Posts Tagged With: Safety

A few stories

Over the past couple of weeks, Jordan and I have gotten to hear several stories of the people stuck here in Serbia.

Jordan talked with one man who explained he was a lawyer in Afghanistan who fought child marriage. The Taliban saw him as a threat and tried to kill him, so he escaped with his family.

I’m teaching English to a 12-yr-old Afghan girl who used to be a refugee in Iran before the country kicked her family out. They were smuggled out of Iran and into Turkey, she said, with Iranian police shooting at their car. She hugged her little sisters close so a bullet wouldn’t hit them.

Jordan and I spoke to an interpreter who had worked for the American military. Someone in his village told the Taliban what he did, and sent him death threats. His parents urged him to leave, but he misses his little brothers every day.

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Jordan talked with a 25-year-old Afghan who lived in Pakistan. There weren’t any jobs, so he decided to travel to Europe because he already knew German, C++, Java, and several other programming languages as an IT developer. He crossed through Turkey legally, but then got caught up in the refugee crisis. Although he’s a migrant worker trying to get a work visa and immigrate properly, suddenly the wave of people are causing the governments to restrict immigration.

We helped hand out food at the barracks, where many of the refugees sleep, and I noticed many preteen boys with only flip-flops on their feet in 28 degree F weather. They coughed and shivered in line, waiting for a bowl of hot bean soup. I’m worried they’ll lose some toes to frostbite if nothing changes for them.

Recently, I met some Syrian refugees–the first for me, actually. Three teenage girls sat in the women’s corner sipping on tea, recovering from their 6-hour trek from the Macedonian border into Serbia overnight.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Damascus,” they told me in halting English. “We spent five months in Greece, and last week we walked out of Greece, through Macedonia, and here.”

Two of the girls were sisters, the third a family friend. They traveled with the friend’s mother and 8-year-old brother.

“My mother is in Greece still, on an island,” one of the sisters told me. They didn’t say anything about either father, and by the way they were avoiding it I think the fathers are either still in Syria, fighting and saving money to join their families, or dead.

I have a little English class where I teach three teenage girls about grammar and comprehensions every day. Today I had them write five sentences each about what they wanted to be when they grew up.

The 12-year-old told me she wants to be an OBGYN because that was her mother’s dream. Her mother was smart enough to pass the university entrance exam in Afghanistan, but too poor to attend college. “It will be hard and I will spend lots of time in school,” she told me. But I want it.”

The 16-year-old told me she wants to become a brain surgeon because “lots of people in Afghanistan get hurt and need doctor but don’t have enough money. So they die from the sickness.”

The other 16-year-old said she loves babies and helping people. She wants to become a pediatrician and one day work for an organization like Doctors Without Borders.

I was moved to tears by these bright, hopeful girls and their dreams. I couldn’t tell them that Germany, where their families all wanted to settle, is now denying asylum applications and deporting Afghans back to Afghanistan. They are some of the smartest girls I’ve ever met (they even ask me to assign homework!) and they’ve been out of school for over a year. The chances of them achieving their dreams are minimal.

And I look at their eager faces, their shining eyes, and think what a horrible, tragic waste. They deserve so much more than what the Taliban and obstinate EU countries have given them. If nothing changes, the world will miss out on three of the most caring, compassionate doctors that ever could’ve been.

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So far, in our volunteering, Jordan and I feel a bit useless, unable to give them what they really need. But I love talking with them, getting to know the people, becoming real friends and learning about their lives. It’s amazing how similar we are.

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Categories: Serbia | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

So you want to volunteer

If you’re interested in volunteering, like Jordan and I, there are lots of options in many countries.

In my research to choose an area to volunteer in, I picked up a lot of information that might help anyone looking into the same work. This list is by no means exhaustive, and needs change quickly and often. But here’s a list of resources to get you started:

General

Balkans

  • Project Hope is a worldwide organization but has its focus in the Balkan states. They accept volunteers
  • Hot Food Idomeni is the only group delivering hot food to the homeless refugees in Belgrade, Serbia
  • Refugee Aid Miksaliste works mostly with the homeless refugees in Belgrade, Serbia by providing charging centers, activity corners, and language workshops run by volunteers
  • Refugee Aid Serbia facilitates information, distributes clothing, and works closely with the homeless refugees in Belgrade, Serbia.
  • Info Park is a hub of information for the refugees on the street and in the asylum centers. They pay for hostels for families, provide language classes, and more.
  • A great list for those interested in helping in Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and more.

Greece

  • Boat Rescue Foundation is a Dutch organization that not only helps pull life rafts to shore in the Greek islands but also helps work in the camps
  • Hot Food Idomeni also gives out hot food in northern Greece near the Macedonian border (hence the name “Idomeni”)
  • Northern Greece Volunteers is as exactly how the name descries – a coalition of volunteers in northern Greece. They are funded in part by Help Refugees.
  • A great list for those interested in helping in northern Greece.
  • Forgotten in Idomeni helps distribute food and more in Greece.
  • A site for coordinating volunteers and broadcasting needs in Greece.
  • EuroRelief works in camps and on the beach in Lesbos, Greece
  • Intervolve has international volunteers in Thessaloniki, Greece
  • Nurture Project International works with nurses, midwives, and lactation consultants to provide for women and babies in Greece.
  • Lighthouse Relief has volunteers in Lesbos and on mainland Greece.
  • Helping Hands works with families and unaccompanied minors in Athens, Greece.

