globe to instill a sense of urgency and action in a growingly apathetic world.

The same sentiment expressed with more consumer appeal may ring a Pavlovian bell of awareness.  Ad executive, Allen Kay consolidated the citizen mandate of action into a catchy slogan he wrote on September 12, 2001.  The Department of Homeland Security now pays $2-$3 million each year to run it throughout all NYC transportation: “If you see something, say something.”

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This adaptation in Fairfax Co., VA is just one of many around the world now transmitting the same message of awareness and action. [fairfaxcounty.gov]

Take for instance the famous case study of Kitty Genovese, where in a brutal illustration of the bystander effect, it was originally reported that up to 38 witnesses heard her scream for help as she was stabbed repeatedly and raped while she lay dying outside her apartment in Queens in 1964.  Studies have shown that in this prolonged attack, her life may have been saved if the early witnesses took action.  They didn’t have to go down and fight off her assailant, but not a single one even called the police.

As Albert Einstein once said reflecting on the words of cellist, Pablo Casals, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do bad things, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” To turn a blind eye is the biggest tragedy of humanity.

Since I first watched Hotel Rwanda from the cozy insulation of my suburban-America bubble, one scene always stuck with me because of the painful truth it represents.  When main character, Paul Rusesabagina heard a camera crew finally caught footage of the genocidal violence annihilating the Tutsi minority, he said “I am glad you have shot this footage and that the world will see it.  It is the only way we have a chance that people might intervene.”  Jack, the camera man who rises from the room says, “Yeah and if no one intervenes, is it still a good thing to show?” Paul: “How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?” Jack: “I think if people see this footage they’ll say, ‘Oh my God that’s horrible,’ and then go on eating their dinners.”

A very small number of people may see that footage and run off immediately to a war-zone before they even process the dangers.  Others might talk about the situation with friends or donate money to a charitable campaign, which is all well and good.  What will only exacerbate the problems are those who put their heads in the sand and pretend there are no problems at all, the ones who go right back to eating their dinners.  As Dante’s words are recorded, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises, maintain their neutrality.”

I’m not advocating you dive into a two year Peace Corps commitment and run off to a remote African village to help build water filtration systems, although there is high demand there, so if that’s your thing, do it!  But don’t turn a blind eye to the problems all around you.  They may seem insurmountable and overwhelming to the point where you just want to retract into a cocoon of self-focus and live your own life, but the world needs more of you than that.  Give your attention to one kind pursuit and do it with joyful integrity.  You may not be able to do everything for everyone, but you can do something for someone.

Visit your elderly neighbor who has no one to talk with.  Cook dinner for your friend who is stressed.  Bake cookies and hand them out to people living on the streets.  Make cards for children in the hospital. Smile and greet that homeless person on the street like a human instead of an obstacle you have to walk around.  Start small with people you know and then expand to strangers as you can.  There are so many people around you in need of many of the things you might take for granted.  There is an opportunity every day to be a hero.

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Picture taken from a super successful fundraising campaign run in joint effort by IRC, Mercy Corps, and Save the Children to help alleviate the Ethiopian drought.

The first step we need to take is in being receptive to the problems around us.  In Season 1, Episode 1 of Stan Lee’s Who Wants to be a Superhero, where contestants competed to be immortalized by the famous comic, this principle was put to the test.  Setting up a challenge for caped crusaders to change into their superhero costume unseen and race to a checkpoint, a crying child was unsuspectedly wandering into their path.  The premise was simple: the worthy superheroes would stop and help this child even though they had tunnel visions of their own important tasks.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

That is something that Philip Zimbardo is now focused on with his Heroic Imagination Project (HIP).  Recognizing that heroism might seem like an out of reach concept reserved for a talented few individuals, the initiative strives to teach people that heroism is a mindset.  Anyone is capable of heroic actions, but the key lies in that last word: action.

While everyone can take part in simple actions like calling out a friend for a politically incorrect statement, or holding a door open for a parent holding groceries in one arm and a child in the other, it is that child who needs to see the hope of heroism.  In his TED talk, Zimbardo says, “We want kids to think, ‘I’m a hero in waiting, waiting for the right situation to come along, and I will act heroically.’”

In China, my high school students all have a flashbulb memory of a massive earthquake that hit Szechuan province in 2008.  Nine year old Lin Hao ran from the rubble that had collapsed killing many people in his school instantly.  Instead of continuing his escape from the danger, he turned around and helped two of his classmates struggling to free themselves.  When asked why he would do that, he responded by saying “I was the hall monitor.  It was my job to look after my classmates.”

Imagine what a beautiful world this would be if more of us had that mentality regarding all of mankind.

I paid for him to have a hot meal, it was my job to look after my fellow man.
I defended her from a bully, it was my job to look after my fellow man.
I listened to her grieve for hours, it was my job to look after my fellow man.
I gave him a place to stay, it was my job to look after my fellow man.

Try an experiment this week and keep that thought in your mind “It’s my job to look after my fellow man.”  See how it opens up your heart, see how it alters your worldview, see how it directs your every action.


For more information on cultivating heroism in yourself and others, check out the amazingly resourceful and scientific Heroic Imagination Project. for tips that range from common sense awareness to life changing action steps.

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This is the second of a two part series written by 3D animator Ramy Qudmany, who shares the excruciating details of his escape from Syria and quest to reach Germany.  For a better understanding of this piece, read Ramy’s Odyssey, Part I first. 


The fighting had already gotten intense enough where my family decided it was time to leave.  Before we could escape, however, things got worse.  Bombs were now falling on the area I called home and the company I had worked for was destroyed.  The electricity was cut off and so was the water, which we had to carry from outside of town to survive.

