AT&T's ad star is a refugee and #CantDoNothing about the Syrian refugee crisis, so she decided to volunteer on a whim and start an organization.
Soviet Union refugee and actress/comedian Milana Vayntrub went on vacation to Greece before realizing how dire the Syrian refugee crisis is, namely in Lesbos, a Greek island nearby her vacationing spot. While on vacation, Vayntrub decided that she #CantDoNothing, so she canceled her flight back home and hopped on a plane to Lesbos to help out instead.
The actress, who is AT&T’s very popular ad star, documented her and another volunteer’s experience and compiled it into a 14-minute documentary to show the situation on the island. Not sure what to expect, the two jumped right into volunteering by helping people off of a boat that had just made a dangerous 6-mile trip from Turkey to Lesbos. They spent the next few days handing out food, giving clothes to those soaked from the trip, wrapping children in emergency blankets, and helping people with medical emergencies.
“As limited as these resources are, this is probably the most hospitality people will see in awhile.”
She explains that this tough leg of the refugees’ journey is just the first in a series of dangerous and confusing journeys. Many aren’t able to communicate with the authorities because of a language barrier and therefore can’t get useful information, such as how to apply for asylum or how long they will be staying. Each step of the way, starting with the nearest refugee camps, involves buses, tents, a lack of food, and unwelcoming people.
The video features a short explanation of the reason so many are fleeing Syria, and says that, according to the UN, over 250,000 civilians have been killed in the Syrian Civil War and 12 million people have been displaced. Vayntrub quotes Warsan Shire, a Somali-British poet, to explain how desperate the people have become:
“You have to understand, no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
This quote is especially moving when you consider the amount of refugees that have died in their attempts to escape the war-ridden land that they used to call home. The Aegean Sea, a body of water whose conditions are a slave to the weather, paired with cheap boats, becomes either a safe haven for those who cross safely or a last resort for those who die trying. In the few short days that Vayntrub was helping with the people arriving on boats, one boat had not made it to shore because it “had an accident” and all of the passengers had died as a result. By morning, two children and one woman had washed up on shore and the rest of the bodies had not yet been recovered.
Vayntrub migrated from the Soviet Union in 1989 when she was 2, and although she doesn’t remember much about the process and the trip, she says it has had a lasting impact on her family. Her family traveled during a time when the United States barred refugees from arriving in the middle of their flights, and Vayntrub, along with many other migrant families, were re-routed to Italy for indefinite amounts of time. She says that even if she wasn’t a refugee, hearing about the Syrian refugees would have sparked her attention and compassion. She adds that “I have a lot of compassion for that, for being an outsider.”
When asked about whether she’s concerned that her small documentary and volunteer work will affect her relationship with AT&T, Vayntrub says the company knows of her work and she’s not worried. She explains,
“I don’t think I’m making a political statement, to be honest. I feel like I’m documenting a war zone. I’m not saying that I should be—there are no shoulds except to be compassionate for these people.”
Check out Vayntrub’s website, cantdonothing.org, to find out how you can donate your time, money, or voice. Watch the video below to see Vayntrub’s experience with volunteering in Lesbos. Vayntrub also has another volunteer trip planned, this time at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.
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