"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." ~Mark Twain
The Story of the Idle Town
The story of Chalkida, Greece is one that entails building a community in a place that one would expect to be broken and riddled with the dark cracks of persecution. Working with Syrian refugees at Ritsona, a refugee camp located about one hour north of Athens, just outside of Chalkida, I was able to meet people who expressed more happiness and gratitude than some I’ve met in the United States. The bright, magnetic personalities I met there belonged to both refugees and other volunteers I had the pleasure of meeting.
Due to safety and privacy reasons, I understandably was not allowed to film many refugees. However, my footage does include a few. These few in the video include young refugees, about my age, who volunteered their time to help us by translating from Kurdish and Arabic to English. Sometimes, I was able to communicate with refugees without the help of the kind translators by speaking French and the minimal Kurdish I was taught.
The amount of symbolism within this digital story is what makes it unique from most of my other works. While I do enjoy the practice of inserting symbols throughout a story, I’ve noticed that I don’t particularly conform to this technique in my editorial writing. The first symbol worth mentioning that isn’t explicitly mentioned by the song lyrics are the stray cats with their little newborn kittens in the film. Cici, the mother of the kittens and her furry babies represent fertility and life in a place where one might figure life and progression is taking a slow, dreadful hiatus. Ritsona is sprinkled with cats, both skinny and fat. Nonetheless, every cat walks with a certain joy and pep in their step, oblivious to the pain the refugees who surround them have faced. The story of Chalkida, the idle town, is an anomaly because of its harmony juxtaposing its reality.
Chalkida is an idle town, as Conan Gray’s lyrics eloquently suggest because it is merely a stopping point along a tremendously long, but worthy journey. In the first stanza, Gray’s lyrics are “speed the roads on our doubting days/ To any place that’s far away.” I interpreted this as speaking from the refugees’ point of view, speeding to Chalkida to get away from the struggles they were facing at home.
The second stanza reads, “I never learned anybody’s name/ We all vowed that we wouldn’t stay/ Kissing signs on the interstate/ all we do for now is sit and wait.” Initially, I arrived to Chalkida thinking my time there was going to be filled with silent, cold work without much human interaction. I figured I’d be keeping to myself, especially in such a volatile area where it isn’t uncommon for “code-reds” or alerts indicating a weapon was brought on the camp or some form of violence had broken out. As a solo volunteer, I knew no one in this foreign country or refugee camp, which was another reason this stanza initially resonated with me so well. As much as I love helping others through international volunteerism, I vowed I wouldn’t stay and I surely did not think I’d remember many of the other volunteers’ names after this trip. I also arrived to the camp not antipathetic, but distant. However, just as the song progresses into more optimistic tunes, I too began to build a sanguine attitude as I began to make friends, both volunteers and refugees alike.
The chorus begins with “Yeah, we invent our own little games,” which perfectly articulated an experience I had in Ritsona; while working, the volunteer-refugee-translators often played linguistic and physical games with us. Apart from the riddles we were given, most of the games we played centered around a “race,” whether it be a physical race to the finish line or a race to say the most words in as many different languages as possible. These games made time feel as though it were racing us and winning. Passing time playing games with those from other cultures showed me that having fun is universal and possible even in the most desperate conditions.
Later in the song, Gray sings “And now we’re kicking up to seventh gear/ And we’re breathing in the atmosphere/ I don’t even need a sip of beer/ I can feel it all.” As we settled into our daily routine, becoming more familiar with our surroundings, there was plenty of time to sit back and soak up the Greek sun. As the only Southerner of all the volunteers, I felt exhilarated by getting to know people from different parts of the United States. Additionally, I was intellectually stimulated when I began to learn about the Kurdish and Syrian cultures through the natives from those areas of the world. Look down at your palms. Now run your eyes over the creases in your left hand. First you will find the largest slanted crease, veering toward your wrist. In Kurdish, the slanted and straightened creases, together, mean “81.” Now look at your right hand just the same as your left, but backwards. Our right hand has a giant “18” written on it in Kurdish. When you add these two numbers together you’re left with 99, which is how many names Muhammad has in the Kurdish culture. Subtract the two and you have a difference of 63, which is the number of years Muhammad lived, although that number is a matter of debate. By “feeling it all,” as Gray’s lyrics suggest, I felt an ineffable connection to my hands on this international volunteerism trip. Not only was our work filled with manual labor, requiring our hands for everything, but I heard an interpretation of what my hands have been shouting at me my entire life. An epiphany of this sort marks the next lyrics as utterly sensible: “blinking out of red eyes, and sore minds/ The airplanes keep flying by, and they cry/ ‘Cause they’ve never even touched the sky.” As we were in Chalkida learning and melting into each other’s souls, influencing and being influenced, there were hundreds of other people in the air, flying over us to the next big city, Athens or Santorini or Mykonos, probably never realizing that such a special place on Earth is right beneath them.