One day, my cousin was on the bus headed to work on a road leading the airport that both sides were fighting to control.  As the bus crossed the intersection, shooting started from both sides and a bullet hit my cousin in the neck and killed him.  When I heard the news, I couldn’t believe it, I thought it was a joke.  I couldn’t manage, I couldn’t handle it, I just started crying.  Every time I tried to talk to his mother and help her with her sadness, I would close the phone and start crying again.  That last time I talked to my cousin, he said “I will call you back, and we will talk again.”  Since that day I haven’t heard his voice and he’s just gone now.

My older and younger brother got out of Syria first.  They went to Germany so my younger brother could have surgery to fix his cleft pallet, which had been causing serious problems since childhood.  The doctors in Syria were not good enough to perform the operation, but Germany was a good place to be.  My parents and I had since crossed into Turkey and they filed paperwork for reunification with my brothers in Germany.  Since I was older than 18, I was told I would not be able to file for reunification with my brothers, but maybe there was a small chance for me to go if I waited for my family to get their papers verified first.  After waiting about a year, my parent’s request was granted and they moved to Germany.  I was alone.

The situation in Turkey turned out to be not much better than in Syria.  First, there were protests which started over the destruction of trees in a park to make a building.  They continued after a kid buying a piece of bread was killed.  Explosions started to happen from time to time in Istanbul, where I was living.

I started to think that the situation in Turkey would turn into what was happening in Syria.  I wanted to leave, but since I was over 18, I couldn’t be granted official family reunification.

Things got more difficult as time went on.  Turkey prohibits Syrians from working; we are strictly in the country as guests and not given the right to have a job.  We still need to support our families, pay rent and the other bills, but are not allowed to legally work.  If you go to work with a company in Turkey, you have to take the job without a contract, which every company then uses as an opportunity to take advantage of you.  Myself and many people I know were cheated out of months and years of pay, but since there is no contract, we can’t even sue them.

My family had sent news that my father’s declining health had gotten worse and he needed heart surgery immediately.  As the doctors said the chance of success was 20%, I felt myself lose my mind.  Being stuck so far away in Turkey which was getting worse and more dangerous, all I wanted to do was see my father and stay with him for as long as we have time for.

I tried to get to Europe the proper way by finding a job and getting sponsored for a visa.  Many companies saw my 3D animation work online and invited me to join their team.  However, once they found out I was Syrian, they said they could not get me a visa because of the current situation.

I decided to take my last option to reach my family, which meant first taking a boat to Greece.  What I didn’t expect was the horrible accident that almost left me dead, sinking in the sea.

I was with a group of 12 other people who I had met just the day before the trip.  We stayed in one house until late in the night when we could make our crossing.  I remember going to the living room seeing bodies sleeping all over the place.  A four year old, sweet little angel was sitting on the floor in the glow of the TV, bored by the news being broadcast.  I changed the channel to cartoons and I brought a soft blanket to keep her warm on the cold floor as I ruffled her hair before I went to sleep.

At about 1:00am, smugglers took us to the location where the fast boat would arrive to take us to a Greek Island.  When the boat arrived, it was something like 5 meters long, but the deal we made was for a large jetboat, so everyone thought this one would take us to another bigger one that was too big to get to this beach.  At the same time, the guy who was holding the life jackets before we were switched from one car to another told us he lost them on the way.  He said it would be no problem because the trip to Greece was just a safe 35 minutes away that many people before us made in the same way.

We got in the boat and as we started moving toward the Greek Island, we realized we weren’t going to a bigger boat, which everyone thought was okay since the sea was calm.  I was sitting in the middle on the left hand side; next to me was the family of that little girl I gave the blanket to.  The mother was sitting next to me holding her son and the husband was holding his daughter, both of the kids were still sleeping.

As the boat moved along with no problem, I noticed how amazing the stars were in the sky without any city light around.  When the boat got into Greek waters, the waves grew bigger and bigger with about 5cm of water splashing in the bottom of the boat.  I remember thinking what a long distance we had traveled from Turkey.  We were already one and a half hours from the coast and could not yet see Greece in the darkness.  What would happen if the boat flipped? I knew how to swim, but I knew I couldn’t swim that distance and I worried for the families and their children.  I hoped nothing would happen and we would arrive safely.

As the waves continued to grow, one hit the boat and lifted us halfway into the air as another one hit that knocked us upside down.  Without even having the chance to take a breath and prepare myself, I was under water.  Everything was dark and I felt something above my shoulder forcing me under, preventing me from reaching the surface.  I swam to the side to break free and got my head above water to hear everyone screaming for help.

The mother of two was floating shoulder to shoulder with her husband far on the other side of the flipped boat, screaming, “My two children are still under the boat!”  The boat was half sinking with only the front part floating above the water.  I held onto the corner of the boat and tried to swipe my other hand underneath, searching for the children.  I moved my hand randomly through the water and grasped tightly when I caught something.  It was the little four year old girl I had grabbed.  She wasn’t moving, but I thought she was still alive, just unconscious. I pulled her into me.

I reached down to take off my shoes because they were slowing down my leg movements to tread water.  The boat completely sank and people holding on to it to stay afloat were separated by big waves.  Something hit me that I thought was a floating plastic bag which I caught in my right hand.  It was the surprise of a lifetime: a life jacket.  I didn’t know where it came from as I knew we didn’t have any life jackets on the boat, but I kept it in my right hand and the little girl in my left.

I heard the screams of people this whole time, but we were too far apart to see each other.  I thought how pointless it would be to stay and scream for help since there were no boats or ships around us.  I decided to swim toward Greece.  I knew I could never make it that far, but I was trying to convince myself to be hopeful that maybe I would come across some fishing boats out early in the morning who would rescue us.

My movement seemed hopelessly slow as I was swimming by just using my legs since my hands were occupied and the waves kept crashing against me.  The screams for help became less and less as I started to feel scared of a shark of jellyfish attack.  I knew the sea was full of jellyfish, but I wasn’t sure about sharks.

