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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Agenda for humanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Violence Aid Workers

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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I stepped off the hour late overnight ferry from Athens across the gangplank and onto the Greek island of Lesvos in the town of Mytilene.  The Aegean sparkled in the morning sun and terracotta tile roofs boldly climbed the mountainside behind the harbor.  Historic style buildings dotted the landscape of this tourist paradise and I wondered to myself “How could this be the European epicenter of the refugee crisis?”

After waiting outside my summer accommodations for 30 minutes for someone to open the door, I abandoned my post leaning up against the door and went on the search for wifi.  Conveniently, I found those little bars of goodness at a phone shop where I also purchased a SIM card. Greece is super tight on registering SIM cards, requiring my passport, father’s name, and blood type. Ok, they didn’t ask my blood type, but the process was longer than any other country I’ve bought a data plan in.

When I finally got in touch with the volunteer coordinator, I was assured she would be there to open the door for me.  When I arrived the second time, I was brought to my room which had an absolute gorgeous view.  Yet again, I felt the guilty intrigue of basically living an island paradise life while so much suffering was going on right around the corner.  I was handed house keys and a badge and vest to be worn at all times in the camp.

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View from the balcony of my 3rd story room. The Aegean sparkles just a few blocks away; the landmass in the distance is Turkey.

After I washed the previous day’s grime off of me, I entered the buzzing kitchen to meet other volunteers from Jordan, Netherlands, Canada, and Spain.  They were making sangria and talking about the rooftop party they were having on Friday, which they assured me, I would be able to get out of the night shift (11pm-5am) at midnight so I could make the start of.

We left on foot a short while later and on the 15 minute walk to a taxi stand, the conversations of last night’s escapades, tonight’s party plans and how late everyone stays up to drink frightened me a little bit.  Either I was living in a college frat house, or the situation was so bad that people are going deep into drinking as a coping mechanism.

A ten minute taxi ride at the cost of 5.10 Euros got us to the camp entrance, which from the road you would never be able to tell was a refugee camp.  In fact, walking inside, I still wouldn’t have necessarily guessed it was a refugee camp as it differed heavily from the image I had in my mind.  There were no tents flapping in the wind or hoards of people standing in line for services like food.  There were spotlessly clean facilities, numerous garbage cans which were frequently emptied that lined main streets adorned with lights, nice looking housing units made out of vinyl, and a community garden.

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Kara Tepe Camp Housing Units, Source: irinnews.org

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Kara Tepe Community Garden, Source: HSA Facebook page

I felt pretty stupid for being so far from the mark with what I was expecting.  Having misguided expectations to be the norm for me as I remember the first time I set out on the Appalachian Trail in the North, I thought it was going to be a wide and relatively flat walking path in the woods.  Within the first three miles, I knew I had made a grave error in planning.

After reviewing requisite paperwork and agreeing not to hold the organization I’m working with liable if I die, recognizing that “Sexual relations with Persons of Concern is strongly discouraged” but not prohibited for some reason, and other policies like no photos within the camp, I sat around with other volunteers.  After two hours passed of doing nothing, I started to second guess my choice to be here.  “I should have gone to Lebanon,” I thought over and over in my head.  I could have done some real good, I could have built houses, ran games with kids, made a real difference in an area starving for help.

I was assured by other volunteers that it was abnormal to have so much down time, but we were just waiting for food to arrive which was very late. I was just letting my own inadequacies get to me as I quickly started to get down on myself for a number of things, already thinking I wasn’t going to make a difference.  All the other volunteers spoke different languages.  They switched flawlessly in conversation with one another between French, Greek, Italian, and Spanish. Several spoke Arabic or Farsi with residents of the camp who came to our station to get tea.  Most days, I can barely articulate my thoughts in my single native language.

What came next, was something I could excel at: carrying heavy crates of food.  A catering company provides all the meals and drops them off basically whenever they are done preparing them within a 2 hour window.  The camp is divided up into five different sections of delivery, so volunteers work with some residents of the camp who want to help out to deliver food directly to everyone’s housing unit.  As I saw this unfold, I immediately fell in love with the labor intensive process.  Sure, we carry crates that bash our knees and pull our arms from our socket, but it offers such an important opportunity to interact with everyone.

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Kara Tepe Camp Map, Source: reliefweb.int

Each person is entitled to one plastic container (the size of a Chinese combination dish container) of a hot dish, and several other items that are delivered apparently depending on the day.  Today for lunch, it was eggplant and potatoes in some sort of red sauce.  In addition, there was a large (12oz?) cup of plain yogurt, a bag with a cucumber and tomato that people make salad out of, an 8” loaf of bread and spoon.

In each group, someone has a clipboard that goes by the housing unit records to say how many people live there. Each food item has a different volunteer to deliver it, and as I was the new guy, I handed out the saucy container that leaked red oil down my arm.  Volunteers handing out spoons must wear gloves, an option which I will definitely partake in next time. Some people lied and said they didn’t get food, which I don’t blame them for, I would be trying to eat as much as possible too.  They are denied, but the painful part was that after distribution is done, all extra food is brought back to the tea station where volunteers can take multiple servings.

