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A little over two months ago, I wrote about a fire that destroyed a Syrian Refugee Settlement in Qab Elias, Lebanon.  As I interviewed more people and heard accusations of foul play involving the government/terror groups and the failure of NGOs to properly train residents in fire safety, I did not feel safe nor comfortable publishing critical points of view while still in the country.  This is the long overdue story from the perspectives of those who were there.


Perspective 1: Women in the Settlement Yearn for Home

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Shaikha al-Abid sits in front of two friends from Raqqa Syria who migrated to Qab Elias, Lebanon five years ago and now endure what they describe as even worse hardships.  The dozen other women gathered around for the interview did not wish to be photographed.

Shaikha al-Abid sat with a large group of women by the emergency tents and candidly spoke of the impact the fire has had on the community now dependent on aid.  As the elder of the group, she provided the narration while others leaned in to add a level of solidarity and occasionally offered additional explanations or elaboration.

Most of the group started their exodus from the ISIS declared capital of Raqqa, Syria five years ago.  Around 50 families who all knew each other spent the next year leaving at different times that suited them to escape the rapid escalation of danger.

How the entire community ended up where they did in Lebanon was mostly due to chance.  Hopping on a bus with a plan that didn’t extend beyond “get out of Syria,” the first group to cross the border was brought by their driver to a piece of land he told them had a shawish who was “nice and good.”  After the first group arrived, everyone else flocked to the same place, finding a familiar comfort in the surroundings of loved ones.

The close knit families got even closer as their kids grew up and married each other while in the settlements. Just as soon as Shaikha spoke of it feeling like there was a wedding every day, she broke into the pain of losing that little piece of beauty in her life.  The fire, she says, brought unexplainable suffering.

The normalcy of life the community fought so hard to recoup after fleeing their homeland was lost once again in the explosions of gas canisters and billowing smoke clouds.   Once they heard the first tank rapture, there was a huge commotion of people rounding up propane tanks, children and heading to the area of refuge: the nearby road, as flames engulfed everything.

NGOs have stepped in to fill the items of immediate need: food, water, shelter, bedding, but for most other items they are on their own.  Shaikha half-jokingly asked me if I knew anyone that could provide her with a refrigerator.  For now, it wouldn’t even be able to run as the settlement does not have permanent electricity and the large generator burst at the seams helping to fuel the spread of the fire with an explosive spray of burning diesel fuel.

The number one concern the entire group voiced was that they are not receiving any direct financial benefits such as the much coveted cash cards that UNHCR distributes to some camps for people who meet “certain qualifications.”  There is no money for people to pay for essentials like medicine and hospital visits.  They still have to pay the landlord of the burnt down settlement who allows them a small patch of untillable land on his farm. He also makes out on the deal, as my translator told me by hiring/pressuring female residents into a full day of work on the farm for the equivalent of $10, half of which gets skimmed off the top by the Shawish.  (Note: This middle-man pocket stuffing was corroborated by two other sources who testified they saw this reserve of cash go up in flames in the Shawish’s housing unit as they rushed around to try to save people).

In a close second on a serious list of concerns was the destruction of everyone’s Syrian IDs.  This identification is vital for navigating the hurdles of displacement, however, the IDs can only be issued in Syria and the borders are closed so people cannot return back home to get new IDs or even to visit family.  This is a two way closure as new family members are also officially prohibited from coming to Lebanon from Syria.

Shaikha and the women all around her unanimously agreed that they want to return to Raqqa.  I thought my interpreter had gotten something wrong here, certainly not believing such a large group of people could want to return to the ISIS stronghold that while American led coalition forces had declared liberated this very week was still in a dangerous state.  In clarification, Shaikha assured me they all felt Lebanon was too dangerous and they aren’t treated well here.


Perspective 2: Leader of the Settlement Tries to Save a Life

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Moustafa Mahmoud stands with bandaged legs in front of the burnt wheat field adjacent to the destroyed settlement as he recalls the horrifying scene the day of the fire.