After almost two hours, I got tired and almost gave up.  I thought about the little girl in my hand and knew I had to hold her up and stay alive for her.  However when the morning sun rose, I could see her face and lips were totally blue.  I was so broken-hearted and disappointed in myself that I wasn’t fast enough to pull her from under the boat.

I had failed this little angel and her mother whom I was so sorry for.  I couldn’t let her go even after I knew she was dead.  I felt like a disgusting human being and became overwhelmed in the moment with self-hate.  I thought if I was going to die here, I would prefer this little angel next to me so I didn’t have to die alone.

Every time I was trying to get a little rest and just keep floating, the waves would change direction and drag me back into the open sea making me lose hope that any boat would find me. I was trying to keep swimming, but every muscle in my body was hurting and my knees were in the most pain.

The water was cold and I fought the overwhelming urge to fall asleep, remembering that if you fall asleep in cold weather, you will die.  I kept moving my legs to warm up my blood and refused to surrender to sleep.  Even if I fell asleep for a second and woke up as I went underwater, I would lose the life jacket.

I struggled back and forth between life and death.  My body was so tired and in so much pain, I thought about just letting it sink.  I thought this was the end.  But the fear of choking on water in my lungs made me hold on to life.  I saw a small ship coming towards me that was close enough where I started screaming and using my legs to make splashes on the surface.  I thought he saw me as the ship appeared to stop a little bit, but then kept moving as I was swimming towards it.

“Maybe there is a law not allowing any ship to rescues sinking people” I thought to myself as I watched my last hope float away.  I had just used all my body power to signal this ship and again accepted my death.  As I was ready to let go, another ship came by that was close enough to see two guys standing on it.  I yelled to them with my throat hurting, but they didn’t see me.

No one was going to see me here.  My mind became filled with desperate questions.  “Why did this happen to me? Why? Why I should die like this? What have I done to the world to deserve this end? I had never hurt anyone in my life.  I was always trying to help people and wished happiness to everyone.  Is this how the world pays me back, for me to die like this?

Just then, I looked to my right and I saw a ship coming towards me.  One last time, I started to scream again and they waved to me that they saw me.  It was the rescue team, finally I was safe.  My misery ended immediately as finally this hell moment I was living, was over.  My feelings of happiness at that point were immeasurable.  Even when I knew I would be rescued, I started screaming.  I tried to calm down, but my feelings of happiness were immeasurable.

They threw me a rope that I had to let go of the life jacket to catch with my right hand.  They told me to lift the body of the little girl up to them, but my body was in too much pain to move my arm.  A man from the ship came halfway down the metal stairs to pull me aboard, telling me that the little girl was dead as he also pulled her aboard.

Three guys that were with me on the boat from Turkey were already on this military rescue ship.  Without life jackets, they continued swimming toward the island and were picked up by this ship 2km out.  The men told the ship’s crew about the others which they then went searching for.  When they rescued me, I was about 5-6km away from the island.

On the ship now headed to Greece, I saw another guy and his wife from our boat standing on the deck of the trading ship that rescued them.  They had two life jackets that they had bought themselves, but hadn’t been wearing when the boat flipped.  I later found out that the husband kept one of the jackets with him and threw the other to the nearest guy to him, which turned out to be me.

When they were in the water, they were both stung by jellyfish.  The man just got a little sting, but his wife had huge burns covering the whole of her chest.  She was suffering in pain and still bleeding from it two weeks after she was stung.  I used to go with them to the hospital many times during the day or the middle of the night to help translate from Arabic to English for the doctors.

In the end, seven people died, including the whole family of the little girl.  Three other men also died.  Only six survived.

Even now, I have flashbacks every night.  When I see the scar on my left arm where the clothes of the little angel scratched against my arm for eight hours in the water, I start crying.  I remember the voice of her mother screaming in my ears and feel heavy pain that I failed them.  I don’t know what I have done to the world to deserve all this pain in my life, but I just hope I have the chance to see my father in Germany before it’s too late.

Two days before I sat down to write this, I got a message that he was in the hospital and they discovered a cancer in his lungs.  Here I am stuck in Greece, desperate and heart-broken as his final days tick away in Germany.

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Leaning on the chai station barricade in 112 degree heat at Kara Tepe, Ramy endures the daily frustration of an unknown waiting period. August 9, 2016 [Photo Credit: Basil]

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Ramy Qudmany is a talented 28 year old 3D artist from Syria.  He helped master his skills by working with industry pioneers such as a talented animator for the film, Rio.  In speaking about the film Ice Age, he says Sid the sloth was his favorite character because of hilarious lines like, “If I die, find me a wife and tell her I was a good lover,” which he acts out with full dramatic effect. In 2015, Ramy won the Middle East Talent Award for his excellence in animation.

Since he arrived at Kara Tepe Refugee Camp in Lesvos, Greece some three weeks ago, we have become good friends, sharing meals and discussions on everything from Turkish dating customs to Japanese anime.  As I pieced together the painful details of how he got to this point, I was blown away by his overwhelmingly positive attitude, resilience, and continual focus on making others happy.

The following was written by Ramy himself in a sweltering, focus- driven 7 ½ hour typing session under a tarp beside the food trucks lining the entrance to Kara Tepe.  I provided only minor edits and English language consultation.  This is his story.

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Ramy Qudmany, portrait in an Ankara diner.


Five years ago, I was living back in Syria enjoying the perfect life before the war broke out.  I had achieved my dream of being a 3D animator for short movies in addition to making songs for kids and TV commercials. I used to work for a big company in the Middle East called NewBoy, who focused on toy development and had their own cartoon channel for children as well.

