MORE THAN A REFUGEE

 Spanish Capitol, Madrid, Spain 2014

Spanish Capitol, Madrid, Spain 2014

My initial introduction into understanding the plight of refugees around the world came out of an interview I did 10 years ago with the Minister of Housing for Cape Town, ZA. His name was Zwai, and he described to me the atrocities happening in Zimbabwe and how South Africa as a country was experiencing an influx of refugees from this crisis. He told me the staggering numbers and explained that families were pouring in faster than they could build homes and resources for them. 

 Settlement Camp outside of Cape Town, ZA 2007

Settlement Camp outside of Cape Town, ZA 2007

I later visited these informal settlements outside of both Cape Town and Durban. These were families. Mothers, fathers, and children that had left their homes to live in settlement camps with little resources. I think this is often times a major mis-understanding with refugees. No one wants to leave their home and family and friends. And, no one wants to live in the sparse conditions of an informal settlement. But, when war increases to a level that is unbearable, families make the hard decision to leave to protect their children. Trading their homes, careers, and lives to live in tent camps and temporary housing in other countries. Often times, the conditions they choose are worse than any of us could imagine; and yet, it is still marginally better than the conditions they left behind in their home country.

Years later, I happened to be in Berlin the day that Chancellor Merkel made the now controversial decision to deny the policies of the EU and welcome in as many refugees from the ISIL crisis as possible. According to the laws of the EU, anyone seeking asylum and fleeing to a country within the EU has to stay in the country of original arrival. Meaning, if you crossed the waters and landed in Greece, then you have to stay in Greece to seek asylum. This law is why countries like Greece are under great strain. These countries are closest to the crisis and often times the country of first landing for refugees in the EU. Merkel saw the failures of this law and pledged asylum to more refugees than any other country regardless of the refugees' original arrival country in the EU.

 The Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany 2015

The Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany 2015

Merkel and the German people made the decision to alter its history and establish its own new legacy. Instead of building walls and being a country that kept people out, Germany was opening its borders to let those in need in. Upon this news, refugee families decided to leave Turkey and Hungary and head for the German border. In response to this, Hungary shut down all of its public transit; because, it did not want it to be used by refugees. Families, mostly children, were left with only one option... to walk. And, that is exactly what they did that day. Refugees walked from Hungary to Germany for hours and days even to get to the German border where locals were waiting with open arms, holding welcome signs and hugging people that had made the trek to Germany. The tired Syrians were crying and hugging the Germans tightly back. It was incredible to see these two completely different cultures collide in a moment of kindness and refuge.

 Broken Down Car in Santorini, Greece 2016

Broken Down Car in Santorini, Greece 2016

Later on in this trip, while I was in Copenhagen, I met a man who was half Indian and half Iranian and now working in Dubai. We spoke at length about the crisis happening in the Middle East. He was quite heartbroken over the crisis, and  went on to tell us a story that I will share with you because this perfectly depicts what I have seen and experienced as well:

He was on a train heading into Germany. It was the type of train where the seats face each other. Across from him was a Middle Eastern man carrying only a bottle of water and a pack of crackers. For 6 hours, this man didn't say a word. He looked out the window, stone faced. After hours of complete silence, he muttered to my friend: "Germany?" My friend nodded saying, "yes, we just crossed into Germany." The man laid back in his chair, closed his eyes, and smiled as a tear fell. He had finally made it to safety. 

Shortly after crossing into Germany, the police came on to the train and asked this man for his papers. Being a refugee from crisis, he had nothing to his name. He shook his head to the police who looked over at my Middle Eastern friend. The man shook his head again pointing at my friend and saying "No, no, no." He was trying to let the police know, that my friend wasn't a refugee and was asking them not to take him as well. Here was a man that we can only assume had been through so much and his concern was that my friend not be wrongly profiled and taken off the train. My friend said the man never fought the police. He was calm. He knew they would come for him, but all he wanted was to make it into Germany. He wanted to make it to safety. 

 A Look-Out Spot in Santorini, Greece 2016

A Look-Out Spot in Santorini, Greece 2016

I saw quite a few similar situations like my friend described while on my trip to Europe. I also saw how controversial the issue has become all over the EU. With the high number of refugees pouring in, it has put a great fear and strain on so many countries. And, there are many arguments being made on both sides of this crisis. And, as depicted in the above picture, not everyone agrees with Merkel's stance on refugees. For me personally, while I understand the difficulties in taking in refugees, I just can't look passed the families I saw crying in bus stations, trying to figure out what to do and where to go. I can't describe what it was like to see this again and again. It was overwhelming. And, to me, it seemed so utterly and completely unjust.

I went on to end my trip in Greece. Here is a country on the brink of economic collapse and yet so much is being done to care for the refugees. There are countless organizations that spend their days on the beaches of Greece just waiting for people to float in, hopefully alive, so that they can help them to shore and get them to safety. (Read Here) Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to volunteer in the camps due to restrictions by the UN, but the NGO's were all willing to talk with me about the needs in the camps. And, again and again, every organization I interviewed had the same response: "Anything helps. Money, donations of food, volunteering time, and bringing more awareness." "Please tell more Americans what is really going on," one organization wrote.

 Buildings in Downtown Athens, Greece 2016

Buildings in Downtown Athens, Greece 2016

Syria is still the largest source of refugees. 10 million Syrians have fled their war torn country in seek of refuge. That is more than half of the country's original population. Collectively, around the globe, 65.6 million people were displaced in 2016 alone. This is more refugees than our world has ever seen before. And, what most people don't realize is that "more than half the refugees around the globe are under the age of 18, even though children make up 31 percent of the world's population." (U.N. Report) So let's do the math, 65 million refugees half of which are children, so 32.8 million children. Half of those children are now orphans. That means 16.4 million refugees are orphaned children many of whom traveled alone escaping their country of origin to seek shelter and safety. This crisis is staggeringly tragic.

 Children Playing in a Settlement Camp, Cape Town, ZA 2007

Children Playing in a Settlement Camp, Cape Town, ZA 2007

I often remind myself of what Zwai told me in that first meeting in Cape Town. He could see on my face that I was overwhelmed with emotion as I heard about the crisis happening in Zimbabwe, Uganda (remember that Kony Video), and the Sudan. He leaned over the table, grabbed my hand, and said something I will never forget: 

"Kristi, what is happening in our world today should not lead us to despair, but rather, vigorous action." 

I felt and still do feel responsible for what I know and have seen. The refugee crisis is something very near and dear to my heart because it is something I have witnessed and interacted with. It is tangible to me. I carry around the things I have seen, and the stories I have been told with me every day. The plight of refugees really does keep me up at night as I lay awake wondering how I could be a part of doing something, anything, to intervene with this complex tragedy. While I can't currently volunteer in person, what I can do is use my small platform to shine a light on this issue and hopefully bring about more awareness and a sense of humanity that is not often being told in our main stream media. 

Let's all come together and educate ourselves more on the issues at stake. And please, donate in any way that you can. If you live in LA, the Miry's List Organization works with refugees resettling in Southern California. You can visit any of the Amazon lists for their families resettling in America and order a delivery for the family. And, if you want to give globally, these organizations, Khora and InterVolve, are doing great work to assist the refugees still living in the camps. Please, donate what you can. Every dollar really does make a difference. Please watch the video below and listen to the stories of these refugee families resettling in the US. Continue to share their stories and others to bring more and more awareness to the refugee crisis happening in our world today. And, lastly, if you know of a refugee family living in your area, reach out. Make a difference.