Feeds:
Posts
Comments

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).

4047282-3x2-700x467

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.”

we-all-play-role.jpg

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.

wecanbeheroes658

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.

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.

IMG_9177.JPG

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.

IMG_9160.JPG

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.

IMG_9241.JPG

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.

499768866817427050.jpg

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.”

IMG_9249

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

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.

IMG_9301_edit.jpg

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]

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.

1527044_780994798583649_1303593081_n.jpg

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.

207827_115568751855558_6702136_n

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.

 

30222_121352457881223_6079113_n

The animation master in his happy place.

In Arabic, the root word of Ramadan means intense heat, which is exactly the taste that Amina Ramadan likes the most.  I found this out in the most unfortunate of ways when I was working side by side with her in the garden of Kara Tepe.  She picked a perfectly ripe green chili pepper that was dangling from a plant she had just weeded around, and after taking a bite, passed to me and said “Here. Very good.”  I’ve learned so far that cultural norms dictate I accept most offerings out of politeness, which I immediately regretted as my eyes swelled with tears and I coughed like a first time smoker.  With fire rising from my tongue, I passed the pepper back to her and said the most obvious statement of the day: “Hot!”

IMG_9186_edit

Amina poses with David, facilitator of the Kara Tepe garden project.

I have worked side by side with Amina for more than a month now at the chai station that functions much like a water cooler of the western business world, only with much more importance.  People come here not just to fill up on the over-sugared hot batch beverage that wasps swirl around by the dozens, but to make meaningful connections.  They grab snacks of dates and crackers laid out for them on a table up front and talk about new camp policies, people who have left for Athens, news from back home.  They practice English with volunteers, teach us Arabic or Farsi, and ask questions about Europe.  Sometimes they just come for hugs or friendly smiles.

Nearby, there are benches where people can sit and charge cell phones using the four outlets running from an extension cord.  In the heat of the day, thin mattresses appear in the shade of the awning and people shuttle back and forth to the chai station to fill their cups with Amina’s brew.  Across from the chai station is a stack of pallets near the popular centers of operation for several NGOs.  Also in a shaded area, residents hang around the area waiting for a new pot to reach sweet perfection so they can pounce on the dark brown elixir and suck it down in its still boiling form.

Amina prepares each batch with pride, measuring out the right proportions of sugar and tea for each pot that she has whoever is available carry over to the propane stand from the faucet after filling.  A bunch of volunteers hang out in the gated area, but everyone knows Amina is in charge.  Whenever someone wants a new cup, they ask her.  Whenever someone has a question about anything in camp, they ask her, and rightfully so, because as the leader of the central point for camp communication, she knows everything.  Amina has the most humble personality you will ever encounter and even if she won’t wear the paper Burger King-esq crown I made her, she is still the Queen of Kara Tepe.

IMG_1466_edit

Queen Amina relaxes while being fanned by Eddie and I as Janos feeds her dates on one of many blistering days in Kara Tepe.

Her unfathomable journey from Aleppo, Syria to the Greek island of Lesvos has a storyline that falls far short of what your worst nightmares are made of.  Every week, I would hear bits and pieces from other volunteers who had formed a strong connection with her or had seen a BBC documentary she was featured in which I hadn’t yet forced myself to watch.  I couldn’t bear to ask her about her story after I saw a reporter interviewing her where she flipped through pictures of her husband and tried to hold back the tears she was too strong and proud to show.  Whatever the wound, I knew it was deep and I didn’t want to be the one to pick at it.

As a loud young male from America who tries to keep as much skin exposed to the breeze as possible, I didn’t know how to properly interact with a conservative elder female from Syria who stays covered from head to toe like most women here do, despite the heat.  Could I hug her like the girls do? Could just the two of us have a private in-depth conversation?  Language was not the issue, our interactions felt awkward because we both were constantly feeling out the cultural expectations of one another.

