One year ago my life consisted of working full time as a flight attendant for a major airline, visiting my family in America, traveling to a new country every month on my days off and taking food from time to time to the homeless.
I was always looking for something to do to give back to the world as I felt I had so much. I led such an amazing life; adventure travel, fine dining and many social events. At the end of last summer that all changed.The following is an update on what I've learned over this last year - a year that has completely changed my entire outlook on life.
This time last year I was shopping for dresses and shoes for a summer ball in the south of France. I was devastated when I found out the girl I was going to the ball with had the same dress. When I look back to that time, I can hardly imagine getting upset about something so trivial.
Most things now don't phase me in comparison to the hardships I see every day, since I have made a life changing decision to help with the world’s refugee crisis.
I have had a lifetime of opportunities, traveling around the world to exotic places, meeting amazing people from different countries and studying many languages. There's so much I took for granted.
I wake up every morning with a grateful heart and a desire to make a positive change in the world; to give back, help others and spread love around the world. I have so many ideas on how to make it happen.
An Introduction to the Crisis
I remember the first time I traveled to Nickelsdorf, Austria; I saw people walking from Hungary into Austria. They were wet, cold and starving and they all had a stark look of sadness on their face.
We didn't have a lot of time to converse as I gave them food, clothes and shoes (if I could ever find a pair that fit.) I knew from the very first day that this would be challenging, gruelling and arduous work; little did I know how many challenges we would all face.
It didn't take long before I was flying to Greece to volunteer on the front lines. I received an enormous outpouring from people around the world reaching out to me with offers of support, encouragement, advice and resources!
I started a Facebook page Love Without Borders-For Refugees in Need to bring awareness to the refugee crisis and ask for support in the United States.
I started “Coffee and Meet” in Frankfurt, which is a group set up to welcome newcomers to the city and meet for coffee or a meal. I also started a “GoFundMe page,” a crowd funding campaign to get support for the time I spent on the front lines.
I knew in my heart of hearts that social media was the key to reaching people everywhere. Facebook, WhatsApp, Zoom and Instagram have all become daily tools in order to communicate, organize meetings and reach the multitudes. I went to London and Paris to a Techfugees conference, a Hub Culture refugee meet up and even wrote to Mark Zuckerburg to thank him.
Leveraging my Background in Travel
With my travel background, I searched out places that needed the most help, 'hotspots' as we call them. I flew to Hungary, Austria, Athens, Leros, Kos and Lesbos, Greece.
I connected with a local group each time and assisted in every way possible. I worked with amazing volunteers from around the world, oftentimes sharing stories after a long day of distribution. I worked alongside medical groups and humanitarians, teachers and students, people from all walks of life, giving up their studies or taking time off of work volunteering to serve those less fortunate.
They were my saving grace – every single one of these people were my support network in whom I could confide. We used our vacation time, our savings, our profit sharing, and with support from family and friends we have set up some amazing platforms, school communities and projects to keep the refugee community active and learning.
Learning the People's Stories
On the Greek islands, I was able to spend more time getting to know people and hearing their stories. New cultures are fascinating to me. I learned about the politics in many countries and the hardships these people have had to endure for so many years.
I learned a lot about the people from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq amongst others. They have become my friends and my family. We support each other and confide in one another.
I've also been honored to meet the kids of Kavala. The children are the majority in the military camps in which I work; they are full of love and light. They are what inspire me and keep me motivated. They have suffered immeasurably and still manage to smile, have fun and give the best hugs ever. No one truly knows the trials these people have endured until you've sat down with a cup of chai and listened, just listened.
I have worked with and continue to work with a small group-URMP who have spent numerous hours creating a data base of all the missing persons in the Aegean Sea, communicating with the families and trying to support for the families in need. I have the utmost respect for these volunteers and all the thousands of volunteers that are involved.
Every month, with the help of a lot of amazing friends, I bring in aid, in various forms. From one continent to another. I have brought close to one hundred bags in the last year, distributing to camps in Germany and Greece, offering a helping hand and most importantly, support to the many displaced people all throughout Greece.
