Be Senior Sinatex - Syrian Refugee Camp

A Place to Educate, Make Art and Be Human Again

I’m so proud and grateful to finally be able to share with you all a few more images from my time in Northern Greece at the Bê Sînor-Sinatex Cultural Center, a place for the 300 Kurdish refugees from Syria who are stranded at Sinatex Camp, to educate each other, make art and be human again. These images have been approved to be shared publicly, but I do so with the highest respect for everyone photographed. Many of those who were photographed have chosen not to have their images published, for safety and security reasons.

Be Senior Sinatex - Syrian Refugee Camp

After the evacuation of Idomeni, an informal refugee camp on the border of Greece and Macedonia, in May 2016, thousands of refugees were placed in military camps across Northern Greece. Camp Sinatex is a family camp of 300 Kurdish refugees, nearly all Syrians. Almost half of those residing at the camp are children. The global migrant crisis across the region has disproportionately affected children. Nearly half of the 4.9 million Syrians on the run from the brutal and deadly civil war are children. These children are not political pawns or terrorists…they are children, just like my own, who have lived through horror and pain that is unimaginable.

Be Senior Sinatex - Syrian Refugee Camp

According to UNICEF, the Syrian conflict has put 2.8 million children out of school, including 2.1 million inside Syria and 700,000 abroad. The volunteers at the Bê Sînor-Sinatex Cultural Center realized the most important thing they could do for the people, especially the 120 children at the camp, was to provide them with school lessons and an informal education.

Be Senior Sinatex - Syrian Refugee Camp

The set up for the informal school is very basic. There are two tents and some benches, plus one notebook to cover all subjects. These children have been deprived of everything, and many of them have never been to school in their lives because of the war. The effects of the loss of education on this young generation could be detrimental. While 91% of children around the world are enrolled in school, only 50% of refugee children attend primary school. Without the chance to study, an entire generation is at risk. According to the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR), “In times of displacement, education is crucial. It can foster social cohesion, provide access to life-saving information, address psychosocial needs, and offer a stable and safe environment for those who need it most. It also helps people to rebuild their communities and pursue productive, meaningful lives.”

Be Senior Sinatex - Syrian Refugee Camp

This past summer I was fortunate to see Malala Yousafzai speak in Kansas City. Malala said the most surprising thing she’s seen in her travels is the lack of investment in education. She said if military entities worldwide stopped their spending for only eight days, we would be able to educate all of the children across the earth that are currently NOT attending school.

“More guns and bombs will never protect you. Educated children do not need to pick up guns.” – Malala Yousafzai

The volunteers at the the Bê Sînor-Sinatex Cultural Center realized that education was the best solution they could offer the refugee community stranded there. They found a piece of private land and began teaching. There are seven teachers from the refugee community who are teaching Arabic, Kurdish, math, science and geography. They also provide Kindergarten for the youngest children at the camp, and volunteers from all over the world are teaching English to all ages, including the adults. When I entered the camp, I was amazed to find almost ALL of the children could speak conversational English and German. They were eager and excited to learn. They wanted to know all about me and my family, and what America was really like. They were kind, smart and welcoming. While I was there, one of the older students was celebrating his 18th birthday, and his mother invited all of us into her tent, where she fed us a traditional meal and we ate a cake that one of the volunteers had purchased in town.

Be Senior Sinatex - Syrian Refugee Camp

I think this description of Bê Sînor, taken from their Facebook page, exemplifies what an incredible space it is:

It is place of welcome where everyone can do something valuable with the long and dreadful times whilst the borders are closed and we are awaiting the bureaucratic asylum system. We also organize birthday parties, dance evenings, yoga, sports, art classes, and distributions – all depending on the volunteers who come to join our project and the donations we receive. In the short amount of time that we have been teaching we have seen a big shift in behavior in the children, and they are all so keen to learn and have an education. Our teachers from the community and the volunteers try to counter the hardships that people are facing with creative lessons and lots of smiles. Forgetting your problems for a while, getting some structure in everyone’s daily lives and providing basic education for children and adults is worth a lot these days.