I would bring her candy once I saw she had a sweet tooth, and she would give me extra food once she saw I had a bottomless stomach.  Amina was always making salads for volunteers because at her core she is a caretaker.  Some days she would see us glossed over in sweat and famished and force her own food upon us pretending that she was not hungry or had just eaten something else.

Basil, another world class resident volunteer, her and I would spend hours in the tea station area with other young vested helpers, sharing laughs, stories and tea pouring responsibilities.  Kids would try to sneak into the tea station to play with volunteers telling them to leave to no avail.  Amina would say the same thing and they would instantly listen.  The same went for adults trying to skirt the known rules such as getting more chai than allowed.  She has a fair strictness to her that commands respect, but one that never counteracts her radiating love and kindness.

She often holds and cuddles an infant I like to call the miracle baby.  As Amina explained to me, this child made the crossing over the Aegean from Turkey when she was one month old.  There was a shipwreck somewhere between the coasts and the child was assumed dead as the other passengers struggled to stay afloat.  After a half hour of capsized refuge seekers treading and searching, they the miracle baby bobbing up and down on her back with the waves, a big smile on her face.  Amina is now a central part of the whole village that is raising this child.

IMG_1552_edit

Amina holds The Miracle Baby while Basil squats beside them.  [Photo shared with permission from parents]

Many afternoons had been spent sitting next to each other, exchanging short pleasantries during long periods of silence as she crocheted different pieces to give to friends’ babies or showcase at a local art show.  Amina and I shared the same space for weeks, yet still we felt distant.

But this day in the garden was different.  As I crouched down to take a picture, she enthusiastically approached me with a double fistful of tomatoes.  When I accidentally pulled up plants thinking they were weeds, she covered for me by hiding them deep into other piles of discarded pluckings.  She twisted random leaves off different plants and handed them to me to try, saying things like “Good for soup” or “Good for salad.” She seemed to know everything about this domain of greenery as new leaves kept appearing in my mouth with commentary like “In Syria, this very good.”

Amina is sharp and witty in all interactions even here as she picked up a small jagged-edged leaf that crunched too loudly when she bent it.  “David [garden organizer] wait too long, this no good now” she lambasted, noting that this beautiful tea herb was now a few days past its prime.  It was the first time we felt like real friends.

In the revolving door of a refugee camp where resident and volunteer goodbyes come more often than sunrises, many are hesitant to develop bonds they know might get packed down with soil before they have the chance to really bud.  Today after gardening, Amina spoon fed me a potent heap of Za’atar so I could taste the in-demand spice I thought I had purchased for several people, hopefully saving me from messing up again.  We full-belly laughed at both my obvious mistake and lip puckered face fighting to hold back a shot of the fine powder thyme-based blend.  I nodded my head to her, and her to me, silently acknowledging that through our cultural and gender hesitancies, we had in fact blossomed.

After getting back home from camp well past midnight, I woke up early the next morning I did what I had avoided doing since I got here.  I went to a cafe with wifi, watched the BBC piece she was featured in and tried to be as strong as she was in holding back the tears.  The video would be enough to make my eyes well-up if I was sitting on a couch one thousand miles removed from the situation, but now it had a whole different level of intensity.

After months of waiting in Kara Tepe, Amina has finally gotten her papers to travel to Athens and will make the journey in the last week of August.  I worry that she might be lost without a task to devote herself to and a team of volunteers to take care of.  I’m scared that she might miss the outpouring of love and respect from the triple digits of people that flock to drink her tea every single day, even in extreme heat and darkness.  The opportunity to move along on this next stage of her journey is a blessing a long time coming, but also comes with a loss.  I know how strong she is and I steadfastly believe she will rise above any hardship life throws her way.  After watching her story as told by the BBC, my mind can’t help but play on repeat the words of a famous Maya Angelou poem:

‘You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise’

‘Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise’

‘Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise’

‘I rise
I rise
I rise’

 

%d bloggers like this: