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I can’t entirely recall how I came to find the organization, Salam LADC that I am working with this summer.  It seems that many friends from Greece were connected with volunteer networks in Lebanon and I just stumbled across these guys on Facebook.  After a fourteen hour layover in Moscow, where I was stuck in the airport because Russia makes it extremely difficult to enter their country, I boarded a plane to Beirut.  I was nervous to be landing in the Middle East well past midnight with no idea how to get to my hotel, but now I’m really just embarrassed that I was so struck by preconceived notions and full of fear entirely surrounding the location.

Beirut is not at all what I thought it was going to be.  It was not nearly as hot as the images conjured up in my head by thinking of the “Middle East.” Nor was there much Arabic at all; English billboards and signage surrounded me and mostly everyone spoke English as well!  When I met up with my fabulous tour guide Mohamad who started Beirut Free Walking Tour and set up a personal tour for me on a Sunday morning out of his own kindness, he told me that’s because formal schooling in Lebanon is all done in English.  Arabic is spoken at home and many people also know French (although my cab driver said it was just the rich people) due to the history of French colonization here.

Despite the concrete blockhouses stacked with sandbags and barbed wire that were occupied by several soldiers fidgeting with assault rifles, I never felt unsafe walking the barricade covered empty streets of Beirut.  Seriously, there were no people around.  In museums, in parks, at ruins, less than double digit humans were in my sight path at any given time.  Mohamad tells me this happened in a gorgeous central square area because the businesses were starved out two years ago once the government who has its offices in the same square closed it.  Close by, people were protesting garbage piles ups and the government’s inability to clear the mountains of trash from the road and officials got nervous they would overtake the government, so they effectively set up a blockade that led to economic stagnation in the area of Beirut with the richest architecture and archaeology.  Now the businesses cannot survive or are fearful the government will do the same thing in the future, and locals have abandoned the area.  I’ve never been in a city with less foot traffic than Beirut.

While my lack of research led to me expect more primitive business structure, I walked through multi-color apartment complexes in an artsy district to a very bourgeoisie souk filled with the likes of Rolex, Cartier, a Cineplex that charged more than a week of meals cost, and upscale fashion boutiques.  I even stumbled upon a farmers market on the edge of a fancy souk, in the shadow of a war-remnant building.  All I kept thinking my first day in Lebanon was the Aldous Huxley quote, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”  To travel is to discover that I am wrong about other countries.

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I saw quite easily why some have tried to label Beirut as the Paris of the Middle East, but all the sparkly window fronts still don’t mask the marks of the 1975 Civil War.  Bomb and bullet holes are hard to ignore, especially on towering concrete structures that still stand because tearing them down is cost prohibitive.  The future may involve more pool lounging and yacht clubs but the storied past is not to be ignored.

The one thing that I wasn’t wrong about was how much of a pain in the ass it would be to get to the volunteer house from Beirut which I was to be stationed at for the summer.  I knew from last year’s work that in a small NGO with ever changing situations on the ground, focus sometimes doesn’t channel into prospective volunteer communication.  About 365 days ago, I wandered the streets of Mytilene trying to find the volunteer house only to find no answer at the door when I did turn into Magellan and find it.  Finally the volunteer coordinator who confirmed when I should arrive, woke up with enough knocking, calling, and yelling her name up to the balconies.  The whole process was frustrating and I was determined not to repeat it this year.

I sent several emails ahead of my arrival asking for specific details of how to get to this house, to no avail.  I was told to go to the Cola Intersection in Beirut, ask around to find a bus going to Chtoura, and when it let me off halfway to Damascus, to wait on the street corner where I could call someone from the volunteer house to come pick me up.  Only, no number was given and that plan sounded terrifying.  Despite several emails and facebook posts communicating that I needed someone’s contact info, all I was told was that closer to the date, they would let me know who was around.  It quickly reached two hours before I was going to leave to find this bus to the valley and my Type A personality was on fire from no one responding with a pick-up number I requested in a message earlier that morning… or two days prior…or two weeks prior to that.

Amazingly, it all just somehow worked out.  I got a text at the right moment and stumbled upon two new volunteers on the street who I heard speaking in French and say “Cola” which led me to approach and question them if they were going to the same place as me (turns out in all of Beirut, we had stayed at the same hostel the night prior).  They had not yet heard anything from the organization either, but were put at ease when I told them I had just gotten a text. We grabbed lunch together real quick at one of the many hundreds of restaurants that speckle the streets of Beirut, and then hopped a taxi to catch a bus.