Middle East

  • Relief and Reconciliation for Syria is a group in a village in Lebanon. They prefer volunteers that come in teams to create workshops or volunteers that can stay 3-6 months at a time.
  • Basmeh and Zeitooneh is a grassroots Lebanese organization, dedicated to serving Syrian refugees and vulnerable communities in Lebanon
  • Nurture Project International works with nurses, midwives, and lactation consultants to provide for women and babies in Iraq.
  • Information for volunteers to Turkey is excellent, though information hasn’t been updated in a few months.
  • Information Point for Turkey Volunteers often has calls for volunteers as well as good information to educate you before the trip.
  • Tarlabasi works with vulnerable ethnic minorities in Istanbul, Turkey. They take volunteers for longer period of time, but volunteer applications are on hold until Feb. 1, 2017.
  • A short list of small NGOs in Jordan that may accept volunteers

Central/Western Europe

  • A great list for those interested in helping in Calais, France (though recent changes in November 2016 may make some information here obsolete)
  • YWAM is taking volunteers in teams throughout Europe and requests that people commit to stay for at least three weeks.
  • Operation Mobalisation is a faith-based organization always taking teams of volunteers throughout Europe.
  • Care4Calais is a British/French organization working with refugees previously living in “the Jungle,” an unofficial refugee camp in Calais, France.
  • Secours Catholique, a branch of Caritas, works to distribute clothing to the refugees in Calais and Paris.
  • CalAid helps distribute clothing, give aid, and more to the refugees in France, UK, and Greece.
  • FranceAndBeyond has some good tips and suggestions if interested in volunteering at camps in France.

Other information

Interested in donating money instead? Go here for a great list. 

Categories: Lost in Translation, Practical Matters | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Visiting the DMZ

Korea’s Thanksgiving, called Chuseok ( 추석 in Hangul) is a great opportunity for a wonderful, relaxing, five-day weekend. Jordan and I took advantage of that by traveling to Seoul (unfortunately our last time) and visiting the Demilitarized Zone.

We showed up, bright and early, for Koridoor’s DMZ tour at USO Camp Kim. Because this is run through the U.S. military, we were told it’s the best one out there, and it gives people a chance to go to the JSA (Joint Security Area).

We hadn’t been around so many Americans in probably a year–it was a little disorienting, actually. We left Seoul in a big tour bus surrounded by American, European, and Singaporean tourists and drove about 50 minutes into the northern countryside.

The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, isn’t just a line in the dirt. It’s a strip of earth, a ribbon running from one end of the peninsula to the other, about 160 miles long and 2.5 wide. Because few humans have walked withing the DMZ, much of it is teeming with wildlife and actually quite pretty, despite the barbed wire and landmines still present. There are a few roads, however, that go to the actual border within the DMZ, the real line between the two countries. That’s called the Demarcation Line.

Along the way, we passed Daeseongdong, a small farming community also known as Freedom Village. It’s one of two villages within the DMZ, the other, Kijong-dong, is called “Propaganda Village” by American soldiers. Built by the North Korean regime, it has one of the largest flags and flag towers in the world, but based on surveillance through binoculars, no one’s really convinced that anyone actually lives there, and it’s all just empty buildings. Sometimes South Korea blares KPop music over the propaganda loudspeakers.

Although farmers in Freedom Village lead a somewhat dangerous life so near North Korea, have lots of rules to follow, and have a fractured history of the 1950s, they’re actually quite well off–they don’t pay rent, tax, or do military service.

We stopped at Camp Bonifas, which is jointly run by Americans and Korean soldiers. An American usually stays for about one year, Koreans about two. Korea has compulsory two-year military service for all males. They usually do it in between high school and college. The camp is named for an American captain who was killed in the Axe Murder event by North Korean soldiers. There, we disembarked, filed into a tourist building, watched a very fast slideshow of the history, and were put on different, UN buses. Camp Bonifas is the last stop until the JSA, or Joint Security Area, which is along the real border between the two countries. It’s where the UN hangs out when they have conferences.

_mg_0965At this point, to be honest, I was getting a bit frustrated. Our military tour guide for the JSA was a young American soldier who seemed like he’d drawn the short straw and had to babysit a bunch of tourists. He wasn’t enthusiastic, and I had a hard time hearing him. I think I also may have had higher expectations. I expected, because this was a hostile border area, more history and a serious look at the political and social forces at play. But the soldiers really weren’t interested in telling us much of that.

We walked quickly and quietly through a courtyard area, into the the Peace Pagoda which was built to house separated families when they hosted reunions. There have only been a handful of reunions, primarily because North Korea’s government is wary of contact with the outside world. The Peace Pagoda has never been used to house families.

We walked, double file, out onto a back deck of the Pagoda.

“Do not move quickly. Do not wave at the North Korean soldiers. Do not walk over the lines. Do you see that water tower? Do not take pictures of it. Only take photos of North Korean buildings. Do not touch the South Korean soldiers. Do no make sudden movements. Do not stand on that part of the deck.” And on the list went. I couldn’t hear the soldiers very well, and was pretty nervous about making a mistakes.

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We took photos for a few moments, and then another American soldier said, “that’s enough. Put your cameras down.” We obeyed, and led down the steps to one of the blue buildings.

Built for treaty meetings and UN conferences, the building straddles to demarcation line. One half of the building is in South Korea, the other in the North. It’s the only place tourists get the chance to step into North Korea.

White stones now mark the demarcation line, but back in the 60s and 70s soldiers of both sides could freely move around, and guard towers were built on both sides of the demarcation line. However, one American/ROK tower was surrounded by three North Korean towers, and the line of sight to the headquarters was blocked by a tree. After a lengthy discussion and agreement, American soldiers went to prune the tree, to allow for better eyesight to their lone guard tower in 1976. However, several North Korean soldiers grew anxious, and things disintegrated. Two American soldiers, Bonifas and Barrett, were killed in the attack. You can learn more about the Axe Murder Incident here.

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Once we finished taking our photos, we were instructed to calmly leave, walk back through the Peace Pagoda, and get on the bus. The bus drove us back to Camp Bonifas, where we toured a small museum (finally, I got to learn some of the history), and purchase North Korean trinkets. I admit, I bought some North Korean money. I thought it was fascinating.

Our Koridoor tour guide and bus driver took us to Dora Observatory, which is exactly what it sounds like–an observatory tower with binoculars to peer into North Korea. We got to see Gaesong Industrial Complex, a rare example of North and South working together. Unfortunately, it’s being shut down. While South Korea will suffer the loss of cheap gadgets made there and shipped into the country, North Korea will lose up to 20% of it’s GDP.

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Another stop was the Dorasan train station. The northernmost train stop in Korea, it’s tracks run to the Gaesong industrial complex, though freight trains on ran between them in 2007 and 2008. However, rails are in place to link Seoul to Pyeongyang, on to Beijing.

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“Just think!” we were told. “After reunification, you could travel from Seoul to Paris by train!” It is a pretty crazy thought.

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Because the train station is only used a couple times a day, coming from Seoul, it’s mostly set up as a museum to “what could be.”

Our final stop (after traditional Korean lunch) was the third infiltration tunnel. Long story short, there was a North Korean defector who told the South Korean government the military was digging it’s way to Seoul to invade, in at least 20 tunnels. The South Korean military, ever vigilant, began drilling holes and filling them with water to detect for tunnels. And they found four, from 1974-1990. The North Koreans denied that they’d dug the tunnels, claiming they were old coal mines.

Now, South Korea has opened the tunnels up as tourist destinations, which now that I think about it, is pretty weird. But I think it’s a calculated attempt to publicize to the world how crazy their neighbors are, as well as a show of strength, like, “your attempts at infiltration is so pathetic we entertain ourselves with the efforts.”

That tunnel, though, is pretty deep, and pretty narrow. Supposedly, it could get 30,000 soldiers through in an hour, but I just don’t see how. I was bent over half the time, trying to avoid hitting my head on the low ceiling, and returning, I huffed and puffed up the 11% grade incline. Anyway, that was our last visit of the day.

I found it really enlightening (after a bit of wikipedia searches), and would recommend it to people–as long as they do a little research beforehand so they’re not frustrated and confused like I was. I did learn a lot, and have a much better understanding of North Korean relations now. I had really wanted to visit Pyeongyang on a 4- or 5-day tour through Pioneer Tours, but we’re running out of time and money. So the DMZ tour was kind of our one shot at getting to see North Korea. And it’s highly educational and worth going to understand the South Korean perspective as well.

 

 

Categories: South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Medical Tourism – LASIK in Korea

By Jordan Karasek

(TL;DR is at the bottom)

On Saturday I got LASIK eye surgery! Without further ado, this is my story….

Background: Adrianne has wanted eye surgery for a long time and this desire was increased greatly thanks to our dear friend Sarah Ann, the one with us in South America. She got LASIK and loves it! Our friend figured that price of eye exams, glasses, and contacts would equal out to be the same as surgery over a few years.

Inspired, while living in Florida Adrianne checked what it would take to fix her eyes. The LASIK would cost $4,200 for her. I though I could get it done in the States for $3,000.

Fast forward to Korea! Medical tourism is indeed a great thing. Mostly everything in Korea is expensive, including food and technology, because it is not about the product but about how much you paid for it. However medical, with and without insurance, is cheap. A lot of people can save a few hundred or even a couple thousand dollars flying to Korea getting an operation and flying home.

Evaluation: Upon learning this fact we went to get our eyes checked in Daegu, the nearest big city. This was about a month ago. Based on reviews online, we went to Noon Eye Center. All their doctors speak some English and they employ an English interpreter for us waygooks.  I got my eyes tested with 12 or 14 different machines and received my results an hour later. I was praying that it would cost about 2 million won, but it turned out to be 1.2 million won, or about a thousand dollars. Our jaws dropped at how affordable it was and we immediately signed me up. My eyes were very sensitive to the dilation and my heard hurt some after the evaluation/consultation was finished. However, it was worth it. I slept well that night and was fine by morning.

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We were both happy that this was happening and that it was going to be so cheap. I, however, kept oscillating on the spectrum of being very excited and being psyched out. (“They are going to cut my eyes open!”) Fortunately, I was blessed with above average thick corneas. Unfortunately this means they can just cut my eye open with a blade instead of a laser. All ranges of hysteria came over me but I tried to maintain a cool calm demeanor. Then finally the day arrived: Saturday the 28th. We caught our street bus into town just in time to take our city bus to Daegu, where we traveled by metro to the eye clinic (It was complicated).

I waited and thought about needles, sandpaper, burning, mostly the possibility of a wrinkle in my eye. They told me that if I rub my eye after they CUT IT OPEN WITH A BLADE, my cornea was prone to wrinkling. Whatever that means. Our house is no short distance away so there must be no wrinkling. Apart from that I was focusing on A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Why? Because Adrianne suggested I read a book about it and because it expired in a couple days. I also was under the impression that I would not be able to read for a few days (I’m writing this post the day after with my x-ray vision so its not a problem).

