If Not Us, Who?

Today I was talking to refugees that had been living at the port of Piraeas in Athens, Greece. It was about 100 degrees, and there were tents sprawled out across the pavement. I met some people that I'll never be able to forget.

The first man I spoke with told us that his whole family had been killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, his mother, his father, his sister, and his brother. He had no one left. He started crying to us as he told us that his boutique fashion shop had been shut down and that he was alone. As I was walking away, he told me to wait and he pulled a big floppy hat out of one of his bags and gave it to me, despite my protests, to protect me from the sun.

Another man we met was from Iran. He hadn't spoken to his mother in 3 months. I leant him my phone so he could call her. I wish I had been filming so I could share how excited he was to make that phone call. One five minute call to tell his mom that he's alright.

The last refugee we met blew my mind. He was from Afghanistan and he worked for the British military. Because he worked for an enemy, the Taliban was after him. They went to his house and killed his brother thinking it was him. His father called him and told him he could never come home.

That same guy was later in a mosque praying when three terrorists walked in and started shooting. He had his forehead down on the ground and they were shooting people one by one in a line. When one of the shooters reached him, a distraction diverted the shooter's attention. He reached over to the dead man next to him and smeared his blood on the back of his neck so they would think he was already dead. It worked, he was the only person in his row that survived. 162 people were killed that day.

 

Can you believe this is real? I met people today that do not have one person in the world. If we don't help them, who will? 

 

What Was Your Life Like?

Today we are heading to the port of Athens. We are going to ask the refugees we talk to two questions:

·             What did you do for work before you became a refugee?

·             What was your life like?

·             What gives you meaning and purpose to move forward?

Yesterday we asked Salah, a Syrian refugee, those three questions. He was a food sciences engineer when he was in Syria and he had been living in a tent at the port of Athens for five months. When I asked him about what his life was like he replied “In Syria we had dignity. Living here is for animals.”

Before we spoke with Salah, we went to a squat – an abandoned building that a group of refugees had been living in. It was an old school, lockers lined the walls, the classrooms were divided into family homes by sheets and tents. One refugee said that this place was “paradise,” they had running water and a roof over their heads. Yes they were living in an abandoned classroom, but they were lucky to have what they do. Believe it or not, there is a waiting list to live in the school.

A small girl, no older than 3, grabbed my hand as soon as I walked into the building. After playing with her for about ten minutes (which consisted of a lot of tickling and chasing) she pulled me and my friends from the Worldwide Tribe up the stairs to meet her family. She lived in a classroom with her mother, her four siblings, her three cousins, and her aunt. I spoke to her mother in what little English she knew, and I asked her about her husband – the father of her five children. One of the other daughters had just showed me a picture of him and told me “he went away.” The mother made the motion of putting two hands together under her head, indicating a sleeping person – her husband was dead. 

When I spoke to her for a few more minutes I learned that her four-year-old son had died on the boat ride over to Greece. She was alone without her son and her husband – with five children to take care of.   

The goal of our film today, is to show who these refugees are. Yes they have suffered, yes there has been unspeakable pain in their lives, but they aren't just refugees. They are people with agency, with hopes, with dreams, with love. 

You Wouldn't Stop Slavery

I’ve been dealing with this roller coaster of emotions since I began this trip. I walked into the first refugee camp I had spent time in, the Calais Jungle, and I was blown away. By the kindness and the agency of the people I was with.

These are not helpless, they have no other option. If there was any one message I could get across to the world about the refugee crisis it would be this – these people have agency. They are not helpless, in fact they are like us. They are in camps because they have no other option.

We say that if we were around during the time of slavery, we would do something to fight it. I think that’s BS. There are human rights violations that are occurring today that we are doing nothing to stop. You wouldn’t be one of the people who would fight injustice then if you don’t do it now.

