In late fall of 2015 I saw a video on Facebook of a raft full of refugees that sank trying to get to the EU from Turkey; everyone except a young girl and baby had drowned, including her fiancé. It was the final straw. I knew in that moment that I could no longer continue to walk through my life in integrity without acting in response to what was happening.
I felt with every cell of my being as if these people halfway around the globe were my very own family. I felt it in my bones. If it was my family, I would go help them without hesitation—so why should it be different for anyone else? We are all valuable, precious human beings sharing this planet.
It felt as if another force lifted my arm and purchased the ticket to Lesvos, Greece. The airline miles I’d been saving for years for some exotic vacation were just barely enough to get me there. I wondered if I was crazy, but I knew I had to go.
I arrived on the island of Lesvos exhausted and jet lagged on Dec 15th and immediately was thrown into the chaos of thousands of refugees arriving nightly on an island of 80,000 permanent residents.
I spent 14 hour nights on the beaches, searching the horizon for blinking cell phones or the dark shadows of overstuffed rafts filled to the brim with refugees escaping for their lives. I lifted shivering babies out of broken boats, stuffed emergency blankets down their shirts, replaced wet socks, warmed them from hypothermia. I held mothers as they cried, treated injured grandmothers, watched grown men kiss the ground. I handed out water, snacks, and hope.
As the sky turned to light, I would go directly from the beaches to the prison converted into a registration camp – not officially a refugee camp because then the government would have to provide more humane services. Here, thousands of families waited for days– infirm, freezing, with young children, babies and the elderly, to get permission to move on to the mainland. It was a nightmare, thousands of displaced people, cold, hungry, dirty, disorganized, without shelter, sanitation, enough food or medical treatment, sleeping on the ground in subzero temperatures.
The failure of the UN, EU, Greek Government, and large international NGOs to provide for these people was shocking and heartbreaking.
There were large shared tents without heat or light. There was one bathroom with toilets overflowing. People were cold and wet. The only source of heat was burning plastic bottles and stolen branches from the surrounding olive groves. Families were stuck for days and weeks waiting for registration, without the means to continue on, and sometimes denied registration altogether.
These people, fleeing war for safety and a better life for their children, became my dear friends. I spent nights with them sucking down burning plastic fumes by the fire as they burned old clothes, water bottles and broken boots. I carried their babies up steep hills to mix formula for them. I found human shaped grey blankets, nudged them awake and tucked them inside tents in the cold. I brought sick individuals to the medical tent. I held days old babies. I charmed the greek police into fast tracking special cases. I haggled with the Greek food vendors. I worked the distribution NGOs to get extra blankets, crackers, anything to help these people survive. The big NGOs and UNHCR weren’t providing enough blankets, hats, gloves, shoes, pants, jackets, tents – so I bought them by the hundreds with donation money. They disappeared almost instantly.
I didn’t sleep, I barely ate. Every two feet was another crisis. An epileptic woman fell and her face was bleeding. A 15 year old pregnant girl was throwing up and her father stopped me. A family had two babies with the flu who might die if forced to sleep outside in the rain another night. This family was robbed by smugglers, their cousin shot, and they need tickets to Athens. This boy is 15 and all alone. Please – my wife – she’s sick and I don’t know what to do. Days and weeks went by in a blur that felt like one long day. Every night families with children would arrive soaking wet and were left out in the freezing conditions – I carried around a large trash bag full of tents, hats and gloves to pass out. They called me “mama noel”. I became known as the person who could help where the system failed. I paid for hotel rooms for the vulnerable. I bought tickets. I discussed options with those who had run out of options.
The worst night was the night we lost a boat off the south end of the island. My guts still clench and hot tears form in the corners of my eyes when I think of it. It was a stormy, frigid dark night. Our network of independent international volunteers kept messaging about a boat. We drove up and down the south coast searching for the light. Someone would think they saw it. We tried so hard to get them north. But we couldn’t. They disappeared into the night. We knew what it meant.
It was impossible not to project all my newfound friends onto that boat. The women I laughed with yesterday. The toddlers sitting on my lap. The young Syrian journalist who spoke with me about politics and had volunteered in Syria himself. The newlywed afghan couple. The man I fell in love with and never told. The auntie who tucked her arm into mine and walked around. The kind man who helped me set up tents. The women who escaped from ISIS. People like you and me, just wanting safety and to build a new life. Gone.
But even in all this darkness, there was light.
Everyday I saw the worst of humanity, but I saw the best of humanity, too.
The support from home was extraordinary. The average donation was $100, and we raised over $60,000 in less than a month. I was in awe of the generosity and outpouring of love and support from home. I experienced first hand the power of our one human family uniting. Despite their busy lives, that they don’t know these people, that they have families of their own, hundreds of people reached out and helped. The kindness and compassion of the people in my facebook community was life giving, enabling me to work without rest. Together, we were able to change and even save lives. I could never have done what I did without them. Every dollar made a difference. Together, we were able to rise.
They turned their love into money, so I could turn it back into love to give to the people who needed it most.
And then there were the other independent volunteers, individuals from all over the world, who selflessly devoted their time, energy, skills, money and love to come to these islands and help their human family in distress. Lifeguards, cooks, nurses, dentists, doctors, tea makers, artists, clowns, laundresses, childcare professionals, teachers, lawyers, contractors, people from every walk of life. Each one inspired me beyond measure and moved me to a greater version of myself.
We each have unique gifts, and when we give in the way that is in harmony with our soul and unique talents – we create a synergistic emergence – we create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Finally, the refugees themselves, were full of light – courage, kindness, and generosity beyond measure despite all they had been through. Each person forced to leave their home is on a heroic journey in search of a safe and viable life for themselves and their families. Their courage to step into the unknown, strength to risk everything while maintaining hope, faith, and kindness, their commitment to each other, the many who volunteer in Syria and at the camp to help fellow refugees, the way they take one foot in front of the other every day, with gratitude despite so much hardship and loss, and at the winds of fate, putting their trust in the powers that be with grace and dignity.
More than all of the direct aid we offered, over and again it was reflected back to me that is was the LOVE and RESPECT with which they were treated that meant the most and that gave them the strength to continue on their journey. The love of other human beings was the light they needed to keep going.
We all have the capacity to be that light of love in this world, and together we shine exponentially more brightly. The energy with which we show up to serve each other creates the most lasting impact. When we help each other, all are benefited.
The challenges we face now as a species – environmental, economic, socio-political – are global issues that impact everyone, and we must work together to rise above them.
When I returned to the States, my life had changed, and One Light Global was born.
Since then, we have built a team of incredible souls – everyday heroes and servant leaders – who are committed to creating a world where everyone is treated with love, respect, dignity and has the right to freedom and fulfillment. We are working in the USA and across the globe to meet the needs of people fleeing from war and collaborate with them to create a better future for all.
One World. One Family. One Light.