Work in this beautiful environment was fun, with toys scattered all around that I could use every day to get ideas for the next commercial.  As a member of the creative team tasked with generating new ideas, my favorite part was playing with children to understand what they like and how they think.  One time I was learning to use the yo-yo from my little brother and was practicing tricks and skills from him so I could make this commercial.  In the brainstorming meeting at work, everyone was talking about ideas while I was just making moves with this yo-yo. Everyone knew me for my sense of humor as I was the one in the company (and with my family) to play funny pranks.  They didn’t cause any harm, but they really made people laugh.

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Ramy, front row and center with friends at work.

When I started, I was the youngest employee in the company.  After five years there, I was promoted to animation supervisor which I was only able to do for two months before I left because of the war.  It was so cool that all of my relatives and children in the family were so happy to see me.  They would tell me how excited they were to see my works on TV and it felt really good that I could draw a smile on their faces.


One of the many impressive pieces Ramy worked on.

At the end of the workday, I would go to the gym and then hang out with my friends, or meet up with my girlfriend.  In my free time, my family and I liked to help those who were less fortunate than us, knowing that not everyone in the world had the same chances to live a good life.

I remember once, there was a woman who was going door-to-door and selling sauce, a very uncommon in the Arab world, especially for a woman  My father asked why she was working like this.  She said her husband had been badly injured and couldn’t work anymore of even move his legs.  We bought sauce, but also took her phone number to help her out later.

My friends and I were able to convince a doctor to help her husband for free.  My father and I brought furniture to fill her house and make it nice  My other friend found cooking work for her since she made a good sauce and had some skills in that area. We tried to help people when we could.  We imagined ourselves in their situation and knew that helping others would make the world bring good to us as well.  We were a point of hope for the hopeless.

The war in Syria had already broken out, but was not yet in my city of Damascus when I was walking home from work one day.  I was waiting in the street to meet up with my girlfriend for dinner in a restaurant.  After she had not shown up, I got a screaming call from her saying, “Ramy the sound of shooting is everywhere and the people are running afraid in the street. I got stuck here. It’s like judgment day has come.”

I told her that I would come to her and calm her down, but after we ended the call, I noticed there were no longer cars coming down the street.  Quickly, machine gun fire filled the air, but I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. One taxi came down the street, but he refused to take me to my girlfriend’s location.  When another appeared, I told him I would pay him whatever amount of money he wanted to take me to her.  Luckily, he was headed in that direction anyway, so he said that was no problem.

As we were driving, we got stopped at a checkpoint where we were asked for our ID cards.  I didn’t understand what was going on or what side these people were from since it was my first time getting stopped at a checkpoint; we didn’t have something like that before.

At the same time, my girlfriend called and said she managed to get back to her house safely which made me feel a bit of relief.  After the call ended, some people appeared in front of the check point and started shooting towards us.  I instantly ducked my head down behind the seats to avoid getting shot.  I screamed at the taxi driver, “What are you waiting for?! Get out of here!” The taxi driver said, “I’m waiting for our ID cards, they took them.”  I responded saying “Fuck the ID cards, just get us out of here!”

The guy at the checkpoint echoed the same opinion, telling the driver to get out of there.  He threw the ID cards to the taxi driver who reversed the car and drove away, only to be stopped again in 500 meters by a guy with a machine gun in the middle of the street.

The man with the machine gun approached us and said, “Stop!  Take this family with you out of here.”  A family that was hiding behind a building showed themselves.  The father passed his son through the window and onto my lap as he and his wife got into the back, she in tears.

The taxi drove away and I asked the father what the hell was going on.  He replied, “The army gave the order to evacuate because they are going to attack this area to fight the Revolution Army which had snuck in.” When I turned my attention back to the road, I noticed the driver was going directly toward the place where the sound of gunfire was coming from.  “What the hell are you doing?!? Why don’t you go in the other direction to a safe place?!!? Did you lose your mind?!”

“My house is over there and I need to check on my family,” the driver said, as people were running and screaming in the streets.  I was so afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get out of there and that would be the spot where I was killed.

The taxi finally made it to the main street, but had to wait before it crossed the intersection as heavy fire was being exchanged between the Syrian Army and the Revolution Army.  “What the fuck are you doing?!” I screamed.  “If you cross this street, we will get killed! Are you fucking crazy?!”

“I need to…and I will do it!” the driver yelled back as his vehicle inched forward.  We got lucky as we made it across the street without getting shot. As we moved up the street, people were running and screaming all around us.  What made me most scared was that the taxi was going to the place where the people were running from.

An Army helicopter swooped down over us and so close to the ground.  From my angle, I could see the Revolution group moving slowly behind a building, trying to hide from the helicopter.  I thought to myself, “Holy fuck, if the helicopter sees them, it will start firing toward us.”  The taxi moved away from that area and I asked the driver to stop and let me out.

I recognized this area because it was where I went to school as a kid. I started running towards the direction of my house as people asked me what was happening in the area I just came from.  “A fucking war has started,” I said as I ran for the safety of my house. I remember thinking at the time that this was the worst day of my life.

A few days later, the Army came to our street with tanks.  They stayed there day and night, but as the darkness set in, the sounds of shooting from the street erupted through the windows.  My family and I decided we had to leave before it got any worse.


While the world tries to crack the complex and volatile political background of the situation searching for a solution in Syria, millions of dollars of bombs continue to rain down on cities all across the country daily, destroying both homes and lives.  Fear of reprisal keeps many Syrians from publicly voicing their own political opinions, but it’s clear that every displaced Syrian resident I speak to just wants the opportunity to live their life.

In Part Two, Ramy tells of his horrific journey across European borders from a war-zone.

 

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The animation master in his happy place.

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This piece follows an earlier post about the struggle of getting proper clothing in Kara Tepe refugee camp.