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We got to eat in the cafeteria before my surgery, a lovely lukewarm Korean lunch with kimchi. Once it was my turn, the interpreter gave me paperwork to sign. She gave me another run down of how things would go and used very good hand gestures that freaked me out again about everything. Adrianne was sitting not to far away I just tried to look strong and confident. I was told something like this:

“Okay, now in just a few minutes we are going in. Again, like I said before you will lay down on the table and there will be a green light. Look at the green light always. Keep looking at the green light no mater what. They will put some drops on your eyes but keep looking at the green light. While looking at the green light they will cut your eye open. It will be like 10 seconds and for this time you cannot see the green light but do not move. It will be dark. Then just keep looking at the GREEN LIGHT and they will continue with the laser….green light, green light, green light….”

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Surgery: Armed and ready for the green light, we put on some gowns and went through a dust cleaning closet (not the type with dust pans and a broom). I sat in a dark room where they gave me 4 different drops. Each drop cleaned or numbed my eyes. Then they cleaned my face and made it all dry and itchy and told me not to touch it at all. Oh yeah, did I mention part of the reason I was freaking out was because I recently developed a n runny nose in combination with Monstro-the-Whale-type sneezing. I was just sure that while I was staring at this green light and they were cutting my eyes open I would have to sneeze, though thankfully I didn’t. I tell you this because I had to scratch my nose with a Q-tip. The doctor gave me some supper strong nasal spray that burned nicely but didn’t make me have to sneeze and kept the runny-ness at bay.

Finally I was up, trying to remember everything I was told and to not think about it at all. I laid down and they covered me with blankets. Put a few layers over my face with a hole in it for one eye. I saw the green light and I knew it was going to be okay. Then they turned on the lights and I knew this was going to feel like forever. I closed my eyes for a bit to give them a rest, which I should have been doing while in the waiting room. Then my eyes were spread open by a metal machine, which didn’t hurt but felt weird. They put more drops in my eyes and poured cool water, or so I thought, all the while I stared at the green light. The green light blinks so that it doesn’t move around but it sometimes had me thinking that I had moved or closed my eyes when I hadn’t really.

After the water, they put the cutting device on my eye. I could still see the green light though it was blurry and all sorts of shapes. Then the cut happened and it scared  me. Nobody told me that the darkness would look like a crazy static-y TV and that I would not only hear vibrations I would feel them all over my face and especially my eye. It only really lasted about 3 or 5 seconds, not 10. That is when I watched God look into my soul as, still looking at the green light now that it had appeared again, I saw them flap a thin section of my cornea away. At this point I started singing to myself “It is well with my soul” to comfort me and to not thing about what was happening. I tried to just look at the green light. By this time 5 minutes in the green light was at the end of a vortex of light. They then washed my eye with some stuff, told me the laser was coming and to stare at the green light repeatedly. The laser lasted like 5 seconds, but I could smell and kind of taste something burnt.

They washed my eye again and put lots of drops. Told me I was doing well. They folded my cornea back over and then put more drops, and I think they like glued it into place with something blue. Either way they were touching my eye lightly and I was done….with the first eye.

It is at this moment that I realized I had to keep my eyes open way longer than just the 10 seconds of blade and 7 seconds of laser but for the entire 10 or 15 minutes it took to do the procedure (that is total for both eyes). They removed my eye clamps, shifted the face covering to my other eye, and hooked my eyelids up. So my lids where tired. They spread my eye lids and it hurt. I thought, “Oh no. I don’t think I can do this again with it hurting,” so I spoke up. They put some numbing drops in, and it still hurt but they continued. The pain disappeared right as they were bringing over the cutting tool.

Aftermath: I made it through the second eye, looking at that green light, and thinking about God making all things well. After finishing, I went to another room and they let me rest. Everything was blurry but I could still see some. They added some more drops and then sent me out. That was it. I was done. I then had to keep telling myself to not touch my eyes. Do not scratch, rub, or touch. Our wonderful translator was able to secure us an overnight room at the clinic. That evening I felt well enough to walk to Burger King and eat. We ended up staying the night because I had a check-up early the next morning.  Adrianne read to me more about Biblical Womanhood and then I slept like a baby ( I woke up every couple of hours). I would get up, put drops in, go to the bathroom, and ever so carefully wipe all the gunk out of my eyes that was sealing them shut. I also get to wear clear goggles with slits for sleeping. Fun. That was how I got LASIK.

TL;DR: Noon Eye Center is phenomenal. Highly recommend. Cost was 1.2 million won total. The evaluations were time consuming and tired my eyes, but not big hassle. The surgery appointment was about 2 hours, but most of that was being inspected by the doctor and signing papers. The surgery wasn’t painful, but keeping my eyes open for 15 minutes was uncomfortable. I didn’t sleep well, but the drop kept my eyes hydrated. The next-morning checkup literally took 5 minutes. By 24 hours my vision was pretty clear. By 48 hours I felt better than ever. My eyes have never felt so good. So worth it.

Categories: South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Who are these people and is it safe to let them into my home?

Between Obama calling for increased admittance of refugees into the country and the terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, there has been a lot of worry about what Syrian refugees are, what they stand for, and really what they want.

On Facebook I’ve seen a lot of concern over the safety of these decisions, and rightly so. Allowing 10,000 strangers into our country that are from a war-torn land filled with terrorists is something we should carefully consider. And, on top of that, not many people are refugee resettlement experts, nor do most people have a lot of time to scour the internet for sources. Three days ago I didn’t know what refugee resettlement really looked like, nor the exact number of Syrians already placed in the United States. I have a lot of questions. So does everyone else. So here are the most common questions I’ve seen with the answers I’ve found online.