Moustafa Mahmoud is the second in command in the camp, a veritable number two to the Shawish.  He rushed out of his tent in late morning after hearing screams of “Fire! Fire!” and saw flames enveloping the tent next to his where the fire was first reported as having been started.  He immediately snapped into the training he said he received from Save the Children and ran to the closest fire extinguisher which the UNHCR mandates must be maintained in a ratio of 1 extinguisher for every 4 dwellings (according to an official presentation given to volunteers by an organization representative).

The fire extinguisher he remembers were delivered only eight months prior, did not work.  After pulling the pin and aiming at the fire, a single small puff of a white cloud came out when the handle was squeezed, but nothing thereafter.  Moustafa says he was the only person who received the training on how to use the extinguisher so he knew it was his duty to put out the fire. Running between 28 homes, he tried a total of 7 extinguishers before he knew they must have all been dead.  Meanwhile, the fire raged on.

Moustafa started to head toward a water tank in the settlement, but knew that would be worthless as the chaos was too much to make a coordinated extinguishing effort and the fire was now too strong to throw buckets of water on.  The propane tank explosions caused a panic of fleeing and Moustafa noticed a baby left behind in a tent.  Separated by flames, he saw the fire spread to the infant as he tried to fight his way through to rescue him.  Moustafa pushed through as far as he could before the flames burned up his own legs while he watched a life get swallowed up in fire.

Moustafa knew there was nothing left he could do to save this area of the camp, but he set his sights to moving quickly to the area on the opposite side where the fire had not yet spread so he could help rescue the elderly.  In moving, he noticed a car on fire he was scared would explode like the propane tanks all around him.  He punched out the back window of the small white sedan and pushed it away from the most intense heat before he ran towards the burning wheat field to successfully aid the elders of the settlement in their egress.

As he recounted the experience, he paused to say he didn’t care about any material possessions lost by the fire, but the vision of the child burning was stuck in his mind.  He has opted to not seek psychological support, citing lack of time, saying he is second in charge in the settlement and has to liaise with all the NGO’s because he has the records of families in the settlement. The huge stigma of mental health is also playing a part with the pervasive opinion that he does not in fact need any professional help in coping with this trauma.  What Moustafa does want, is to return back to Raqqa so he can continue his studies in agricultural engineering.

No one on site with Save the Children would discuss the fire extinguishers with me and residents told me all extinguishers were quickly taken off site before they could be examined.


Perspective 3: The Bystander Takes Action

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Ahmad Alsari stands in front of his mother’s snack stand where he recounted the action he took when he saw smoke rising from the refugee settlement nearby.

While the settlement was fleeing, many from the surrounding community sprang to action.  The phone lines were immediately lit up with people calling the fire service for help even though multiple sources say it took first responders over an hour to respond (the fire burned for about two hours according to the same sources).

Ahmad Alsari, whose mother owns a snack store around the corner that he works at, was the first to see the black smoke before it became billowing clouds.  He ran to the settlement to pull kids out of their tents and stayed on site for the next four hours helping dig through ash.  The whole time he said he was crying and screaming “Allahu Akbar,” which translates to “God is great” and is often called and repeated in times of distress modeling after the prophet Muhammad who spoke the words after a funeral.

Ahmad observed a circle of structures burning which had trapped from his estimation 200 people in a literal ring of fire.  The man who owns the gas station next to Ahmad’s mothers shop drove his car through a point to create an opening so people could escape.  The exploding propane cylinders are what he said kept more people from running in to help.  As he continued in post fire salvage work, Ahmad found the sole casualty, the baby, lying lifeless on the ground of what used to be a structure, with hands badly burnt.


Fact Finding Perspectives: Accusations of Foul Play

The Shawish, whose brother lost his child in the fire, was skeptical of the preliminary stated causes of this being a cooking fire or generator malfunction.  He was positive that no one was cooking in his brother’s tent located next to his own tent at the time the fire started and this is the place they were told was the origin of the fire.  There was no electricity active at the time and the generator was turned off.  All he knows is that his wife saw their mattress was on fire and when she pulled it outside, she saw fire dripping down from the roof.  Some used this image as evidence for casting blame on a deliberate man-made fire, leaning towards Hezbollah taking action on anti-immigration and anti-refugee sentiments.