After an alleged coup d’etat that failed to overthrow the government on July 15, a three month state of emergency was declared in Turkey, giving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan significantly more power in every day affairs.  Several measures were enacted including closing the border to academics trying to leave and detaining people at will; over 13,000 have already been arrested and many more dismissed from their jobs.  I use the term “alleged coup” because many think the coup was staged specifically so Erdogan could seize more power.

That night, as my mother and sister texted me telling me to cancel my plans for Turkey, President Erdogan sent a text message out to all citizens which Aysegul, a volunteer from the long-time Greek rival nation showed me and offered a rough translation of:

All Turkish people, in Istanbul and Ankara, the government is fighting against military vehicles.  A few people tried to behave like in the 70’s and they have taken our soldier’s vehicles and guns and they tried to kill you, the Turkish people.  This is not an attack on me, this is an attack on you.  Now you have to go out and defend yourselves.  If you don’t do this, they will think you are scared now.  So I am calling on you now to go out to the streets to defend yourselves and your country.

Imagine if everyone in the United States got a text message like that from Obama, requesting us to mobilize, insinuating we use violence to “defend” ourselves against an alleged threat that had already been quelled at that point.   Again, many believe this was a thinly veiled attempt to incite fear and panic to justify declaring a state of emergency.  The government officially vows this “will not affect civilians,” but media can now be censored and banned, curfews enforced, protests prohibited. People can be searched on a whim and while the world watches in anticipation of human rights abuses and the stripping of basic liberties as the leader tries to reinstate the death penalty, I decided it would be a good idea to go to Turkey to get inexpensive clothes for Kara Tepe residents.

No one I know who has spent any time in Turkey trusts their official leader whose crazed tactics conjure up images of Soviet era propaganda, but as the coup made Turkey’s currency devalue ever so slightly, my purchasing power had increased.  Inspired by the example of Eddie Mulholland who had made a supply run the night before the coup and joked about how he caused it, I set forth with two others to help stimulate the Turkish economy.  Janos from Switzerland handled the logistics of acquiring ferry tickets, researching departure times and location, bringing enough bags to carry our end of the day haul, and inventorying our purchasing needs.  Aurelie from France was our hired muscle, who in addition to carrying heavy bags, made sure we were safe and took amazing pictures along the way as she hunted down needed clothing with the skill of a bloodhound.

I said ‘Listen, 15 lira for each pair of shorts, but only if you get rid of Erdogan tomorrow.’ They said yes.  We shook hands and I left. -Eddie

On July 28, when our team got off the ferry at Ayvalik and passed through customs, the first sight we saw was a giant teleprompter with Erdogan giving a speech on repeat telling the citizens to restore order.  Next to the screen was a Turkish flag flapping in the wind.  The white crescent moon and star with a red backdrop could be seen in multiplicity on every government building and piece of public property throughout the city.  We were told this was a new drastic and noticeable change which even to an American seemed like an excessive display of flags.

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President Erdogan attempting to win the hearts and minds of his people.

Aysegul who had traveled a few hours north from her home in Izmir to help translate and negotiate the best price on clothing met us at the port.  Her ability to gleefully connect with everyone in the bazaar including the restaurant where we kept our bags was the keystone to a successful day of shopping.  She explained that everything we were seeing was post-coup patriotic facade and the once cheery and palpable energy felt across the city had been flattened.

After shaking off the eerie feeling of Jumbo-tron fascism, we followed the flow of Greek tourists from the ferry to the Turkish bazaar that apparently only runs on Thursdays.  People flock here from across the border to save mountains of money on their purchases of clothing, spices, electronics, and a whole host of other random items.  It was immediately clear, however that clothes are the main fixture of the market.

The first steps into the bazaar were full-on.  The narrow walkway with shouting vendors, pushy deal seekers, and manmade bird noises from colorful toys signaled my internal shock alarms.  We took two steps in, and then stepped right back out, deciding that if we were going to roll up our sleeves and own the marketplace, we had better get some food in our bellies first.  After a quick lunch of famous Ayvalik toast (thick bread grilled cheese), we slammed our bodies through the clusters of people all crashing into each other like molecules trying to bond.

It wasn’t five minutes before we were grasping handfuls of socks and then fist deep in men’s underwear.  Bags filled with cheap, yet quality materials quickly piled up as we shuttled back and forth to drop them off at our base restaurant that clearly didn’t want us occupying their small space once they realized we came to buy in bulk.  Aysegul made friends with a family selling us underwear whose cotton-peddling daughter had the same name and struck a fair deal when we told them we were buying for a charitable cause.  They asked if we needed men’s tank top undershirts, which we certainly did so we once again bought them out of all the sizes they had that would suit our needs.

They asked to take a picture with us and be friends on Facebook, marveling at the faraway places we had come from.  It’s a common response and one that was duplicated with an Iranian family we chatted with in the street just minutes later.  “Oh, I love America, very beautiful country” the father enthusiastically told me as he wished us well in our endeavor.

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Posing for a photo with our two underwear and tank top vendors in blue.  They wanted to post this to Facebook immediately. [Photo credit: Aurelie B.]

As time was running short and our shopping list still long, we split up and divided the Turkish lira we had left, knowing it would be impossible to spend it all on this trip.  I had set a budget of $2,000 to spend, which was difficult as we went to many stands and wiped out their entire inventory of things we needed.  There’s something magical about asking how much a pair of leggings is and then pulling out a bag to say you want them all.