  • Who are these people anyway?

Syria has been ruled by a dictatorship for many years under the Assad family. Long story short, in 2011 during the Arab Spring, a village rioted against Assad’s military police and secret service guys after the torture and death of several teenage boys. The boys’ crime was writing popular rebel slogans from other Arab countries. From, there, it turned into regular people–doctors, bankers, farmers, teachers, women–fighting against the Assad regime, trying to bring a better government to their people.

Because it was completely grassroots, there was no main rebel force. It was any group of people that had enough guns to go around. Since 2011, there has been infighting among rebel groups as well as the continued fight against Assad. ISIS entered the Syrian picture around December 2013 and is fighting rebel groups and Assad. So basically it’s a big free-for-all and Syria is Hell on earth right now.

Civilians, mostly women and children, began pouring from Syria in all direction in 2012. Many fled to Iraq, which ISIS also has strongholds in. Others fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Now they are spreading across the Mediterranean and hoping to reach Greece.

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(FOTOGRAF:YASAR ANTER/BODRUM-DHA)

In 2010, Syria had a population of 20.5 million. Twelve million Syrians have left their homes, and over four million of these are refugees (people with nowhere to go). Over half of these four million are children under the age of 18.

For more information about ISIS, click here.

For information on how the Syrian conflict spread, click here or read Newsweek’s article here or watch vox’s video.

  • Are they those radical Islamists? 

Syria’s population is roughly 88-90% Muslim and 8-10% Christian. The rest are Jews or other minority religions. Most of the Syrian population is Sunni, but there are some Shiite. Sunni is the predominant faction of Islam throughout the world. If the refugees were radical Muslims, they would welcome ISIS into their land as a new caliphate. But the fact that they are fleeing means they want nothing to do with ISIS and will leave their homes to get away.

  • Why can’t someone else help them?

Lebanon, a population of roughly 5 million, has 1.5 million Syrian refugees in their country. Turkey hosts over 2 million currently, and Jordan has over 600,000. The most well-known refugee camp, Zaatari, is in Jordan. It also hosts refugees from other conflicts, like the Palestinians. Egypt helps almost 130,000.   The map below is outdated in terms of numbers, but it’s a good map.

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Now refugees are crossing the Mediterranean in sailboats, lifeboats, in anything that floats, if they are rich enough to pay the smuggling fee. From, there, there are detention centers and processing centers in Greece, Serbia, Hungary, France, Germany, and others that they reside in.

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Basically, that’s a lot of displaced people. And their next door neighbors have very full houses. If Europe wants the refugees to survive, they have to take a few. And Germany (and France) have been doing a pretty good job of it. But other countries in the EU are growing increasingly inhospitable, even putting up barbed wire fences and threatening concentration camp-like facilities. So if Europe won’t take them, who’s next down the street in the neighborhood? A house with a track record of inviting the less fortunate in? The United States (and Canada, Australia, and the UK to name a few others).

For a better picture of what the refugees’ daily life is, read NYTimes profiles. 

For an interactive goal-driven on-the-ground example of the decision Syrians have to make, click here.

For the ICR’s long but fascinating 2015 report on the situation, click here.

  • A lot of people are saying 73% of these refugees are combatant-age men. Isn’t that true?

Well, no. I’ve searched around for the source of that statistic and really can’t find anything. If anyone can find a source, let me know. The closest I’ve found to the source of the rumor is the amount of people making Mediterranean Sea crossings. The UNHCR states that 62% of people crossing the sea are males 18 or older. This data is gathered from Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain. It takes in all nationalities, like Afghan, Iraqi, Libyan, and others. It is not a figure representing only Syrian refugees. Also, because if the prohibitive costs of smuggling (often 4,00 euros a person from Turkey and a bit less from Egypt), it is common for a family to send the father ahead to pave the way, find a job, and hopefully make enough money to bring his wife and children along with him.

  • What about the terrorists? Won’t ISIS sneak in with the refugees?

Well, the bad news is ISIS is reasonably strong (there are plenty of debates over if they’re growing or waning). The good news is, they hate the refugees even more than they hate us. And that’s saying something. Terrorists see refugees as weak, so while they may attack refugees, they almost never pretend to be them. And while what the Tsarnaev brothers did was horrific and hopefully will never be repeated, they weren’t refugees. The process behind their asylum and their government involvement was different than the Syrians’ will be. In short, the chances of a terrorist slipping into our country as a refugee are minimal. Since 9/11 784,000 refugees have entered the country, and three have been arrested on terrorism charges with plans to attack foreign targets. There have been no domestic targets.  To put it in perspective, your chance of being hit by lightening is 1 in 164,968. The former chief counsel to a department of Homeland Security states, “No competent terrorist would choose the U.S. refugee process as a preferred strategy for gaining entry into the U.S.”

  • But what about the Paris attacker? Wasn’t he ISIS and faked his way in as a refugee? And those five arrested in Honduras?

Yes, he was ISIS. No, he wasn’t a Syrian refugee. All attackers were native born European; most were French or Belgian. The Parisian authorities do not believe he was processed in Greece as a refugee. The passport found by his body was most likely stolen.

The five Syrians arrested in Honduras entered the continent through Brazil, authorities suspect. As of now, no law enforcement has suggested they are members of ISIS. It’s a good thing our security systems not only find people with stolen passports, but also can tell the difference between ISIS and regular people

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  • I don’t trust the vetting process. What does it even entail?

I think this is the best question we could be asking right now.