I am so grateful for the volunteers and camp community for allowing me to visit and photograph their space. When I visited in October, the weather was still mild and most of the children spent their days outdoors, running and walking around the area. Unfortunately, the harsh winter has arrived in Greece, and things are much more difficult. The temperatures have dropped far below zero, and snow is falling. The tents have no roofs provided, so the residents took everything they could find to put a roof over their head. There are still no washing machines, so the people – mainly the women – have to wash the clothes outside in temperatures, which reached -10°C this week. Currently, the camp is also without access to water due to broken pipes. They do not have electricity or heating and eventually it was impossible to teach outside in the two tents anymore. Volunteers describe, “watching the children trying to hold on with their freezing fingers to their pens and the adults not seeing their notebooks anymore during the evening lessons because it gets darker earlier.”

Be Senior Sinatex - Syrian Refugee Camp

Fortunately, there were two rooms inside of the camp building which the volunteers were able to use to continue lessons. They had been told by the Greek military that the rooms were too dark for school, but they have made do with the light from the windows and some tables that were donated Danish Refugee Council (which is also working at the camp). Also, after months of waiting, the children of Sinatex were FINALLY allowed to attend lessons at the local Greek school! This is huge for these children! You can learn more on the Bê Sînor Facebook page, but I wanted to share an excerpt from the first day of school here:

A team of teachers welcomed the children and us with open arms. A “Welcome to School”-sign was hanging on the wall. And within seconds the children found their places on one of the tiny school desks. For many of them it was the first time in a school building. The teachers had to explain them what the ringing bell means. Because of the war many children never went to school. During the time in Turkey the older ones were working instead of studying. The feeling to see these kids sit in an actual classroom is indescribable. But there was no time for happy tears, because of course everybody was way too excited to sit still.

The whole teacher team was amazing and very welcoming. The refugee children attend school in the afternoon, where as the Greek kids go there in the morning. But nevertheless there were some Greek kids hanging around and within seconds they were playing soccer together or tried to communicate with the little Greek they know or with their English. All of this was just amazing to see. Jony, one of the teachers who supported the kids and our project from the first day said, “This is the best day of my life!” Probably not only for him.

I have to expressly thank Alex Aronsky, Andrea and everyone else who welcomed us with open arms when we visited in October. I really believe if more people really understood and experienced the refugee crisis, especially it’s effect on a generation of young children, the world would open it’s borders and more people would open their arms. If you would like to support the efforts of this incredible team of volunteers, you can donate directly to Bê Sînor via PayPal by clicking here. Another group that does amazing work with refugees in the Kansas City area is KC for Refugees. This weekend, in conjunction with a few other organizations, there will be an interfaith prayer vigil for the local refugee community at Overland Park Community Church. In light of the new policies and rhetoric from the current American government, it’s so important to show our local refugees, who have already been through so much, that we support them. More information on this event can be found by clicking here. I will be there taking photos for KC for Refugees, and it would be wonderful to see some familiar faces!

Be Senior Sinatex - Syrian Refugee Camp

Finally, I must thank my best friend and sister, Theresa Frey, for inviting me on this journey with her. If I ever doubted that everything in life happens for a reason, this trip showed me the truth. I am so lucky to have Theresa in my life, constantly challenging me, working with me, and teaching me how to be better.

Be Senior Sinatex - Syrian Refugee Camp

Womens March on Washington

The Upside of the Downside

“This is the upside of the downside. This is an outpouring of energy and true democracy that I have never seen in my very long life. It is wide in age, it is deep in diversity and remember the constitution does not begin with ‘I the president’ it begins with ‘we the people’.” – Gloria Steinem, the Women’s March on Washington, January 21, 2017

Womens March on Washington

Last week I packed up a backpack and a bag of snacks, and I got on a charter bus with 55 strangers. I am not an extroverted person. I’m outgoing, sure, but I like my space. I like the quiet. I like being alone with my thoughts. My life and career are all based upon being out in the world, so when I have my own time, I choose to spend it with myself. So the idea of getting on this bus and driving for over 24 hours with a bunch of strangers wasn’t something I would normally be excited about. But these are interesting times, and before I knew it, I was on a bus bound for Washington D.C.