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When I approached a huge table of shorts and asked for Yunus, a man Eddie told me had given him a good deal on his trip there, I said I wanted to buy all of his jean shorts.  Yunus was a 27 year old with a lightly colored, extended chin strap beard who relaxed in a cafe chair wearing a sleeveless shirt.  If there’s ever been a man I’m sure was in the mafia, it was Yunus.  I told him I was friends with Eddie to which he responded with “EDDEE!” as he motioned me over to his table.  The man he was sitting with at one of three tables outside a derelict cafe behind the massive clothing displays got up and ran away the second I was waved over.  Another man instantly passed through the doorway ready to take Yunus’s order.  Al Capone asked me what I wanted, to which I said I wanted to buy all his shorts before my ferry left in an hour.  He said “No, you must drink” which didn’t sound like a bad idea on this scorching hot day, but I was now in a time crunch.  “Chai?” he asked.  “Ok,” I said.

We exchanged the basics of where I was from and how beautiful his home in Istanbul is in the one minute before tiny hourglass shaped sipping vessels of piping hot red chai came out on a string dangled tray with two sugar cubes in the mini saucer and dainty little spoon.  I pinched the play-sized glass between my thumb and index finger as I nervously checked my watch.  Yunus and I talked about sports and Kara Tepe while he slyly motioned one of his employees to take down the sign above the shorts that listed the price as 10L.  The whole time this was happening, men from several tables kept coming up to him and handing him cash that he banked in a large wad in his pocket.

Finally, when he was ready, he got up, called out to men from four different tables who converged to the table with jean shorts. We worked together to pull out sizes 29-34 with a few occasional 36’s while leaving the already stocked larger sizes behind.  As mountains of denim piled up, glasses of lemonade arrived for us.  Yunus chugged his and pitched the plastic cup under the table in a single fluid motion that didn’t detract from his flow of counting and sorting.  I clumsily followed suit.  He called to the table next to him, and a man brought over a blue polo shirt for me.  “You,” Yunus said as he held it up to my body.  The same happened with a high quality pair of denim capris five minutes later.  I guess big purchasers get big perks, but I just wanted to load a big bag full of jean shorts.  I politely packed both away in my bag and donated them along with the rest of the clothing we got.

Yunus and I spent some time arguing over price, with me noting that I saw the advertised price, him noting that Eddie paid more last time.  I told him if I was paying more, he needed to include belts.  He said he didn’t have any.  I repeated myself.  He repeated himself.  I stood there and waited silently.  He said two words and snapped his fingers in the air and a bag of belts appeared.  He wanted me to buy more shorts from him even though I had no more bag space to transport them in.  I told him I would be back soon and although upset, we exchanged contact information on WhatsApp and he had two of his young male workers carry the heavy bags out of the bazaar for me and close to the taxi stand.  I now have a denim dealer.

I also have a shoe dealer as Janos and I had bought one shop out of all of their knockoff TOMS and other similar shoes.  I went to the only other shoe store I could find that had sturdy canvas construction that was light and durable enough for walking on rocks in the summer as well as playing football.  I bought all of their shoes in the size range needed as I sat on a stool outside, being handed waters and carbonated lemonade while father, son, and mother shuttled back and forth to a storehouse looking repeatedly for more.  Mustafa added me on Facebook and I told him I’d be back for more.

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Actual footwear worn by Kara Tepe residents who desperately ask for new shoes daily.

At the end of the day, our haul was big enough where two taxi drivers in a row refused to drive us to the ferry port.  Aysegul was furious and as she was complaining to officers in a passing police car, the first abrasive cab driver begrudgingly agreed to load our booty in his trunk.

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Standing by our haul for the day outside of the restaurant who kind of agreed to let us hang out there all day long. [Photo credit: Aurelie B.]

On the ferry passage back, the cruel irony of the journey did not escape us.  The ninety minute ferry ride to Lesvos cost us 4 Euros, the same price it costs to take a ten minute taxi ride from the center of Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos where we live, to Kara Tepe.  This same aquatic joyride that we pooled together loose change for and took the time frame of a Pixar movie, was a long expensive journey of life or death for the people we were bringing clothes to.

Everyone I speak with has paid between $500-$5,000 just for the boat crossing with the price depending on the smuggler and the situation.  While the most common range is $1,000-$2,000, many have been charged multiple times for each crossing they attempt to make after police or intense waves force their turn around.  Some are robbed of all extra money, cell phones, and clothes before they attempt to cross these waters that close to 4,000 died in last year.  In a 3 ½ hour dinghy ride piercing through the choppy, violent waves off the Turkish coast, many prayed for lives in the same place we rolled up our sleeves on the top deck of a sturdy ship and soaked in the sun.

We looked at the white cap rip swelling in the sea, knowing it was rough enough that day to toss even a seasoned sailor from the bow.  I still struggle to wrap my mind around how anyone has the fortitude or desperation to make such a harrowing journey.  Even if they are dry and have new clothes by the time they get to Kara Tepe, the hell they’ve conquered is surely worthy of at least decent clothing as a symbol that they matter and are not just a stain like that which might appear on the clothes that we give them or that parts of society might consider them.

I felt bad popping bottles and toasting to a successful day as the ferry was ready to disembark on a journey that was so smooth for us because we were born in countries that provided us with “proper” paperwork.  But as our drinks clanked together, I tried to reframe what we were really celebrating. We toast to celebrate that we have a lot of brand new quality clothing that people will actually be happy to receive.  We toast to all of the donors who believe in humanity and basic human needs who selflessly offered up their hard earned cash so that another might have clean underwear.  We toast to one less person we have to say “mafi shoes” to who is crying because their feet can’t bear the pain of rocks prodding their soles anymore.  We toast to the small glimmer of hope that is symbolically woven into the threads of the clothing we are bringing back; that this might be the catalyst for positive thoughts that compound and inertia mentally carries forward.

