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Posts Tagged ‘Kara Tepe’

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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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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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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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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’

 

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I almost punched a 16 year old boy in the face.  It was my natural instinct as he bit down hard into the flesh of my shoulder while my head was turned away from him.  I stopped my clenched fist mid-air as it was flying toward his cheekbone with malice. My mind luckily kicked in to calm my autonomic response and remind me where I was. We had been talking about America’s role in the Middle East which was perhaps an unwise topic to dive into with two Iraqi teenagers on my second day working in a refugee camp.

In a place with such diversity and limited language overlap, one of the first questions people ask is “Where are you from?” I don’t lie when people ask this and even if I did, with a backwards hat, sunglasses, and neon Nikes, most people already know.  I am apparently a walking American bro stereotype that only led one person astray so far when guessing my country of origin (they said France).

I apologized several times for my country’s transgressions in Iraq after being called out for the phantom search for “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”  “You lied to the world and destroyed our country because of it,” the older boy said.  “And then you make ISIS,” a point to which I also apologized knowing full well how America destabilized the region and in trying to destroy al-Qaeda, in fact helped promote the growth of a splinter cell who carries out atrocities that were too extreme even for al-Qaeda.

I get it, we messed up big time and the more I read on the topic, the more I understand just how short-sighted our approach was in Iraq.  But that’s how hindsight works, except it doesn’t work as a reflection on destroying a country and creating devastation that has caused a 16 and 18 year old boy to flee that you are now sitting face to face with as they unleash their trauma on you.  “I don’t like America, but I like you because I am not closed minded” the older one boasted.  “America, no good,” the younger one echoed using the little English he knew to embrace a feeling he knew well.

“You know it’s fucked up how America funds ISIS” the older one stated in a transition to larger issues.  He proudly if not haphazardly explained the theory that America bankrolls the black-flagged terrorist activities targeting the Western world while destroying the Middle East and beyond so we can justify the hatred and destruction of Islam. We reached an impasse in our only ten minute conversation as I started to express the “What do you know, you’re only 18?” attitude to counter his “What do you know, you haven’t lived in Iraq?” attitude.   We were both too stubbornly sure of our opinions formed by bias media to continue on that topic as tempers were starting to burn red-hot.

At this point it’s important to note that the feelings Iraqis have towards Americans is noticeably and understandably, a mixed bag.  Syrians, while often wishing we would step in and assist the toppling of the Assad regime with full force, tend to like America very much.

Wanting to hear more, even if it was a slew of words I didn’t like or even believe, I simply asked to hear more.  In talking about Saddam Hussein, the older boy said “He was both good and bad, but more good than bad” recounting what he must have heard from his parents and pop-culture.  This wishy-washy celebration of death spewing tyrants is exactly how most of my students in China express their feelings towards Mao Zedong.  I needed to dig deeper.  “What exactly was good about him?” I said trying to hide the slightly arrogant American tone that oozed off of the word good like puss out of a wound.

He liked that Saddam was a man of action, even if inflammatory and deranged. “When he made the plan to fire 39 rockets at Israel and destroy them, he asked other countries to fire the 40th.” In trying to orchestrate a complete wipeout of the Jewish nation, the older boy expressed how he was “disappointed” that no other countries stepped up and followed through on “such a great plan” to destroy Israel.

“But then America comes in and killed him.” I had turned my head because I didn’t know how to respond to the eighteen year old’s characterization of a war criminal who placed such little value on humanity, it didn’t make his priority list at all.  I felt a sharp pain as bicuspids sunk into my deltoid just as quickly triggering my body to jerk away and my arm to swing around in one fluid motion.  An invisible force stopped my fist mid-flight.  I wanted to hit this scrawny little kid square in the chest as he broke his slobber clenched jaw from my body, but as a child, he has already experienced enough violence for 5 million lifetimes.

The next post is the story of that kid who bit me on my second day, but now affectionately calls me Captain America and is one of my best friends in camp.

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