Many people I spoke with pointed fingers at other possible sources.  The most damning accusations were hurled at the government as initiating this fire.  Residents explained that in the long years of this crisis, donor fatigue had hit the country hard lately and much less aid money was coming into Lebanon from foreign supporters.  Because all NGO money and private donations have to filter through the government for declared processes of registration, the popular belief is that they skim some off the top and that a tragedy like this was a way to prime a donation surge once again to line the pockets of money hungry officials.

In light of this, when residents were asked what their immediate needs were that the international community could help provide, many were quick to advocate direct aid that circumvents government channels as they believed they would never see the benefit of that.  No official government organization was contacted to comment on these accusations.

With the overwhelming number of sources from which I heard accusations of foul play, it is worth noting that no exact cause of the fire has yet been pinpointed.

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Families flock to safety as a fire rips through a settlement near the town of Qab Elias in Lebanon. Photo shared by Mohamed Hamoud via WhatsApp 

A fleet of heavy machinery worked through the midday heat to continue razing the Syrian refugee settlement Haouch Mandara 001 that caught fire a day prior near the town of Qab Elias.  Amid the bulldozers, Bobcats, and backhoe, piles of charred metal continued to smolder from the blaze that destroyed almost all of the 102 tent homes around noon on Sunday.

One child was killed and around a dozen others were admitted to the hospital where some remain in critical condition.

While the exact cause of the fire has yet to be determined, all signs point to a cooking mishap as the origin. In dry conditions with the aid of whipping wind, the fire spread rapidly between the neighboring structures all built with scrap wood and used plastic canvas wrap from billboard advertisements.  Within twenty minutes, the entire settlement was fully involved.

People onsite reported hearing several explosions during the course of the blaze from the propane cylinders that each family was equipped with.

First responders had a rapid response, but were unable to immediately suppress the fire in part to the cars of residents blocking the dirt road to the incident. The response from a handful of NGOs was impressive and immediate.  Before the end of the night, all families received new mattresses and emergency tent shelters were also set up.

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A volunteer looks out on the settlement area once populated by homes and families.  Photo from Salam LADC Facebook page.

Salam LADC spent Monday at the settlement working with a Lebanese NGO, Beyond Association who specialize in providing psycho-social supports and interventions to children in trauma situations.  At the direction of the organization’s psychologist, we played active games that required concentration, teamwork, and resulted in a lot of joyful screaming, clapping, and singing.

In the evening, we distributed 320 individually packaged bags with a stuffed animal, juice, apple, colored pencils, notebook, biscuits, and candy.  Tomorrow it is likely we will go back to help build more permanent housing structures so families can begin to transition out of the emergency tent shelters.

The heartbreak of a situation like this is easily seen on the distant faces of all the residents and in the urgency of all aid workers on site. After fleeing war in Syria with the small items that could be transported, many families have lost the few possessions they spent the past years in Lebanon acquiring.  Cars, blankets, cookware, pictures, everything is gone again and the entire community must start all over again, with nothing.

As several organizations liaise to plan immediate needs like toilets and bathing, Salam will try to prepare emergency clothing for women and children as absolutely nothing was salvaged.  Even a small donation could purchase a shirt for one of the many kids who ran around and got sweaty playing games in the hot summer sun today as volunteers tried to distract their attention from yet another crisis.

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Eighteen year old Hozaifa closed out Clash of Clans and put his phone away to greet a group of three volunteers on a scheduled check-in. “As-salamu alaykum,” he said in traditional greeting, as he extended his hand to shake while his eyes beamed above a smile of naturally straight teeth.  Despite the discomfort it caused, he leaned up in bed as far as he could manage to show us our presence was welcomed.

Hozaifa is paralyzed from the waist down and as the fresh scarring along his spine indicated, he was still in pain from his third back surgery completed just two weeks prior.  As he told the story of his journey from Syria, his four younger siblings filtered in and out of his room as Mom and Dad sat on the floor rug and filled in the gaps.

In 2011 as violence erupted, Hozaifa’s father fled their home in Idlib, Syria just north of where a chemical attack killed dozens of civilians this past April, to establish a new safe home for his family.  In such a situation, it is typical for the male of the household to move ahead first to sort out all the unknowns.

In 2013, Mom and the four younger siblings moved to reunite with Dad in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon.  Safety was rapidly deteriorating with bombings on the rise which led to items of necessity rapidly inflating in price and life in general becoming much harder.

Hozaifa stayed behind in Syria to continue his education.  As he told this part of the story, his words were saturated with passion over his favorite subjects of Arabic Literature, English and Civics.  He paused from the painful narrative to discuss his love of law, former desire to be a doctor, and tangential joys in the fields of math and physics.  With the emphasis placed on learning and his new desire to be an agricultural architect, it’s no surprise Hozaifa would opt to stay in school and continue learning rather than to run from the only path he thought led to a bright future.

One day in 2016, his hopes and dreams were decimated as he was riding home from school on the back of a motorbike with his cousin and a bomb dropped from a plane blew them off the ground.  He’s not sure if it was the explosion shockwave, shrapnel, or the building that fell on him, but some force of those actions hammered his spinal cord to a functioning halt.

At this point in his story telling, a flat affect hit Hozaifa as he said now there was no more studying.  He had two surgeries in Syria before he could reunite with his family and has since been mostly resigned to bed.  He can’t go to school because he can’t sit up yet or find transportation to get him there and private tutors are cost prohibitive.

His mother desperately wants to provide her son with the good education he thirsts for and offer him a beneficial activity to focus on besides the cell phone that she says now consumes him, but they just don’t have the money.  The barren concrete structure they live in more closely resembles a far from incomplete construction that has been squatted in.  The only decorations of Hozaifa’s room are the smears of excess mortar that oozed over every cinderblock of its construction.  A single thin wire snakes up the wall and from where it is punched in the ceiling, hangs a single light.  There is no insulation or glass in the window frames which welcome in the biting cold of snowy mountain winters. The rotting wood framed threshold is indicative of the water that pours through the roof when it rains.

This half-finished shell of a structure costs the family $150/month which might not be pricey by western standards, but it is half of the father’s monthly salary earned as a gas station attendant, making it an entirely unaffordable rent once the cost of life’s other necessities are factored in.  Hozaifa needs diapers, antiseptics, and nutritional supplements to help combat the weight he is losing.

While the family likes Lebanon, they don’t feel safe or secure here.  They are guests in a country where they are not allowed to work and transient populations are constantly shifting in tents and settlements due to a number of factors including absentee landlords changing rental policies with the wind.  This they will endure for the short term, but their sights remain set on the UK and Norway as the locations Hozaifa originally wanted to go to school.

For now, love is what has been getting the family through tough times.  In addition to the strength derived from the tight knit family bonds, others have been willing to help out where they can.  When the family was unable to pay for the third surgery, a Swedish journalist who had previously heard Hozaifa’s story stepped in to foot the bill.  Hozaifa’s mother, as she poured hot chai for her guests, jubilantly gave thanks for this woman who was even there in the waiting room during surgery hugging, squeezing and comforting her.  She left additional money for some medications and later sent a laptop which is helping Hozaifa learn English among other things.

 


If you are so compelled, a donation to the GoFundMe posted on the right hand of this tab could help out immensely.  I will be going to visit with Hozaifa to teach English as soon as I can get that off the ground, but here is a summary of what I am gathering together to which you can contribute.  If you have other ideas after reading about Hozaifa and his family please message me and let me know what you would like your donation to go towards.

$150- One month’s rent to ease the family’s financial insecurity
$25- Arabic Lit books so Hozaifa has a constructive activity he enjoys to pursue daily
$10- Diapers and supplies which are essential medical costs

There are many other projects that I will soon post which are seeking funding so if Hozaifa’s story does not speak to you, there are still countless opportunities to change people’s lives with very small donations.  Keep following along.