Our stream of positivity was abruptly ended at the portside Greek customs house.  An official asked where I am from, and after I said “United States” he signaled us to grab all of our bags, walk around the x-ray scanner and back out the side we entered, filing into a waiting room.  Another man came in shortly after, closed all of the doors, told us to set our bags in a straight line on the ground and then have a seat.  He returned a minute later with a large pawed German Shepard, who while no doubt did his job effectively, lacked the discipline one expects to see in a professional canine as he stepped all over our bags, and got distracted by us, tugging at his leash to get closer.  As I was running through in my head if we had done anything illegal, Janos started talking to which the handler quickly and firmly said “Do not talk!”  The duo left and a moment later we were allowed to do the same.  I asked the officer who had brought us in the room in the first place what that was all about.  Was the dog looking for drugs? Explosives?

With a heavy Greek accent, he said “Drugs.” I asked, “Why was I targeted as an American? Once I told you where I was from, that was the second you told us to go to that room.” In a confusing response, he muttered “Your country…Guatemala, Venezuela, […unintelligible Greek…]” He then listed a few more countries followed by more unintelligible Greek and ending with, “I think USA.”  My best guess is that he was personally not a fan of the US based on a long history of drug trafficking and destroying other countries’ governments and economies in sometimes covert actions that often include the transport of illicit substances.  Normally that kind of thing would get me down, but I was happy to not have been detained on the Greek side which proved to be more fear inducing than Turkey.   No customs duties had to be paid since we were bringing hundreds of pounds of clothing to Kara Tepe, a situation to which all of the coast guard officers seemed sympathetic.  A cab brought us straight to the camp where we stocked the clothes and got ready for the next day.

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Since I saw just how far money could go in Turkey and because I didn’t have enough time to spend all the money I went with, I am going to make one final push in soliciting donations and return on August 11.  I have already requested Thursday as my Turkish Bazaar Day-off and will contact my dealers this week to let them know what I need.  Below is the amazing list your donations were able to fund this time around which is about 4-5 times further than this money would go if I was spending it in Greece.  If you know anyone who would be interested in throwing down a few dollars to contribute to the next round, please direct them to the fundraising page.

Even just $5 was able to purchase multiple articles of clothing.  $7 got a pair of TOMS. $15 totally clothed a single person, head to toe.

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That my friends is the power of people coming together to do good things.  If you have ever had doubt in your life that you could make a difference, look at what can you happen when compassion pools together.

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I got home and stripped all of my clothes off and watched the water, grey from the dust caked on my legs swirl down the drain.  All day long, I feel sweat dripping down my body, except in the rare moments when I rest in the shade and my attention is drawn instead to the industrial strength stickiness coating my arms.  The most liberating thing is to rip off my shirt, tear off my socks, lather up with soap and then change into a clean pair of shorts.  This I now realize, is a luxury I have taken for granted.  For the residents of Kara Tepe, there often are no clean clothes to change into.

Once a month, families can go “shopping,” although this isn’t the shopping you may be accustomed to.  Getting clothing here consists of making an appointment two weeks in advance and hoping you don’t lose the little ticket that it’s written on.  When your day finally comes, you and your family show up to sit on a newly constructed bench opposite a small white shipping container filled with shelves of clothing bins, the whole area surrounded by a cage.  There is no Kohl’s to take a Saturday morning drive to, no advertisements showcasing latest fashions or variety of styles, there is simply the often barren contents of the white container.

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Two HSA volunteers walk toward the clothing distribution center, better known as “the white container” [Photo Credit: Aurelie B.]

A family of eight and a family of five entered the cage and the adults squeezed onto the bench that barely fits them while children ran around in unpredictable patterns seemingly targeting the knees of volunteers in the claustrophobic 10’x10’ area.  There were only three volunteers working in the white container this day and both families competed for our attention with waves and pointing to their feet preceded by “my friend, my friend”, a clear signal that they wanted shoes I knew we didn’t have.

I took the family of five while the two other volunteers started with the family of eight.  I grabbed a clipboard with checklist to track the one item from each clothing category people are allowed to get: Short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, bottoms, socks, shoes, hat, underwear, bra, jacket, flip-flops, other.  Residents are not allowed in the white container so the process, through an awkward series of pantomiming and touching our own clothing, is to figure out what they need and bring out a small selection from the white container to show them.

I decided to start with the father, because I find men far easier to channel my inner fashionista for.  The policies say we are only supposed to bring out four of each item for people to choose from, but that’s a horrible policy, so I don’t follow it.  Here is how that actually works when put into action: A man wants a T-shirt and I bring out one that is too big, one that is too small, one that has a subtle stain down the front, and another that I didn’t realize was bedazzled.  However, back in the container ten feet away from me are thirty other shirts.  I will not force a man into choosing the least awful of a pile of crap when I know there might be better options; this isn’t American politics.  I can prevent this. My own personal policy is that these are human beings and I will keep bringing out items for them to see until they find something that makes them happy.

That father today was quick and easy. Thanks to the unpredictably good stock of donations, he got brand new jean shorts with pockets, brand new boxer shorts, and a black baseball cap bearing the logo of some foreign company.  He now sports a new grey “Football People” shirt that scores of other men around camp wear because we got a bulk donation.  Their numbers are growing to compete with the flock wearing leftover Tough Mudder shirts and those rocking threads with an inspirational quote and face of either Nelson Mandela or Bob Marley.  This man wanted a long sleeve shirt too, which I couldn’t give him because due to the potential of increasing arrivals, we have cut back on what we can give.  So begins the age of the one shirt policy, a sacrifice one must make for the good of the state so as not to draw selfishly on limited resources.

The same goes for footwear.  His were not technically broken, so he’s stuck with them.  The uneven jaggedness of the ground eats through flip-flops in about a week.  When I hiked the Appalachian Trail, Pennsylvania had hundreds of miles of infamous rock clusters sharper than a knife (I still have a scar down the length of my forearm to prove it), but Kara Tepe may be ripping up my soles faster.  People need footwear, but we often have nothing for them.