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Containers of yogurt await food distribution, Source: HSA Facebook page

I’m told that how we people receive food will be changing soon as Oxfam, the financier of said operation, is running out of funding for this camp.  There are 700-800 people in the camp currently, but at its height, there were 3,500 people, and nowhere near enough housing to accommodate them.  One of the most shocking things that hit me first was how many kids are running around.  It’s not uncommon to see a family with 4 or 5 kids, and many are quite young.  In my mind, I think that has to be one of the motivating factors to leave a country collapsing in turmoil; to give your kids a better life.

As wasps circled the sweet tea where we were eating lunch, Eddie who is another teacher from the US starting teaching a 3 year old boy how to play baseball, with a new plastic bat and ball the kid was carrying around.  I joined in, trying to show the kid how to hold the bat with two hands, look at the ball as it came through.  I caught as Eddie tossed some over the plate.  The kid cranked what would have been at least a double, but tried to go Bam-Bam on the rest.  We drew a good crowd who gave some cheers and laughs.  I think we’ll have some more time to drill fundamentals later.

After lunch, I went to work sorting boxes of donations that roll in each day and are tossed next to a green shipping container which houses boxes of sorted items.  On either side of the container are large tents filled to the top with clothing donations that are sorted, and counted.  Sprinkled around the area are handfuls of other boxes with more items that wouldn’t fit inside the tents.  I’m told by the guy who runs the receiving area, that they have more stuff than they know what to do with.

They had just received 50,000 individual sugar packets as a donation, which seems like a huge number, but judging by the number of wasps flying around the tea station, will certainly be used.  First, someone will have to go through the tedious process of tearing each one open to access the few grams of sugar inside.

I remember for middle school canned food drives my mom would let me clear the cabinets of things we haven’t used and must have been bought because they were on sale.  Waxed beans, beef consume, cream of mushroom, cranberry sauce, and a can of Chunky soup thrown in for every 15 cans of lesser items so I didn’t feel so bad about my donation.  Clothes donations are a lot like that as well.  I sorted through a lot of crap that other people certainly don’t want to wear, as it was clear the original owner never wanted to wear.  Bags of moldy, burnt, stained clothes triggered the gag reflex, as I threw 5 things in the trash for every one thing I sorted into a usable pile.

This was all happening amongst Greek ruins: collapsed columns, finely chiseled marble wall blocks, and probably some pottery shards that we just didn’t notice.  We were literally on an ancient archaeological site that was converted to a camp when I assume space was needed to handle the arrival of 2,000 people a day to Lesvos.

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Kara Tepe: A refugee camp built on top of ancient/Ottoman ruins.  Source: Getty Images (obviously)

When needed, these sorted boxes get moved 80 meters across the gravel access road to camp and into a green shipping container to restock the supply at the distribution point.  Around this hot box is a cage where families can make appointments one day prior and show up 1 time per month to get up to one article in each category of noticeably used clothing (socks, long sleeve shirt, short sleeve shirt, etc).  This is the most stressful part of the volunteer job because you have to basically hand people a lot of crap and hope they like it.

It’s high summer and there are no men’s shorts left.  Our clothing line for 5-10 year olds consists of a couple pairs of sweatpants and four boys shirts that are extra wide.  If people thought they were going to get shoes on their visit, they will be upset to see we have one pair of black dress shoes in size 39 with a hole worn in the side.  While some people are truly grateful for whatever they receive.  Others are visibly upset, throwing clothes back at volunteers and ripping appointment tickets in our faces.  I get it, a lot of what we show isn’t something I would want to be wearing.  When it’s upwards of 90 degrees and a man asking for shorts is shown a pair of corduroy pants two sizes two big and told there is nothing else, I would be frustrated too.

As I try to channel my inner fashionista in the awkward process of looking at a person’s body and bringing them a couple pairs of underwear that I think might fit, I enter a new level of uncomfortable failure. A woman from Lebanon tells me she is thankful even though the 7 dresses I showed her were not to her liking and she left empty handed.  A man from Iraq leaves with nothing after requesting a black shirt and sees the only one we have has a yellow kangaroo having sex with a giant rat on it.

Appointments often take a full hour.  Residents are not allowed to see our clothes selection so we try to communicate regarding what they want, and then bring out 4 or so items, hoping that they pick one of them.  The process is exciting when someone chooses something you bring them, but you have to work for those moments.  Already, I have held up skirts to proclaim their beauty and moved my hips to make the fabric sway in the wind.  The family I was helping got a laugh out of that, but didn’t like the skirt.  The most powerful summary of how clothing distribution works can be tied together with one simple fact: the second word of Arabic I learned here was “mafi” which translates roughly to “there’s no more”

Ramadan had just ended and it was tradition to give gifts and get new clothes celebrating the new year holiday of Eid.  Many families had been disappointed with the getting of new clothes part, but one NGO that works in the camp bought toys for all of the kids; certain packs for boys and certain packs for girls.  Just around 10pm, it was decided without a plan, we would pass out toys to kids who were all wondering around the camp.  When they saw what we had, hoards of little ones flocked to us.  We went from housing unit to housing unit asking how many children they had.  As people saw what we were passing out, they gave us inflated numbers of phantom kids and we ran out of toys as we got just about halfway through.  The Santa Claus feeling I got from kids following me around kissing my arms asking for toys was quickly turned into despair as we had to make plans to buy more tomorrow and simply tell bright eyed children who just wanted some hope to play with, “mafi.”

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