Similar to not being a final destination but rather a checkpoint in a long voyage, this story of Chalkida is only chapter one. With another volunteer who I connected with on an entirely different wavelength, I made a pact to go back to Chalkida and do a comparison study. My next trip there will be a sort of time lapse. This time lapse will solidify that for refugees and volunteers alike, Ritsona is a checkpoint and will confirm that as idle of a town it may be, it will always be filled with moments of unexpected joy and cultural revelations.
Me and Emad, one of the refugee-volunteers
The Story of Kenya
A Network of Empowerment
The story of The Pangea Network is one that has pulled at my heartstrings for five years now. Although Pangea is considered a small non-profit, it has made an enormous impact on the women and children in Nairobi, Kenya.
I met the founder of The Pangea Network, Nicole Minor, when I was in high school. After hearing her speak to my class about the organization, I was immediately enchanted by Pangea’s purpose and meaning. When I was a senior in high school I joined the Young Women’s Leadership Challenge, a program whereby young women learn more about how to empower others, financial literacy, and the importance of nonprofit work in their communities. After completing my challenge, I went off to the University of Texas at Austin with an empowered and confident mind. After my first year as a Longhorn, I landed an internship with Pangea which opened my eyes to what non-profit management truly entails. Aside from my work gathering donations and writing posts for Pangea’s newsletter, I learned a lot about persuasion and the other hidden side of the nonprofit world. What I mean by hidden is that managing a nonprofit organization isn’t just about gathering donations and raising money. There is an unexpected intricate amount of administration and red tape that goes into a nonprofit’s success.
After my time as an intern here in the U.S., I was given the opportunity to go to Kenya and immerse myself in Pangea’s efforts while in country. I spent weeks this past summer in Kenya, specifically working with the Agruppamandasi Women’s Group, a group Pangea created composed of like-minded and neighboring Nairobi women who needed our help. What Pangea does is simple but powerful; we grant female entrepreneurs in Kenya a business education based on finance, bookkeeping and business success, provide education for their children, and micro-funding for women who qualify for our program. Through micro-funding, the women of The Pangea Network join a community where they can not only run a successful business in a country that is based on a cottage industry, but also receive empowerment and support from other women in the Network. Pangea creates a web of love for women who have faced oppression and hardship in their lives.
During my time in Kenya I visited Nairobi’s largest slum, Kibera. Kibera is a district in Nairobi where many of our women live and work. Although the U.S. State Department explicitly warns Americans not to go to Kibera due to crime and kidnapping, I still felt it was important for me to go. I wouldn’t consider myself reckless, but I realize sometimes boundaries need to be crossed in order to truly experience what the world is like, even in its darkest corners. A lot of the footage in my film is shot in Kibera. Marked with disease, hunger, and poverty many of the women we work with have HIV, barely any money to put food on the table, and lack the resources to put their children into primary school. Often times their culture prevents those who do happen to have the means from utilizing those resources. One of the women in the video, a crocheter, told me in an interview that she used to be prohibited from carrying money in her own pocket simply because she was a woman. Some women have abusive husbands, not only damaging their bodies but also their souls and minds. Despite the hardships those of Kibera face, there’s a certain aura to the people’s attitudes that remains unmatched. As we were walking through the slum, Dorothy’s assistant Collins remarked, “poverty has made them a family.” The people of Kibera have replaced hate with sympathy for their neighbor, binding them to a friendship that is unlike most bonds. The crime that does occur in Kibera is atrocious, but as Collins noted, Kiberans are “defiant to the police because they feel nobody understands them.” The Kiberan dynamics prompted me to think about social constructs and the birth of society while I was in Kenya: society can be born from anything, including isolation.
There’s a little girl in my film, a 10 year old named Winnie. Winnie is one of the sweetest and most obedient girls I’ve ever met. Grateful, humble, and purely kind, Winnie lives to serve despite her circumstances. Having nearly 12 brothers and sisters, Winnie is the youngest of the bunch and lost her mother at age 3 due to HIV. With a father who ran and a mother who passed too soon in life, Winnie and her siblings joined The Pangea Network’s youth program. Winnie lives with Dorothy, the Kenyan Country Director of Pangea and the woman I stayed with during my time there. The Pangea Network values female empowerment as much as they value youth and adult education. Winnie’s story is one of many. Pangea’s versatility in service is one of the many reasons my heart is impassioned by this organization.
When I first arrived at Dorothy’s home, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much liveliness it was filled with. Selflessly housing six people who are network recipients, Dorothy is a woman who values others over herself. She is living proof that service doesn’t necessarily have to be a part time endeavor. It’s something you can do constantly. During my third day in Kenya, I had a deep conversation with her about how she is able to do it all. How does someone work a full time job, feed so many mouths, and still have a clean home?
