“Hello, New York!” That’s how the Iraqi father of two greets me. I am opening a package of cups and he is carrying a plastic barrel of water that he’s just filled from the open faucet outside. We are both part of a rotating team preparing tea for the 12,000 refugees stranded at the Greek-Macedonian border. There are four large pots sitting on propane fueled burners. A German university student pours sugar into one of the pots, as a Syrian man reports: “Ashai khalas!” (the tea is finished.) In this team, at least while we’re preparing the tea, there are no differences between the international volunteers and the refugees. We’re all there to help out.
Taking Action: Why I Went
Less than two months before, I was running two fellowships on Dialogue and Social Change at the Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding (CERRU) at Queens College. We ran programs exploring our differences, created spaces for students to discuss divisive social issues, and helped students fix what was broken in their communities.
And yet, it seemed like every day more horrifying reports of violence in Syria popped up in my newsfeed. So one day, as I sat thinking about my goals for the coming months, I realized that I had to do something. My passive horror was not enough. The current refugee crisis is one of the worst humanitarian crises since the second world war. There we were talking about fixing what’s broken in society and out there it was—this big, epic, overwhelming brokenness.
So, I booked a flight to Greece with a simple plan: find the refugees and figure out how I could help.
Over the next four months, I chopped vegetables, distributed clothing, and cooked oatmeal in large pots (which is surprisingly difficult to do without burning it. Twice.) I served tea, organized a women’s soccer game, danced with children, and helped start a language school.
My work took me from Athens to Chios—a small island not far from Turkey—to a sprawling tent city in the fields next to the Greek-Macedonian border, and then back to the heat and concrete of Athens.
The Story Project
Sitting with me and some European activists on a rooftop one evening after a long day of washing dishes and preparing food for the refugees, Rafat and Samer told us their story. Two childhood best friends, they fled Syria and traveled together to Greece on an overloaded raft. They told us how, for twenty-one days, they lived under ISIS after the group took control of their neighborhood in Syria. Rafat told us about the full bodies and the bodies in parts that he saw in the streets. Samer told us about the ISIS fighter who held a knife to his neck and threatened to cut it if he couldn’t prove himself to be a religious Muslim.
We sat, unable to speak for a few minutes. I had known that the war in Syria was real, but this was the first time I felt it.
I started to read the news differently. Policies about the “refugees from the Middle East” became policies that affected my new friends. People who should have been finishing their degrees in literature or law or business but instead had to sit in ISIS prisons, find food for their families, and leave home so they wouldn’t be killed or be forced to kill their fellow citizens.
I realized that we rarely have an opportunity to hear from people who are most affected by stories in the news. Sometimes we get short quotes, or longer paragraphs, but we don’t get to sit down with them and listen to their stories. Instead, we get reports about “the refugees.”
We use the term “refugees” to refer to people who have fled their homes because of armed conflict or persecution. Like any term that describes a person’s status, (think “immigrant” or “divorcee”), we use it because it is a shortcut. With a single word, we bring the focus to a specific group of people. And yet, it also reduces complex humans to their legal status.
Like my friend Rafat, the guy who shared his story on the roof. He happens to be a Syrian refugee. He also studied English literature at Damascus University. I studied the same subject at in New York, at Queens College. We traded favorite Shakespeare sonnets one day—his was Sonnet 130. I love Sonnet 116. Rafat would wake up by 8 am most days and head over to a makeshift kitchen. There, he would join the other activists cutting fruit for the many refugees staying nearby. Then he’d come back to cut vegetables for lunch.
I talked to Rafat and we decided to create a way for people back home and around the world to get to know the refugees as people. We started asking people we knew if they would share their stories.
You can now go to our blog at refugeesite.com, to read and listen to refugees share their personal stories.
We hope that after meeting our friends, you will start to read the news differently. That when you hear the word “refugees,” you will think of real people like Rafat and Samer and Abeer.
And maybe you will take action. Maybe you’ll share a news story on Facebook. You’ll organize a discussion to raise awareness on your campus. Or you’ll raise money to send to organizations helping out on the ground. Maybe you will let your leaders know that your country can and must do more.
It’s not enough to just to have values. Values themselves don’t change anything. It’s when individual people make the choice to act on their values that our world improves.