I did not feel this way before I saw these camps and met these people. I saw the way they were portrayed by the media. Cold, wet, and dying on boats trying to cross the sea. Or hot, violent, and temperamental. As terrorists or as weaklings. I didn’t feel real pain when I would read the numbers I saw on the NY Times. I thought, “That’s sad, but they are far away - their pain and their struggle doesn’t affect me.”

Today, I spent time in another camp near Athens, Greece. There were about 500 people in the camp and we interviewed a few volunteers that worked in the camp‘s school. One of the volunteers told us about Ahmed (*name changed for security purposes). Ahmed was stabbed in the head while protecting his five-year-old son from being beheaded. He was unsuccessful, his son was killed, and now he is dealing with his pain in a place that is made to remind you of what you have lost. 

Take a minute to think about the humanity. And then take a minute to think about what your role in it is. 

A Show of Power

I don't know how to explain what's going on here. I saw something awful that blew me away today and I heard that in comparison to what has happened here, it's nothing.

This morning I was walking around, meeting, and filming some refugees. When I walked back to the entrance of the camp I saw over 50 policemen in full riot gear. They blocked off the main road and we're going through all of the makeshift shops and restaurants, arresting the owners, and taking away all of their food. We had no idea what was happening, the refugees kept asking us what was going on.

It wasn't until much later that we heard they were doing this because the food wasn't up to "health standards." How do you expect food to be up to health code? These people live in tents, their bathrooms are disgusting portable stalls with no paper, they don't have enough power for refrigerators.

This was not about the health code, this was a show of power. They raided the "kids cafe" where they provide free food and asylum advice for children and unaccompanied minors. They came into our friends' restaurant, "The Welcome Cafe," took down their Afghan flag, and stepped on it.

These people have crossed seas, they've lost friends and family, and they live on nothing because they have no other choice.

What I've realized on this trip is that these are the strongest people I've ever met. I've never had heroes, I haven't had that many people I've looked up to and thought "I want to be like them." But these refugees are my heroes. I can't begin to explain how inspirational they are.

They lose everything they have and they still manage to ask me how I am and offer me a cup of tea. This is more than a refugee crisis, this is a tragedy and we need to do something about it.

A Refugee's Search for Meaning

I’m on my way to London, currently passing over the Grand Canyon – drinking a glass of red wine, maybe it’s a Cabernet?

And I’m thinking about what I’m about to encounter. After I get to London, explore a bit. After I take the train to Tonbridge and drive under the water to Calais. I’m going to see something that is different from anything I have seen before, and what I am about to see will shock me. 

I’m going to a refugee camp. 

To give you a bit of context, I was born and raised in Malibu, California. My experience with poverty consists of a life-changing – albeit weeklong – trip to India. 

While the trip was amazing, I could never reconcile the fact that I was a visitor. A few days in, I was in Varanasi and I witnessed a 4-year-old, too poor to even own a pair of pants, begging. I almost felt like I was outside of my body while I was watching this little boy ask for money – Why was I allowed to go back to a hotel at the end of the night?

But I was a visitor, I had been dealt a certain hand by life, and it was my job to take advantage of what I had been given. I think that’s a major point of disconnect amongst people all over the world. Some are grateful for the opportunities they have in life and some aren’t, but regardless all of us feel like we are different from everyone else. 

Being different becomes a problem when it numbs us to the struggle of others. “That’s awful, but it could never happen to us.” It’s happening so far from this idea we’ve constructed about who we are and what’s important that it’s not our problem.

I want to shrink that disconnect. I want to share a message with the world – we would be just like them if we had been put in the position they are. These refugees are doing the best they know how with what they have been given and we should admire them. They are heroes.

I believe that the best way to share that message is to find the people with the unbreakable spirit – the young man who plays violin to entertain his neighbors, the mother who tells her children stories about what life will be like when they have a home, when they are safe, every night before they go to bed, even if she doesn’t believe it herself. I want to find the people that have a meaning for their life and I want to learn why. As Victor Frankl says “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.”