Womens March on Washington

People have asked me why I marched on Washington last weekend. I have seen social media posts where people have criticized the marchers and said we just need to move on. I have heard from those who are very excited about our new president and the promises he’s made. I have read op-ed’s where privileged white women claim the march wasn’t for them. I have seen a lot of opinions about why we marched…but here is why I marched.

Womens March on Washington

When I look back at my life when I’m 80, I want to know I did everything I could to stand up for what I believe in. Because I’ve always said if I’d been alive in the era of civil rights marches, I would’ve participated. Because my daughter is as valuable as my son. Because as a survivor of sexual assault, having the leader of my country openly talk about how he assaults women makes me want to throw up. Because my prenatal care was provided by Planned Parenthood. Because my daughter is a gift that organization gave me, and when you protest them, you protest her existence. Because I believe in healthcare for all. Because I was denied insurance due to pregnancy being a “pre-existing condition.” Because I support marginalized communities in their fight for equality. Because my Muslim friends are as much a part of our country as I am. Because I want my great grandchildren to have a beautiful, functioning planet that hasn’t been destroyed by climate change. Because facts and science matter. Because I can never understand the plight of an African American mother worried her children will be targeted by police because of how they look. Because my LGBTQ friends deserve the same rights as I do.

I am a white, middle class woman from Kansas. I marched because it’s my duty to show my legislators that they work for me. I marched because it’s their job to represent me, and they have been saying I support policies that I am absolutely against. I marched to be heard and seen. I marched for my daughter, my son and my husband. I am marched because I had to. There was no other option.

Womens March on Washington

I want you to know the feeling of driving across the country with a bus full of women (and a few men), who want to change the world. I wish you could feel the happiness as we got closer and closer to D.C., and every rest stop was full of more and more buses. Buses from Indiana, Ohio, Illinois…the lines to the women’s bathrooms growing longer and longer! The kind truck stop attendants who opened the shower rooms for free and told us to remember them while we marched. Our bus driver, who was an Iraq war veteran, showing us his sniper scars.

Womens March on Washington

I want you to feel the energy I felt in Washington. We were tired and hungry, and there definitely weren’t enough bathrooms, but everyone was smiling. We were packed in, bodies upon bodies for as far as the eye could see. Pink, pussycat hats everywhere. But no one yelled. No one pushed. When a child came through the crowd with a parent, someone would yell “kid coming through!” and we’d somehow make a path, even though we hardly had room to move an inch. The same thing happened with the elderly, those with disabilities…and even when the police came through shouting that a woman was in labor!

Womens March on Washington

The police we chatted with at the end of the day said it was the most peaceful protest they had ever experienced in D.C. They said they were inspired by the crowd. We marched down Constitution Avenue, yelling “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” When we passed by the “Bikers for Trump” rally, where a man was yelling obscenities at us with his “Make America Great” hat on, everyone just held their head up higher and continued walking.

Womens March on Washington

I am so grateful I was able to attend this historic event. I know a march won’t solve all of our problems, but it felt good to stand in solidarity with my sisters and brothers and say, “This is what I believe.” Now we return home, to our families and our communities, and begin the real work.

Rise up.

Bê Sînor - Sinatex Cultural Center

The Bracelet

In the next few months, I plan to share more about my trip to Greece in October…this is the first post of many that will hopefully convey a bit of what we saw at the refugee camp outside of Thessaloniki. I hope by sharing these stories, I can help raise awareness for the Syrian people who have fled their war torn country looking for a better life for themselves and their children. For more information please visit the the Bê Sînor – Sinatex Cultural Center on Facebook.

Bê Sînor - Sinatex Cultural Center

As we drove to the Bê Sînor – Sinatex Cultural Center (the refugee camp I visited in Greece in October), we chatted with our cab driver. A kind man, he even stopped at a cafe on the way because he noticed I didn’t have a frappe (an iced coffee drink that’s super popular in Greece) and wanted me to have one. We talked about the city where we were staying and he told us about his teenage son. Soon the topic moved on to where we were headed…the refugee camp outside of town in the old textile factory. He was kind, but firm about the challenges facing his country as they deal with the ongoing economic and refugee crises there simultaneously. Greece is in extreme financial peril, and yet, due to their geography and location across the sea, they have taken in more refugees from Syria (and Africa) than any other nation in the European Union. They have the least in terms of resources to support this influx, and yet, the boats still come.