“I don’t do it all. That’s the thing about giving. You can’t give everything, but you do what you can. Nothing comes smooth in this world. Life is a sacrifice through and through.”
Dorothy evidently is a woman who truly believes that sacrificing her own, personal pleasures is well worth the result of improving someone else’s life. It’s this type of mentality that is the common denominator for the women in The Pangea Network, and it is what allows Pangea to make such a tremendous change in the lives of these women.
Jen and I in front of a Kibera home.
Young me during my first year working with The Pangea Network
From left to right: me, Winnie, Mary, Sharon. All of us are women of The Pangea Network
"Sometimes we see ourselves eating good food, and then we take it for granted, thinking it's not nice or good."
Dorothy with Pangea baby.
Maasai Mara National Reserve
The Story of the Maasai
An Informational Reflection
To be quite frank, the story of the Maasai tribe is a story I wish I had more information about. I came to Kenya not expecting to meet and fall in love with such a genuinely unique tribal culture.
The Maasai tribe is a nomadic one, and the Maasai people are the only remaining natives in Kenya who currently live according to traditional tribal ways according to Dorothy, the female human rights attorney I lived with during my stay in Africa.
The Maasai people are the true kings of the jungle, as they’re fierce and dominant over all the animals that one typically sees on a safari. When visiting a Maasai village, a Maasai man proudly stated that “the Maasai do not fear the lion, the lion fears the Maasai.”
Going on safari served as a short hiatus from the international volunteerism I was performing in Nairobi. Going on safari was a must do for me, considering a trip to Africa was no simple voyage and to miss out on such an experience would be a shame. Seeing the beautiful African bushland was the maraschino cherry on top of my trip to Kenya. Apart from gazing at the unique and graceful animals, the safari stood out due to the culture it presented. Instead of delving into how and why animals are magnificent, something we hopefully all know and appreciate, the story of the safari was one about culture and the Maasai people.
You might have noticed that I include footage of a man jumping in the film. In Maasai culture, the higher and more you jump, the more desirable you are as a man. Additionally, when we visited the Maasai village, we were greeted with both a warrior dance from the men and a chant from the women of the village. The women embraced and welcomed us into their community, something that is customary when being visited. I found this unusually hospitable and I found myself wishing Americans were more warm to visitors. Unfortunately, we live in a world where isolation is preferable.
While in the village, I learned that every five years the Maasai burn their homes and move to a more habitable part of the land. Interestingly enough, the Maasai people do not eat fruits or vegetables because when they grow their own produce, animals such as giraffes, zebras, and elephants often invade and devour their crops. When they do consume such foods, it is a rare occasion. So, the Maasai people live off of mostly meat and grains. Having their bunch of cattle move with them every five years to greener pastures is necessary for their survival.
The traditional Maasai village was uniform, as every house stood identical to one another. Standing in a circular formation with the hustle and bustle of town in the middle, the houses resemble an inward-army, protecting the village people from the daunting outside. The inside of the houses were unexpectedly clean and spacious. Made of dirt, clay, water, and cow dung, the houses stood strong and with a dark brown color. The idea of customizing your home in a village such as a Maasai village doesn’t seem to come up very often. The thought of customization crossed my mind a few times since that is something I’ve noticed Americans greatly value. What’s the point of being unique when you’re a part of a stronger unit than yourself?
At the end of my visit with the tribe, we went to the Maasai market. Also in a circular formation, the market was made of tables covered in tchotchkes, weapons, cooking ware, and jewelry. I later learned, after having bought a Maasai dagger for my brother and a salad tosser for my mom, that each table represented a different Maasai family in the village. The money I used to pay for the products partially went to the upkeep of the village and partially to the Maasai school, a newer institution that these tribal people proudly welcomed. After learning that each table represented a particular family, I quivered in guilt because I naturally assumed that my money would only go to the family from whose table I purchased items. After asking if this was the case, I felt I had lost fifty pounds off my back because I learned that money is a communal token: whatever money is made at the Maasai market is put to the community as a whole. There’s no such thing as making your own money off your own products in the Maasai village. Clearly, this greatly juxtaposes the American attitude on capitalism. Additionally, when I was told the money partially goes to the school, I was filled with delight because education is very important to me. After all, education is one thing in the world that no one can take away from you.
The Maasai school has opened more doors than just the door of education for its people. A polygamous society, the Maasai traditionally view love differently than how Americans might view it. However, the school has changed the love and marriage climate of Maasai culture. Rather than having parents choose their child’s wife or husband, the Maasai people now typically fall in love in school and marry their sweetheart.