After about forty minutes and at the top of the mountains before we started descending into the Beqaa Valley, a marvelous glow could be seen on the giant rock faces that framed this gigantic, lush, agricultural capital.  Entering the city of Chtoura where I would take up residence for the next month, we passed by a Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, and a couple pizza restaurants…not quite what I was expecting for refugee work, but this is a pretty westernized country after all.

A pickup truck was quick to nab us at the end of the line, and bring us to the volunteer house where we were given a tour that consisted of “so this is the house.”  Any disappointment by the infiltration of western capitalism in an experience I thought would require more roughing it, vanished when I took my first steps into the volunteer house.  The kitchen whose sink was overflowing with dirty dishes even Billy Mays couldn’t clean gave way to the living room where several baby-faced volunteers silently signaled I was a house elder.  Flies were buzzing around relaxed student’s heads, but everyone had a smile on their face. These were people with a sense of purpose.  They may be messier, play louder music, and smoke more than I care to tolerate, but we’re all here for the same cause, and for this I feel great.  I grabbed the only bed left which was a pad on top of two stacked pallets in a partitioned room with no windows.  Dangling an arm off the “bed” in either direction put me in touch with other sleeping volunteers, not that it would matter for that first night as I was destined to stay up all night with diarrhea!

I set up my bed, which I found out later when all my things were moved was actually taken by someone else, and I waited in line for the sole shower that twenty-two people share, as day turned to night and flies changed to mosquitoes.  It wasn’t lost on me that the conditions I found myself in were still leaps and bounds above what many people in refugee settlements right down the street traded in everything for.  I am humbled and excited to be here and can’t wait to figure out all the good that I can help spread this summer.  But first, some Pepto.

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A terrorist attack on the UN Headquarters in Baghdad left 22 dead on August 19, 2003.  Five years later, the UN General Assembly officially established the date as World Humanitarian Day which according to UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, “is an annual reminder of the need to act to alleviate the suffering.  It is also an occasion to honor the humanitarian workers and volunteers toiling on the front-lines of crises.  I pay tribute to these dedicated women and men who brave danger to help others at far greater risk.”

There are approximately 130 million people around the world that need humanitarian assistance to survive right now.  This is just to survive, not to be comfortable and is happening through no fault of their own.  Millions in Ethiopia are struggling to survive in the worst drought and subsequent famine in 50 years.  Millions in Syria flea or are trapped in the crossfire of a brutal civil war dropping bombs in their living rooms.  Violence and food insecurity are not only claiming lives, but they are destroying entire cultures all around the world.

These are people, just like you and I, who only want to have a safe and peaceful life.  They want their children to grow up in a place where they don’t have to fear airstrikes on their walk to school or if food will ever materialize to save them from starvation.  Everyday this increasingly vulnerable and marginalized population are forced to make impossible decisions.

 

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A heavy dose of reality helps adapt a popular game to a perspective many people face daily across the world. [view the whole program on the World Humanitarian Day website]

The UN’s website for World Humanitarian Day has a number of resources that help provide perspective for problems that certainly transcend those I face.  My biggest dilemmas in the last year have ranged from the trivial “Should I respond back to that abrasive email from my boss?” to the trite “Can I afford to take that next vacation?”  Following the lines of a popular leisure game I often play while laughing with friends, this version of Would You Rather offers a small glimpse into the impossible choices people around the world face daily.

If you can handle the weight of what that link represents, I urge you to Walk in the Shoes of a Refugee. After volunteering in Kara Tepe Refugee Camp for almost two months and hearing people’s personal stories in the many layers of pain they are built upon, I couldn’t get through this one without crying.  With every click of the mouse, I was able to picture a face next to each option, people who had told me while they themselves were in tears of that exact decision they were forced to make.

The United Nations is using this day to promote their Agenda for Humanity to provide hope for a better world.

Agenda for humanity

As noted in a previous article, How to Save the World, all it takes to be a hero and put a stop to the evil we are currently seeing around the globe is action.  World Humanitarian Day celebrates those who commits to any of the five steps shown above.

Today I celebrate the dozens of volunteers I have sweat beside in the summer heat trying to pitch in however possible to serve families with dignity and respect who have fled the unimaginable.  These volunteers compelled to action have paid for their own airfare, accommodations and food to get to a little island in Greece.  They remain dedicated despite medical issues, illness, relationship strains and breakups, financial hardships, and fatigue.  Some days rocks have been thrown at them or they’ve cut their leg completing a thankless task no one will ever know about like moving a pile of moldy canvas tents to increase storage space.  Still with each new morning, they rise to the call of service.