Bê Sînor - Sinatex Cultural Center

I could sense his frustration and while I didn’t agree with everything he was saying, I understood why he felt the way he did. He said he didn’t understand why we would come visit his beautiful city, just to head out the camp, where no Greeks visit. He shook his head in disbelief, but drove us to our destination, and then promised to return to get us later in the day.

Bê Sînor - Sinatex Cultural Center

That day was one I will never forget, but one of the most significant moments in my memory is when my friend Theresa was interviewing a few of the teachers for her research project. The kids immediately noticed the teachers were sitting down to talk with Theresa, so they ran over (as all kids would) to figure out what was going on. As I saw the teachers struggling a bit to concentrate on Theresa’s interview with kids hanging on their every word, the old camp counselor and coach in me came out, and I started playing with the kids to distract them. We played hide and seek, did puzzles, painted and threw around a football. One sweet girl with huge brown eyes pulled me over to a quiet spot on a large rock under a tree, and asked me to hold a knotted end of string. She started braiding, carefully and slowly, little fingers making sure every move was perfect. She asked me where I was from, if I was married, and if I had any kids of my own. She wanted to know my kids’ names, and then she repeated them over and over…their American names foreign to her ears and tongue. She held my hand for the most of the afternoon, and whenever she had a free moment, she stopped to work on the bracelet she was crafting out of string. “For you,” she said.

Bê Sînor - Sinatex Cultural Center

Before we knew it (and honestly, before I was ready, even though it was almost dusk) we saw the cab driving up the dirt road to pick us up. The sweet girl tried to finish the bracelet as quickly as possible so I could take it with me, and while she worked, the cab driver got out of the car and waved at us. As we gathered our things and headed toward the car, my new friend followed me. I loaded up my belongings, and she ran over to hug me, kiss my cheeks, and thank me for telling her about my life. She handed me the half-finished bracelet and I promised her I’d finish it up and wear it, always.

The cab ride home was quiet. Our driver’s mood and energy was completely different. I could tell seeing the children, especially my interaction with the little girl, had affected him. His words were kind. He spoke of the refugees in a different way on the drive home. He asked questions about what we saw. He softened. We were quiet.

Today I wear my bracelet with pride. I brought home the unfinished project, and completed it at my kitchen table, with my own children by my side. Right after the election, I noticed it had fallen off and I couldn’t find it anywhere. I was devastated…but when I texted Theresa to tell her how sad I was that the bracelet was gone, she simply replied with, “But your heart is there.”

She is right. As always. My heart is there.

A week ago I found my bracelet, hidden just under my bed. I am wearing it again, and I hope it will always remind me of the sweet girl with the brown eyes…who not only gave me a beautiful gift, but softened the heart of a kind man with nothing but a small act of love.

What You Can Do – Week 1

So…that election happened. For the first few days after the results were announced, I think I went through all the stages of grief about 10 separate times. And honestly, everyone handles these things differently, so I think whatever you need to do to deal is just fine. However, after spending the last three and a half years of my life learning how NOT to wallow in anger, fear and resentment (which for me, leads to really bad and unhealthy choices) I knew that wasn’t an option. I can be angry, but I can’t sit in that anger, or it will eat me alive.

One thing I have heard over and over since Election Day is, “What can I do now?” I was asking myself the same question, so I decided to sit down and make a list of all the things I could do that could affect change in the world. Some of the items were big actions, while some were simple and small. But if there is anything I’ve learned in the past few years, it’s that I can’t control anyone else, only myself, and when I choose to take positive action toward others, it causes a ripple effect in everyone around me.

When I was in my first days of recovery, I remember feeling completely alone. I didn’t know how I could do anything, let alone change anything about my life. But a wise person told me to get up, get out of bed and do something…it didn’t matter what it was. Make the bed. Put on clean clothes. Go outside. And little by little, those small actions got me moving. Before I knew it, my entire life had turned around, and it all started with those tiny acts.