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Four-season shoes of child refugee from Syria that will be considered acceptable for many months to come. They are in much better shape than what most Kara Tepe residents rely on. [executive-magazine.com]

The mother wanted black leggings, the most in-demand item, but all we had were heavy sweatpants and jeans five sizes too big.  She asked for a black scarf, we only had bright colors.  She asked for underwear, but only males were working at clothing distribution, so to avoid awkward and potential cultural conflicts, the family waited for ten minutes while I went to go find a female volunteer to handle the selection.  The mother then quickly tried to make a choice as handfuls of strangers leaning on the cage behind her looked on.

I moved onto the teenage daughter who surprisingly didn’t appear to shoot laser beams out of her eyes at me like most girls do in this clothes acquisition process that is so drastically different from what they grew up with.  I didn’t have anything good for her, but each item I brought out, I held up to my body as I danced and sang, selling it like a cheap infomercial so I didn’t have to tell her there was nothing else for her.

While this was happening, two children from the large family the other two volunteers were working with had a crying competition in which none of us were the winners.  Their sixteen year old brother tried to calm them down as he helped them try on socks and a pair of shoes two sizes two small.  No one wants to ask where the father of the family was because by the way the older brother was handling things, it’s clear the worst may have happened to their absent father.

He was presented with the only pair of jean shorts in his size, which he at first accepted graciously and then asked us politely for another pair because he didn’t like the stitching pattern on the back pockets.  We knew there was nothing else, but pretended to look anyway.  Just to offer a point of comparison, he was shown a pair of large shorts down to his ankles with no pockets so the originals might look better in comparison.  These are the awful mind games we wish we didn’t have to play.  The whole while children were still crying and people peering into the clothing area were asking for various items even though they knew they needed to make an appointment.

The next hour, a woman of about eighty told me through a translator who was luckily standing by the cage and from Afghanistan as well, that she wanted a long sleeve white shirt that went below the knees.  I knew we had nothing like that in stock, but I always try to look anyway.  She didn’t make eye contact with me the whole time, and when I walked out with the five white shirts we had, she refused to look at them.  With palm down, she waved her hand in the universal sign of “get those out of my face,” then stood up and walked out with the help of her cane.

No one walks away with an entirely good feeling.  Residents may have gotten something that they can tolerate while volunteers have snuck into the white container to throw things, jump around in general boughts of frustration, or cry.  There is a lot of crying on both sides.

Think about if you were displaced in a different country you knew nothing about.  A visibly stressed girl in her mid-twenties approaches you and says something really fast in a language that you don’t understand.  She repeats herself several times, pausing to enunciate more and turns up her volume which you find condescending.  Finally, she gets frustrated enough to just give up and say something different several times.  You know this is a clothing appointment so you ask for a red T-shirt with no writing on it, and a dark colored baseball cap.  Not being able to understand you, she walks away thinking she has it all figured out and brings out four black abayas for you to look at, but not try on, along with the one hijab she has left.  Don’t know what an abaya or hijab are? My point exactly.

Most of our clothes are donations from western countries and some are downright inappropriate for the more conservative dress style of people we work with.  When a woman wrapped from head to ankle with a light cotton, flower-print fabric comes in for an appointment, there is no way I am going to bring her a shirt that says “Bitch Please” on it or a bright pink halter-top.  When a kid wants shorts so he can run around and play soccer with his friends and all I can offer him is corduroy pants and a suggestion to cut them into shorts, we have a problem.  There are some people who would rather be naked than wear the stuff we show them on a poorly stocked day.  If you are more than two standard deviations away from the mean size for your gender, that may very well look like your only option.  We can do better, we need to do better.  I will do better.

Just because international aid standards, as our NGO Head of Mission reminds us, says refugees only need one change of clothes in addition to what they are wearing, doesn’t make that right.  Try sweating in temperatures of 95 degrees for a full month with no escape from the heat because the interior of your housing unit is at least 10 degrees hotter.  Imagine your wardrobe consists of only two pairs of jeans, a pair of flip flops the thickness of three pennies, one pair of underwear, two black T-shirts, and a bucket hat.  With six screaming children, do you think you’ll be able to find the time and energy to hand wash your clothes each day with a bucket and soap you need to hunt down on your own?  Do you think you’ll be able to hold yourself together when a volunteer tells you getting a new shirt is not an emergency and you’ll have to make an appointment next month after you spilled coffee on your only other shirt late last night when you got a text message from your friend back home saying their four children died from an airstrike while at school?

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A woman hangs her family’s “summer” clothing up to dry on a fence at Kara Tepe Refugee Camp [Photo Credit: Basil]

Not just as an organization, but as humanity, we can do better and we need to do better.  I will do better.  We can never let our tank run out of empathy, for it is when we are tired and frustrated that we need it the most.  Perspective is important for understanding that no one is coming to us hoping for the awkward, heavy clothing we frequently show them in sizes too big or small that most of you reading this would be appalled to even look at.  Residents here shouldn’t have to accept awful options because as some volunteers have snarkily stated “they are refugees, they should take what I give them and be happy.” They are people.  They have sacrificed everything to get to this point where they are sitting in front of us.  They deserve better clothes and they deserve to be treated with kindness and dignity.  I would say we all need to walk a mile in their shoes, but most of them don’t have shoes, only flimsy flip-flops you wouldn’t last ten steps in.

My next post will be about my mission to do better by organizing a trip to Turkey with co-workers on my day off to restock clothing with generous donations from my GoFundMe page.  I will return again in a couple weeks so if you want to fund some clothing, $10 can buy a pair of brand new shoes, socks, underwear, tank top, and a hat!

In the meantime, if your closet needs a purge and you can afford the international shipping costs, I know many people who would love to have more clothing options.  Please send to:
David Triboulot
Kara Tepe Camp
81100 Mytilini, Lesvos, Greece

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