Hi, We’re on a flight. The Mediterranean Sea is down below.
I wonder if that little dot I see is a raft full of refugees? Like it’s been said, “some cross it for pleasure, some for pain.” As we say goodbye to Lebanon and two months of trying to help refugees, and now start thinking of home, a song comes to mind.
“Yesterday I spent asleep
Woke up in my clothes in a dirty heap
Spent the night trying to make a deadline
Squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline
I haven’t been with a woman, it feels like for years
Thought of you the whole time, your salty tears
This shitty world sometimes produces a rose
The scent of it lingers and then it just goes
Return the call to home
The worst of us are a long drawn out confession
The best of us are geniuses of compression
You say you’re not going to leave the truth alone
I’m here cos I don’t want to go home
Child drinking dirty water from the river bank
Soldier brings oranges he got out from a tank
Waiting on the waiter, he’s taking a while to come
Watching the sun go down on Lebanon
Return the call to home
Now I got a head like a lit cigarette
Unholy clouds reflect in a minaret
So high above me, higher than everyone
Were are you in the cedars of Lebanon?
Choose your enemies carefully cos they will define you
Make them interesting cos in some ways they will mind you
They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends
Gonna last with you longer than your friends.”
“Cedars of Lebanon” U2
A different flight, somewhere over France…
Suzanne is a polymath. She spent the past month working with a Syrian doctor named Feras. Everybody in the camps knew him. He was their primary care doctor, pediatrician, pharmacist, emergency doctor,…now many in the camps know Suzanne too. The women were grateful to have Suzanne there, as they would never disrobe in front of Dr. Feras or let him actually touch them, an important part of doctoring. The refugee women had no such problem with Suzanne. She also spent a lot of her time trying to help Feras with an ambulance. He had an empty van, now with Suzanne’s help its getting closer to being a functional ambulance. Thousands of Syrians have only one person to call in an emergency (or non emergencies as well), and now Feras will be better prepared to assist. Suzanne also did multi day complete check ups on a very impoverished orphanage. This place was one of the saddest parts about our trip. We did what we could, not nearly enough.
Now flying near Iceland…
Most of my days during the past few weeks in Lebanon went something like this:
Arriving at a refugee camp and inviting myself and my translator into the camp’s leaders tent. We would ask for the other elders of the community to join us in a chat about their water situation. Sometimes it would be just 3 men and us, but usually about 5 men, 8 women, 10 kids, 5 cats and us. Some men have more than one wife, therefore, many many children. After introductions, I would ask about their water problems, where and how they would get it, how much it costs, if they were happy with it (none were), talked about my experience with the water filter and how I get water at my house (which is very similar to the way they get theirs), filtering their contaminated water (that they would rarely drink but mostly use for washing or cooking), then drink this filtered water in front of them. I would remind them that I had no idea where this water really came from but I was 100% sure that this was good water to drink. In the past 2 months, I drank water from some strange, funky, unknown water sources. About 110 times actually. So far, nothing fatal. I would ask them to bring me their nastiest water, sometimes green or brown in color, then put it through the filter and would watch their reaction when it always came out crystal clear. Some thought I was a magician.
Then the coffee would come.
The hospitality from the refugees was unbelievable. I’ve experienced this famous Arab kindness before but these Syrian refugees who have almost nothing took it to another level. We couldn’t go through the day without having at least 6 coffee or tea hospitality ceremonies (there is no “hi” or “bye” without coffee), and depending on how the day went, maybe up to 10 times. Everyone, talking story, sitting on the floor, smoking a shisha pipe or the young children would light the parents cigarets, drinking powerful dark delicious mud-like coffee in tiny cups. And when you finished, they would pour you another one, and another. You could not refuse. It was honestly difficult and hilarious to try and give a water filter demonstration or do a water test with jittery hands while being jacked up on so much caffeine. Everyone we met was so friendly and hospitable. Really amazing.
Now 38,000 feet above Nova Scotia…
Thinking about the past two months, Suzanne and I feel ok about our experience, one where we both felt useful. We worked hard, up early and ready to go whenever seemed best for others, if that be our coworkers, translators, or the refugees themselves. We had our ups and downs of course. Suzanne’s biggest up was teaching. Almost nothing better than seeing knowledge you passed on being accepted and then used. Just like her parents, she’s a natural teacher and facilitator. A definite low for me was when my brother Mark died and I wasn’t able to visit for the memorial with my family.
Now flying between volcanos in the Andes. Suzanne, at the window seat, just said she sees 8 snow peaked volcanos. We must be getting close to home.
A couple of days ago I read about a Syrian refugee living in the city below us, Quito Ecuador. He was starting to collect clothing and funds for Venezuelan refugees. If you haven’t heard, theres a bad and sad Venezuelan refugee problem right now near where we live. Thousands of Venezuelans are now escaping their home country and are now in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and elsewhere. A Syrian refugee in South America helping refugees, how strange but beautiful is that?
After spending 2 months with refugees and talking to hundreds of them, they all want only one thing.
They want to go home.
Most never wanted a different life in a different country. Some, now, want to go “anywhere, just not here.” But all want to be with family and friends in their former lives and former neighborhoods. Simple.
Bayyan, my translator in Lebanon, did 6 weeks of research and surveys about how her fellow Syrian refugees felt. Many have been living in informal camps for 6 years. Overwhelmingly, they wanted dignity and security. Simple.
Refugee. What does that mean?
Migrant. What does that mean?
Emigrant. What does that mean?
Immigrant. What does that mean?
Can a person be illegal just for being?
Can one be an immigrant without being an emigrant?
Can you emigrate without immigrating?
Unfortunately, depending on where you’re from or your political choosing, all of these words are very gray.
No human is gray. Simple.
In the past 38 hours, Suzanne and I went through 7 immigrations check points. Waiting in these long lines in 5 different countries, it was interesting to see who was let through, and who wasn’t. Those not allowed through, 100% of the time, was an Arab looking person (which is sad because immigrants, even undocumented ones, commit crimes at a considerably lower rate than the election team of the current US president). Mean while, Suzanne and I cruz through without any problem. Why? Because we are white and were born to caucasian American parents. Simple.
What am I? In Ecuador, some call me an “expat”. An Expatriate. Even though by definition I was never a “patriate” because of being born and raised in Japan, but being a white man in a “foreign” county, I’m an expat. What a strange and racist term, expat. A British man working in Africa is an expat. An African man working in Britain is an immigrant, never an expat. A Canadian working and living in Hong Kong is an expat, but an Ecuadorian living and working in Hong Kong is an emigrant. Us Westerners are never that, always somehow “superior”. I have such bullshit advantages, just because of the color of my skin and where my parents were from. If there’s anybody reading this, you most likely do too.
Experiencing the last 2 months and being in awe of the people we met, I would be honored to be called an emigrant or an immigrant.
On the ground and home now.
Thank you very much again to everybody who contributed to our little fundraiser. We used every single cent as wisely as we could to help those without a home.
No place like home.
We call a very small town in rural Ecuador home. Regarding “foreigners”, in Ecuadorian law (and praised by the UN), it’s written, “No human is illegal.” We love living here with our Ecuadorian neighbors, and our Italian, Colombian, German, Uruguayan, American, Peruvian, Canadian, Argentinean,…neighbors. We wish the world could be like our little town:)
No place like home. We hope the millions of refugees out there, our friends, get to go home very soon too.