It is a difficult procedure, especially because many people don’t have IDs and the stress and upheaval of the situation leads to confusing events. However, there is a long, drawn out, and careful process already in place for this sort of thing.

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Because this awesome video exists and is better than something I would write, please watch it. It’s only 3 and a half minutes and explains the vetting process. Seriously, if you only click on one link, let it be this video. So far, just under 2,200 Syrian refugees have entered the country, and over half of them are children. Only two percent are “single men of combat age [18-35].”

All 19 of the al Qaeda hijackers from 9/11 came into the US legally on tourist or business visas. If people want to tighten security, refugee resettlement isn’t the process that needs change. Tourists, student, and business visas are the procedures that need more scrutiny. Some US refugee resettlement officers are surprised at the backlash from the public and Congress alike, leading several to conclude that many people have been unaware of the vetting process, rather than knowledgeable and pointing out well-known holes.

  • But what about the problems we have in America? Shouldn’t we take care of our homeless veterans?

Absolutely. We have problems in the US and we should address them, especially our homeless veteran population. After being a problem for many years, it’s something we’ve been tackling in the past four-five years and making great headway on. Almost 50,000 veterans are homeless, but that’s a 33% decrease since 2009. One of the more effective policies has been the Mayors’ Challenge (I do love grassroots collective action!) But believe it or not, we’re actually moving in the right direction (rapidly, too) in a campaign against homelessness for our veterans.

Do we still have a lot of work to do? Oh, yes. But we can help more than one people group at once. Domestic violence has been around much longer than modern veteran homelessness, but no one argues that we should completely “cure” domestic violence before addressing the issue of homeless veterans. Neither group of people has the luxury of waiting until the other problem is “fixed” to get assistance. Veterans will die of exposure this year if we ignore them, and Syrians will starve to death if we ignore them. So we can work on both.

For more information about homeless veterans, click here.

  • Why can’t churches and individuals take care of the problem? The government shouldn’t intervene!

This is a worldwide problem that affects everyone, at this point. Every sphere of influence should intervene! The government is the only one with the resources to fight terrorism and watch the flow of people entering/leaving the country. The church is the best candidate for organizing donation pledges, sending care packages, or even mission trips to help at the refugee camps. And individuals are the best choice to pray, to send food, or to welcome a refugee into their new home. Our government is here and has the job of refugee admittance, and no amount of complaining will change it. What we can do is ease the assimilation process, help when help is needed, and make the best of a bad situation.

  • Everything you’ve said about how safe the refugees are and how low risk this resettlement process is a total lie and I still don’t want them near my children.

Well, that’s your opinion. And I’m glad you take protecting your family so seriously. But even if you think letting refugees near us is too dangerous, are you still willing to help them? Because they’re dying. They’re bleeding to death, drowning, starving, homeless, and lost. Imagine if your house was bombed and your neighbors were dead. Imagine you had to do everything to get out of harm’s way. Would you want help, even if it was just some cans of food? Or a donation that gave you running water for a week?

I certainly would. I would get on my knees and beg for any help that came so my loved ones would survive and I would kiss the feet of anyone that stopped and gave my siblings food and I would be forever grateful to a person who looked me in the eye and smiled, like I was another human being. So please, consider helping in some way. Don’t lose your compassion.

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Why Arkansans can’t ignore the Syrian refugees

Dear Gov. Hutchinson,
Thank you for the guidance you provide our state. Thank you for the time, effort, and resources you pour into making what you believe is a better Arkansas for us and our children. I can’t imagine the stress and frustration that meets you daily at your doorstep, and I am grateful for your service.

I believe you take seriously your promise to keep Arkansas and Arkansans safe. I love Arkansas, and it is a place I want to raise my future children. I love the kind, good-hearted people, the beautiful mountains, and the southern hospitality. But I am greatly saddened by your decision to refuse resettling Syrian refugees with us. I think you have made the wrong choice in casting the refugees in a suspicious light.

Yes, we must protect our children, our neighbors, and our families. It is our God-given privilege and duty.  Thank you for recognizing that.

But who are we protecting them from? It’s not the terrorists. ISIS strongly condemns the refugees and the nations that accept them. It wants us to reject the refugees. It wants us to fear them, and if we give into their goals, what does that make us? There has been no definite proof that an ISIS agent entered Europe pretending to be a refugee. In fact, refugee resettlement is the least likely route for a terrorist because no one goes under such levels of scrutiny as refugees or asylees.

The United States has the largest resettlement program in the world, and I am proud of our history of opening doors, of welcoming the “tired, [the] poor, [the] huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” There are almost 5 million people whose homes have been shelled, who saw their neighbors bleed to death in front of them, who heard the screams of their daughters as ISIS savaged them who hid their boys in shadows and closets so ISIS or Assad would not take them, who told their children that “everything would be all right” when they knew it was a lie, who decided that braving winter storms in a life raft was safer than spending one more day in the only home they’d ever known. These people are exactly like you and me. Exactly.

We are human beings. We also have the privilege and duty to care for each other. We are frightened, just like the Syrians. But we also have the capacity for great courage, for tenacity that defies all savagery, for compassion that fights against violence. In such a time as this, we have a great opportunity to show our best selves. We can choose love and compassion or we can choose fear and hate. The very people we want to protect the most–our children and our other loved ones–are watching us.

And if you truly believe resettling refugees here is too dangerous or economically unfeasible, then what will you do instead? What will our state do? I urge you to either reverse your decision on resettlement or pour all of Arkansas’ great capacity for hospitality and empathy into another way to support these people. Call up food drives, donations and fund pledges, spread awareness, support scholarships for volunteers that want to go to the camps and help. Lead us to do something. Because if we do nothing we have chosen the oppressor over the innocent.