So I’ve decided to apply the same logic to the new world around me. Every day I plan to do something positive…and hopefully those little things will add up to make this world a little bit better. I am sharing them daily on my social media because there are so many people who seem to want to do something, but don’t know where to start. My hope is that by sharing, we will all be inspired to do something, big or small. I’ll gather the week’s actions in a short list here every Friday, so it’s easier to find them and get ideas moving forward. I’m also tagging on social media under the hashtag #smallthingsforbiglove. Just remember, I’m not giving up, and neither should you.

Here’s this week’s list!

1. Go to a public meeting or rally! Reach out to others and ask if they have any info on events going on in your community. I went to a HUGE private gathering of women and men of action to plan for what we do next, and how we can support causes near and dear to us that are in peril of being defunded in the future.

2. Do something spiritual. For me this week, that meant going to church. This was the sermon. I was in tears. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

3. Donate blood! When you donate blood, you save three lives. It’s easy and it only takes about 30 minutes. Click here for more info.

4. Continue working for causes you care about. I met with my friends on the KS-03 ONE Congressional District Team about advocating and talking with our representatives in congress about the Education for All Act! Want to help? Send me a note at Read more about ONE here.

5. I called my two senators and two representatives to ask them to come out against the appointment of Steve Bannon to the White House Staff. It was incredibly empowering to make my voice heard! If you want to call, click here for more info!

6. I listened to the This American Life podcast, which did in-depth storytelling during and following the election. The most recent show is an absolute must if you’re wanting to really listen and learn.

7. I called a charity I’m interested in, but haven’t ever worked with, to learn how to get involved!

What Dreams May Come…

Today’s the day, and I should be frantically running around, trying to do all the things and check items off my list. But instead I’m sitting in bed with my laptop and the sleeping kitten. I feel oddly calm, which is so unlike me when I’m preparing for travel. Maybe it’s just because this trip is so different from any I’ve ever taken? Maybe it’s because I’m in denial this is actually happening? Maybe I just need more coffee?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always told stories. I tell them through my writing and my photography, and most of the time they are meaningless to anyone else. But that’s okay, because they mean a lot to me. I am made of that stuff that just inherently NEEDS to share, or else my head and my heart might explode.

We talk a lot in our home about using our talents to help others. I may not be perfect or famous or have a million dollars, but I can share my gifts in a way that lifts others up. I’m a storyteller, and my life’s goal is to tell stories for good. To tell the stories that need to be heard. Sometimes those stories are mundane and sometimes they are magnificent.

I met my best friend and chosen sister, Theresa, when I was 8-years-old. In the past few years she has grown so much, and these days I’m the one who looks up to her. She has risen in the academic ranks at her job and in the past year she has begun a very intense research project, which is focused on education rights for Syrian refugee children who have been displaced due to the civil war there.

This summer she reached out and asked if I’d be interested in traveling with her to Greece to photograph the refugees and refugee camps there in conjunction with the United Nations. I couldn’t believe it. This is a dream opportunity for me! Our goal is to learn more about the current state of primary education for refugees in Greece. We want to heighten awareness for support needed for further development of access to education, and the bigger picture for the Syrians, Afghans and other nationalities of refugee children residing there.

I fly to New York today. Tomorrow we leave for Greece.

I am in awe of this opportunity. I know I can’t even fathom yet how this will change me. I think that’s why I’m still laying in my bed, instead of frantically running around. I am preparing, in the only way I know how.

Be still. Be still. Be still.

I will be off the grid while I’m away, but I hope to keep updating social media when I have internet access. I would assume the best bet for photos is to follow my Instagram and for video content to follow me on Snapchat under the name “crazeebananaz” (I love Instagram stories, but it’s still a bit glitchy for me, so I’m going to plan on snapping most things and then uploading to Instagram stories if I can). If you’re able, send some good vibes or prayers or juju or whatever into the universe for us, as we embark on this journey. We can use all the encouragement we can get…

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