Sometimes a title isn't important. Sometimes as a human being, just feeling the raw pain and walking through the situation with someone is more helpful than anyone can imagine. Holding a hand in time of need, hugging a child, a smile, an ear to listen or just being present.
I get multitudes of messages every day from strangers that just want a friend to listen to them, looking for some sort of support. I take time out to answer each and every message.
Art as a Solution
In the last month, I have also created two groups; one is for the children to take part in art projects. I organize these in their tents or sometimes in the park next to my house where I order some nice Greek food and the children can play on the swings and slides.
It gives them time to get away from the camp and they're the happiest when they can just be kids and play. We draw, use watercolors and crayons to let the children express their feelings. The creations have made me smile, laugh and cry.
I have put the paintings on canvas and have sent them to the United States, Norway, England, France, Germany and Italy. The proceeds go directly to the child who created that piece of art and so far they've sent me photos of pots and pans they bought so their mothers can cook for them in the camps, food and one selfie stick!
So far we have sold close to fifteen drawings. One mother told me that her son was up until midnight drawing and didn't want to stop. He was so thrilled to hear his art was traveling to Serbia, America and Germany. He also told us that since he's been separated from his father he has never felt such happiness until he started painting.
His six year old sister said she was surprised when she saw what she had created- a beautiful vase of colorful flowers. The little boys painting ended up with a very happy owner in America. We have plans to exhibit the art in America, Greece and England to create awareness.
I have also started a group teaching jewelry making. For the past 10 years, I have designed jewelry as a hobby and I donate to charities. I thought it would be a great idea to give the ladies (and some men) an interesting skill that they can possibly use in the future. I have purchased a large amount of materials and will give classes in northern Greece. We will have live videos as well as photos of our creations.
Where to begin
So many people get overwhelmed as they see too many needs and don't know where to start. Start by listening. People want to share their stories, they want to be heard, and they want a friend.
I would encourage people to look up their closest resettlement agency or contact the U.S. Refugee Council and they can direct them. In the U.S. thousands of people are arriving by the end of the year. For the locals in the Washington D.C. area, I urge you to join us for the rally on the 28th August. Every rally, petition, protest is a step forward and a show of solidarity.
In the meantime, I have found an apartment in northern Greece which I have made my new home. I have some future projects which I want to include the locals with which will be announced soon.
Purchasing products, services and giving the local Greeks an opportunity to boost the economy. We bring an enormous amount of revenue into the local economies and even though its 'Volunteer Tourism', we like to see everyone prosper.
I've been fortunate to meet so many Greeks that offered their homes, food and working around the clock on projects to make the situation a little more bearable.
Can I Help you get Started?
I am connected with amazing volunteers all around Europe. If you would like to support in a certain country, I am happy to connect you. I was just invited to 'Deep Roots, Strong Trees' seminar in Belgrade, Serbia to speak on a panel with other volunteers.
Sharing Volunteering Experiences
This was a perfect weekend after three weeks of volunteering in Greece. We were able to discuss problems, concerns and strategize. It's the first time in one year that someone was reaching out to us as a volunteer group and it’s great to know that I have a team to back me up should I need assistance.
I will be sharing a few groups that are doing some amazing things in Serbia, Hungary and Greece on my Love Without Borders Page. These are the people on the ground getting things done.
A project I've been trying to implement for a while now is the distribution of milk in one of the camps in northern Greece. I have met with several NGOs and am working to collaborate with as many groups as possible to get this project started. A future goal would be to have a traveling milk van that could supplement the needs in many camps in northern Greece, more to come.
Thank you, Prosper, for giving me this platform to share my stories, Natasha for always being there to support and advise. My family, friends and donors/supporters for trusting me with your hard earned money.
I will continue to give a voice to those who are silent and support to those who are in need. Let's hope for an end to the bombing, an end to the wars and to start a shift in the world to bring peace, solidarity and acceptance.
With Great respect
Missing Persons/URMP: https://www.facebook.com/unitedrescuesmissingpersons/
Children’s Art: Nea Kavala-Art Without Borders
Jewelry Making: Designs Without Borders-For Refugees In Need