I want my children to live in a state where love conquers fear and logic triumphs over propaganda. I want to be proud to call Arkansas my home. I want my children and grandchildren to know that when others feared and drew back, Arkansans opened their arms and gladly gave what they could. Let us be the Samaritans rather than the rabbi that pulled away. You’re right–it’s true that Europe and Africa are better suited geographically to take care of the refugees. But if they don’t take them, what will we do? Allow them to suffer and die because it’s not our problem? Or will we make it our problem and find a solution? We can’t ignore the Syrian refugees because denying their humanity strips us of our own.

I want a better world. I want a world where, if I am murdered and my toddler found drowned on a foreign beach, people will be angry enough that they will rescue my neighbor’s children from the same fate. And the only way to create that type of world is to be the angry person that says, “Enough.”

Please, Gov. Hutchinson, lead Arkansas in saying, “Enough.”

 

Original press release (11/16/15) from the governor’s office below

“As governor, I oppose any facility or installation in Arkansas being used as a Syrian refugee center.   Many of the Syrian refugees are fleeing violence in their own country but Europe, Asia or Africa are logically the best places for resettlement or for temporary asylum.  Syria is a war torn country and the United States will support our European friends in fighting ISIL in Syria and elsewhere; however, this is not the right strategy for the United States to become a permanent place of relocation.  Again, I will oppose Arkansas being used as such a relocation center.

“The hardships facing these refugees and their families are beyond most of our understanding, and my thoughts and prayers are with them, but I will not support a policy that is not the best solution and that poses risk to Arkansans”

 

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“On the Road Again” documentary

While we traveled through Argentina and Bolivia Jordan worked hard on a short documentary. He’s edited it and it’s finally done!We interacted with many lovely people during the trip, so it’s a real pleasure to introduce our friends through the documentary.

“On the Road Again,” filmed by Jordan Karasek

Jordan and I noticed while traveling that it was rather rare to come across a fellow American. International travel is encouraged and is pretty much the norm in other developed countries. For example, in New Zealand over half of high school graduates take a gap year before going on to university. Many of our American friends were curious how we could afford to travel and how it even occurred to us to do so, while our Canadian and European fellow travelers had plans to travel for at least a year, perhaps even 18 months at a time. This documentary is designed to show Americans that yes, travel is amazing and yes, it is possible!

Jordan (and I) hope that someone might see this and have a fire lit inside them to explore the world around us.

Categories: Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, Practical Matters | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Colombia travel tips

We only spent a couple of weeks in Colombia (not enough in this amazing country!), so the advice and tips I can offer are pretty limited. Here, for what they are worth, are my two cents:

  1. Plan a lot of time in this country, if you can. Like I said, we only had two weeks. While it was enough to hit the highlights of the country, there was so much we missed, like more moutains, deserts, whales, lost cities in the jungle, and Amazon trips. Many of the backpackers we crossed paths with said their favorite country was Colombia.
  2. Domestic flights, if booked at least a couple of days in advance, can be almost as cheap as buses. While FARQ has mostly be contained, they can still destroy parts of roads and cause travel delays. Airfare can be cheap through budget airlines, like Viva.  Sometimes purchasing the tickets can be complicated, as the internet prefers Colombian credit cards, but it can be worth it.
  3. If you plan to do the boat crossing from Colombia to Panama, you will probably do a trip to Capurgana/Sapzurro to reach the tour boats. There are no roads to Capurgana, so you will need to take a boat across the bay to get there. Boats leave from Turbo and Necocli, which are also a little difficult to reach. Expect expensive airfare to Turbo or bumpy buses to Necocli or Turbo.
  4. While Colombia still has a bad reputation for drugs and gang violence, the Colombian law enforcement and government have worked very hard to expand the safety of their country. Perhaps foreign backpackers are treated differently than local Colombianos, but we didn’t have a single dangerous/bad experience there, and neither did anyone else we talked to. My friend had been warned beforehand by a Colombian relative how dangerous the country was, and was shocked to find how amazing the people and culture actually are. It ended up being her favorite place.
  5. While most places are safe, the Darien Gap still isn’t. I wouldn’t recommend it, based on word of mouth. Several friends of a friend traveled from Colombia to Panama via the Darien Gap and they said it was amazing, but they would never do it again. It seems cheaper, until you realize you have to bribe every policia you come across, even though what you’re doing is perfectly legal. And it doesn’t seem that dangerous, until you learn you have to hire a guide to get you through the jungle and you had better pray not to see a drug cartel or they may kill you. Alternatives are going via plane, which isn’t too bad. You have to reserve tickets at least a week in advice and be comfortable in a six-seater plane. There should be resources online to help with that. Otherwise, word of mouth is the best way. The most popular alternative is, of course, a San Blas boat tour. This is what we did, and I loved it.
  6. There are plenty of buses, about at Peruvian prices for Chilean comforts. Not bad at all.
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“But isn’t it dangerous?”

“Aren’t you worried?”

“How are you going to do this?”

“Are you serious?”

And the last, most common question, “Isn’t it dangerous?”

When we told my parents we were visiting the Middle East for a month, my parents took it really well, to be honest. There was a sharp intake of breath, a grimace, closed eyes, and then, “you already bought the tickets?”

Once we assured my parents that yes we looked up travel warnings, yes we read the news, yes we would be careful, and yes we were intent on going, they smiled bravely and said, “Be careful!”