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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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In a world that sometimes feels like it’s drowning in despair, Kara Tepe is where one can see hope planted one seed at a time.  Nestled amongst the residents who have fled their homes in search of a bright future for their children, grows a bright patch of optimism.  Blooming with the vegetables in the camp garden is fibrous symbolism, for even with tiny string beans sprouts a mammoth representation of kindness in its purest form.

It was late summer last year when the mayor’s office in Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos, was approached with a pitch to make a garden in Kara Tepe to feed the residents.  Due to lack of space, the proposal was denied, but the idea had at least been planted.

Once the European Union Deal was passed on March 20, Kara Tepe’s status as a quick transit camp en route to mainland Europe began to change as borders closed, people stopped moving, and new challenges arose.  Greece continued to welcome the human flow dialed down to a drip-drop of people seeking a better life, even as some voices of discontent rose from Greek citizens.

It was at this point that the garden idea began to germinate.  There still wasn’t enough space for a vegetable yield capable of feeding all 800 residents of Kara Tepe, but something was better than nothing, and a more noble idea took root.

Humanitarian Support Agency core member, David Triboulot envisioned this as a way to give back to the Greek families on the island.  “You helped us so much, now it’s our turn to help you back,” he said of the monumental supports the municipality continues to offer even as triple digit boat arrivals have waned.  Everything grown goes directly to local impoverished families.

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One of the several rows of tomatoes that will go to local families in need. 

David has spearheaded the garden project since its infancy and after getting approval on April 1 for a 25 sq.m plot of land, he became the official Horticulture Expert at Kara Tepe.  That title is not a made up one either such as when Pam from the Office tried to just call herself the office administrator and act out the role of what she thought someone with that position would do.

As it turns out, David is actually a horticulturist.  I had doubted the legitimacy of that title until two minutes into touring the garden with him where he pointed out countless complex diseases and insects invisible to the untrained eye, that were ruining some of his crops.

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David points out an irregularity on a bean stalk in the Kara Tepe Garden.

The garden was originally started with the cooperative efforts of five camp residents from Afghanistan under the expert management and hyperactive work ethic of David.  Some of the green-thumbed residents had a background in agriculture and all seemed happy to help.  In a heat and grief stricken atmosphere where many struggle with a sense of purpose, the opportunity to do some work and give back, even if they didn’t get any of the vegetables themselves, was a welcomed one.

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Perpetually friendly Fazel from Afghanistan drew the short straw to weed with a smile.

The hardest part in fact, was not in convincing all of these men to toil in the sun without enjoying the fruits [vegetables] of their labor, but in getting them to understand the local need.  In their silver-lined visions of Europe, no one could believe that there were families in Greece without enough to eat or enough money to buy fresh food.  That ultimate understanding produced the perfect mix of motivation which according to David is equal parts wanting to give back and wanting to work.

Teaming up with charitable organizations to find families, in conjunction with his own network developed over the past 21 years of living in Lesvos, David simply delivers vegetables when they are at exact peak ripeness to those most in need.  There’s no publicity, there’s no hitch.  Once the number of people in the family are verified, a fresh basket of earth’s goodness arrives at their door.

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The first donation from the end of June. Special guest appearance by some wild onions.

Including the garden’s first harvest on June 29, the team at Kara Tepe has given it five good pluckings. So far, the lines of budding greenery have yielded 14919g of tomatoes, 15226g of eggplant, 1790g of peppers, a lot of beans, and an untold amount of other herbs.  The total haul has been distributed amongst ten local families with thirty-eight people receiving a solid supplement of healthy nutrients.

The garden is currently undergoing a planned expansion into several new plots residents will grow and eat from themselves.  But for now, they send the harvest off to strangers who they have never met.  Many empathize with those who are hungry and without the means to provide for themselves.

Men here come out from under the shade of blankets strung from their shelter units to squat in the dirt and pull weeds.  From the slow growing plants they have nurtured for months, they pull plump vegetables to give to others after they themselves have come from rows of neighbors and their own family incessantly complaining about the quality of food.  They plant vegetables they know they will never taste, fully embodying the famous Greek proverb, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

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Muhammad from Afghanistan poses with just a small selection of what he picked one day in August.

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