Visiting and meeting the Maasai people opened my heart up to the differences we all have. Most things that are custom to the Maasai tribe are the opposite of what is custom to me. We typically fear or find differences as undesirable, but seeing how ubiquitous happiness is within their society made me realize that happiness and comfort is a social product of the norms we place onto ourselves. I found the Maasai people to have an unusual sense of community and respect, and for that I envy them in a way.
Inside a Maasai home
A Maasai boy
Give More, Do More
The Story of Lima
I never believed giving is better than receiving until I visited the slums of Lima, Peru, with Cross Cultural Solutions, an international service organization. A few summers ago, I landed in the Lima airport thinking I’d soon meet some local community leaders and get a few volunteer hours under my belt. I left that Lima airport with a new purpose and a deep feeling of ambivalence. Volunteering is a two-way street. At the surface, it may seem like the volunteer receives nothing, but in reality, the volunteer gains a lot.
Terrorism in Peru
In the 1990s, a Maoist terrorist group called the Shining Path devastated Peru. The group’s goal aimed to overthrow the government, create a cultural revolution, and encourage global communism. Along the way, in attempting to achieve these goals, the Shining Path killed about 70,000 Peruvians and stripped many more of their homes, families and jobs. Due to the Shining Path’s actions, Peru now has immense poverty.
Lima: Day 1
When I first arrived in Lima, the Cross Cultural Solutions organizer drove me to the house where volunteers stayed. During this drive, I saw the Peruvian beach, the bright Lima skyline, and rich historical monuments. I also saw slums, mangled stray dogs, and homeless people begging for spare change. I asked Enrique, the volunteer organizer, about the first item on our agenda. He told me we’d be visiting a nursing home for the elderly who lost their families and homes due to the Shining Path.
When the other volunteers and I arrived at the nursing home, I asked the elders around me if I could get them anything or what I could do for them. Most of the elders wanted nothing besides my company. After an entire day of laughing, talking about Machu Picchu-related conspiracy theories, and sharing photos of our families, I realized that giving anything, even if it’s just your time, is better than receiving.
Serving by Teaching
Later during the trip, I served as a teaching assistant for an elementary school class. We started our day off settling down the kids and reading to them. Like most kids, they were happy and curious. They begged me to read to them and to teach them English. After a few days, every student could name the primary colors in English. This accomplishment excited them and encouraged them to learn more. After learning more vocabulary, one girl revealed that she wanted to one day be a doctor in North America. Volunteering at the school was fun, and I learned that teaching is a very gratifying way to give because education has an uplifting and motivating power on others.
The Heartbreaking Reality
My service at the school wasn’t always full of joy, however. Some children had to wear the same dirty outfit every day and others came to school with severe lice. At recess, children would look for rocks to play with, and even after the teacher realized the mud on the rocks was dog feces, she still let them play with the them anyway. Before lunch, all the children washed their hands in the same bucket of stagnant muddy water since there was no running water. When lunchtime rolled around, some kids only had a banana and some didn’t even have food to eat. I remember giving away as much food as I could so everyone had a meal.
What To Do Next
Although I taught English and made my students laugh, there was only so much I could do to help. I wanted to give more, to do more, to change these children’s lives more. Somewhere along my gratifying volunteer trip, I felt helpless because I knew that as a temporary volunteer, I wouldn’t be making a lasting change in the Peruvian education system. I knew that my English lessons were short-lived because their teacher’s English was minimal. Don’t be mistaken- I think Spanish is a beautiful language, but learning English inspired these children, which affirmed my belief that all education systems should include learning a second language. I knew that once I left Lima, these children wouldn’t learn any more English. Empowering these children through education inspired me to help others in the world through learning, empowering and comforting.
After Lima: Kenya
After my trip to Lima, I applied for an internship with The Pangea Network, a non-profit devoted to empowering women in Kenya with the tools and education to run their own business and break free from financial dependency and poverty. During this internship, Pangea sought Kenyan women who were running small, cottage businesses from their homes. After witnessing interviews with these women, I realized most of them valued themselves by how many children they could provide their husbands with. Although this is a cultural belief, which Pangea always tried to respect, we convinced these women that their value was also defined by the contribution they could make for their family through business. With the money we raised, The Pangea Network uplifted many local Kenyan businesses, which uplifted me. I felt accomplished and proud of the women I worked with, but I began feeling like I should look at my local community.
After Kenya: Austin
After working with The Pangea Network, I applied for an internship with the Travis County Commissioners Court. I worked with Commissioner Brigid Shea, and together we helped develop courts that could help locals find a way to break free from prostitution, abuse and mental illness. The Commissioners Court office also has a duty to the Austin public on issues such as:
Preserving the environment;
Emergencies such as wildfires and flooding;
Improving the Austin school systems;
What This All Means
My trip to Lima inspired me to do more for others in my life and in the world. This travel experience caused a ripple effect and transformed my understanding about people. We have a tendency to value ourselves based on what we have, but what’s more valuable is what we give.