“Humanitarian” is not a title exclusively reserved for those who interact with human suffering directly.  Anyone that seeks to promote the general welfare of others is a humanitarian worthy of celebration.  It could mean financial contributions like those from my best friend, Ryan Pierson who has biceps the size of Texas and donated money to fund the purchase of 70 tank tops for men saying, “Because every day is arm day, even in Kara Tepe.”

“Humanitarian” is a term that also applies to people who spread awareness instead of turning a blind eye.  I think of my friends Susan and Sal Lepore who continue to share articles and dialogue with me about issues that matter, even though we only met randomly on a boat ride in Peru two years ago.  I celebrate people like my girlfriend, Brittany Dunn of The Mind Body Project who helps me stay centered and who shares every article I write with her audience to ensure people’s stories don’t slip through the cracks.

Telling people’s stories is a vital component to spreading awareness and providing hope for a better world, according to the UN.  I think to Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax and the line that says “I speak for the trees.”  Those who provide a voice for the voiceless and amplify their plight despite risk, repercussions, or condemnation deserve hearty applause.  I cheer for the people who intervene in a coffee shop as two baristas exchange a look when I say I’m working at a refugee camp and they tell me “They are all terrorists!”  Fighting the evil of ignorance at this level is just as worthy of a humanitarian effort as actually working in a refugee camp.

I personally revere those who go into the most difficult situations so the harsh realities of human suffering aren’t silently lost behind a blinding wall of ignorance.  Like the firefighters who ran toward the burning and collapsing twin towers on September 11, there are many who exemplify that same courage to bring us pictures and stories that galvanize the pain and suffering in an urgent call to action from the places of most danger.

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A widely circulated photo and video of this boy from Aleppo has come to be called “The Face of War” [The Guardian]

In Syria, Assad’s regime along with the help of Russia, continuously commit crimes against humanity by specifically targeting hospitals and civilians.  Despite this known danger, many medical professionals working with Doctors Without Borders continue to station themselves where they are needed most: in the center of where bombs are exploding.  The few doctors who remain have seen children and patients they stabilized killed by explosions that also claim the lives of their colleagues.  Yet, there they remain, knowing they serve a vital need.  A popular story swept across the internet at the end of April about The Last Pediatrician in Aleppo.

Things like this should be hard to read about and see, but that shouldn’t stop you from noting the reality of the situation. While I fear for the world so satiated by violence that teenagers can show me videos of beheadings that commonly appear in their newsfeed without flinching, I fear even more for those who pretend these things don’t exist. This is the pivotal place where we as a society of consumers have a choice to make. Will you quickly scroll through the articles and pictures on your Facebook feed that make you feel sad and uncomfortable, or will you take further steps?

In July, 44 attacks on hospitals were reported in Syria.  Just last week a hospital specializing in pediatrics in the north was attacked by two airstrikes in broad daylight which left 13 dead, including 5 children.  The ICU was destroyed, along with the operating theater, pediatric department, ambulances and generator.  There is no safe haven or place of refuge inside the borders of this country-wide warzone.  Still, doctors devoted to their mission remain.

All around the world, humanitarian aid workers face risks to deliver lifesaving services and care.  They fall victim to violence, kidnapping, and murder along with the people they have devoted their existence to helping.

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The risks are often high for those who go to areas in need of the most help [Full graphic at reliefweb.int]

If you are appalled by the atrocities happening across this pale blue dot we call home, don’t stew in silence, do something about it.  It may sound like a Kennedy pitch, but ask what you can do to make a difference in the world. Research some of the most vulnerable people who need immediate help, encourage your political representatives to take some form of action, volunteer with a charitable organization at home or abroad, make a small donation that can fund something essential for another, recognize those in your immediate community who also need help.  Be creative with your kindness or as the UN advocates, “work differently to end need.” All it takes to be a humanitarian and hero is action.

The faces of human suffering may seem so far away, but they are real and they are all around you.  Wherever you are, use whatever you have to do whatever you can.  Don’t ignore the comments that seek to stereotype, degrade or demoralize others.  Make it your job to care for your fellow man.  Do it now and do it always, do not wait until a problem escalates to 450 volts, as explained in a previous post, to try to stop it.

Martin Niemöller who spent more than seven years in concentration camps under Nazi power, including Dachau, immortalized his guilt and responsibility in the well known provocative poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.

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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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