The rest of my extended family didn’t take it quite as well. I got a couple of phone calls begging me to change my mind. I had to remind a couple of people that I was an adult, I made my own choices now, and I wasn’t stupid. And here I am, at the end of the six-month trip, alive and well!

Many of us Americans live in a relatively safe, middle-class bubble and watch the news at night, filled with fire, bombs, wailing children, and first-class apocalyptic rhetoric. If you listen to that, and only that, then yeah, the world is a dangerous place with ISIS headquarters in Cairo, bombs under the Temple Mount, Colombian drug runners setting up shop across the street from UNICEF, Russian missiles pointed toward the nearest NATO countries, and etc., etc.

And there is some truth to it: the Malaysian airplane downed by a Russian missile was heartbreaking. The issue in Syria and the ISIS activity in the Levant is so infuriating I am left speechless at the atrocities committed on a daily basis. There are tragedies around the world that we must face.

But honestly? After traveling the Middle East/Mediterranean for a month and backpacking Latin America for five, I can’t think of one time where I was scared for my safety. There were definitely uncomfortable moments, upsetting times, and frustration, but never a fear over bodily harm. And this is coming from a girl that was completely ignored or mistreated by men because they were machistas. Granted, solo female travelers need to be a bit more careful, but then we have to be careful even in our own neighborhoods sometimes.

I know some people that were terribly concerned over their daughter visiting Colombia because of FARQ and drugs, even though the 1990s were a huge turning point in the Colombian drug war. That, to me, is like saying, “Don’t visit Los Angeles because of those riots in ’92! You know that place is dangerous.”

So, is the world a dangerous place? Yeah, parts, I think. You won’t see me signing up for a tour of South Sudan or Crimea any time soon. But it is also filled with beauty and goodness and kindness. We have had complete strangers offer us directions, give us a place to stay for the night, buy us drink and medicine when sick, and safely see us to our next destination. It’s always smart to use your brain and read a situation, looking for dangerous people or places, and avoid those. I certainly did!

Before reacting to the idea of traipsing off into a war zone, consider these things:

  • The media reports bad news, not good. Sometimes they even exaggerate the proximity or intensity of violence.
  • The world is full of good, well-meaning people. Think about it: isn’t it rather nationalistic and xenophobic to believe our country is safe and kind, while all other countries are dangerous and brimming with criminals?
  • There is danger everywhere, to an extent. There are uncertainties and bad things in every place on earth, and they happen to every human at one point or another.
  • Research, learn about the culture and the political climate, and make educated decisions. We didn’t go to the Red Sea because it does cross territory ISIS patrols, just as we didn’t hike through the Darien Gap into Panama because the drugs do flow through the jungle there.

Safety is great and important, but an over-emphasis on unneeded precautions keep you from living out your adventure!

Categories: Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, Practical Matters | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ecuador travel tips

Ecuador is a beautiful country worth a long and lengthy visit, from top to bottom. We only stayed about three weeks in total, but we enjoyed every bit of the trip. Here are our thoughts:

1. The Pacific beaches are very nice and worth the visit, though they aren’t the cheapest towns in the country. We stayed in Montañita, a small surf-town, and found a hostel further away from the beach for 8 USD a person a night. Drugs seem to be pretty common on the beach scene as well. It wasn’t a problem, we just had to turn down “happy brownies” and cocaine often.

2. All the extreme or adventure sports you’ve ever been interested should be done here! You won’t find it cheaper anywhere else. And it is pretty safe. Baños is the adventure capital of Ecuador, and while it is a little touristy, we definitely thought it was worth the trip (we stayed three nights and loved it). For a price example: half-day white water rafting in Ecuador was 20 USD a person, but in Panama and Costa Rica about 65 USD a person.

3. Want to eat guinea pig (cuy)? Eat it in Baños, where it is street food on a stick. A whole one will cost usually below 10 USD. It’s the cheapest in probably the whole country. Quito serves it in fine restaurants, but you will pay a pretty 35 USD per plate.

4. Happy Gringo is a well-known third party company to see the Amazon, and while we did get a good deal for our money, it wasn’t exactly what we had hoped. It isn’t Happy Gringo’s fault, but rather that Ecuador is on the northwestern corner of the Amazon. If I could do it all over, I would do a tour in Leticia, Colombia or perhaps northern Bolivia. I bet the ones in Brazil are great also.

5. If you do go ahead and book an Ecuadorian Amazon tour, know that you won’t see piranhas. I specifically requested a tour that included those on my tour, but no one told me until I was in the boat that Ecuador recently passed a law against piranha fishing. I didn’t want to fish them, just see them, but apparently it all amounts to the same thing. If piranhas are your primary goal, don’t expect to find them in Ecuador.

6. Buses are reliable, if pretty run-down, and the prices are cheap. We frequently went without air conditioning or bathrooms, but it got us where we needed to go cheaply. We took a couple of overnight buses and didn’t have any problems, besides the roads falling apart beneath the bus.

7. If you pass through Quito, expect cool temperatures. Nestled in a valley at the foot of a volcano, the climate it cool all year-round. We pulled out our long-sleeves while in the city, though we immediately went back to tank tops and shorts anywhere else in the country.

8. They still use some of the local currency as well as US dollars, so be careful when people hand you change–they could be the discontinued local currency from before 2001, or a regular US quarter. I wasn’t paying attention one day and was handed a 25-centavo piece. When I later tried to purchase hot chocolate with it, they wouldn’t accept it, saying it was defunct and worthless now. So don’t be an oblivious gringa (like me) and pay attention to the coins you’re given.

Categories: Ecuador, Practical Matters | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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