The Refugee, My Sister, My Brother

Let me introduce you to five friends and family who are courageously seeking to make life work in nations much different from theirs.  They carry the ‘refugee’ identity with great honor and responsibility.

Haitham and Abeer with child

Haitham and Abeer are Syrians now living in Germany. They live with a local family with whom they now share very close bonds. 
Living in Germany, they treasure democracy, freedom and care for everyone. Safety is of great importance. They appreciate the kindness shown to them and the order Germans experience in normal life. They were taken by surprise by the bureaucracy of the system, there is paper work for everything! They believe that Germans could learn how Syrian families care and support one another. They also think that Syrian food would be good for Germans!

Yaser Naseri

Yaser Naseri is an Iranian living in Australia. I asked him to share some insights into his life.
I miss many things. The family and friends, the neighborhoods, the streets and little alleys where I grew up. The trips with close friends and the smell of different seasons which is very different back home. The little villages I used to go for holiday. Gatherings with families and friends. I really miss part of Iranian culture. I love the freedom and the diversity here. I love the fact that people work hard for their goals and it seems they are more goal orientated and have plans compared to people of Iran. I love the advanced Tech which make people’s life very easy. I also love the beauty of this country at each corner of it whether it is the beach or bush or in the middle of the CBD. I love how they respect human rights at least for their people and provide all sort of support for people with different needs. I love that religion doesn’t rule here. Great democracy! I also love the education system with all the support they provide for their citizens.What is something that has really surprised you there?Well, cultural shock has happened to me for sure. High level of freedom was the first thing. The way people dress, the beaches that I was not used to full of girls with bikinis. One thing that was a real surprise for me was when I learnt what had happened to aboriginals here and a greater surprise when I figured it was so recent, (maybe 50 years ago). it was shocking and still is! The level of directness people have here is surprising too.
One aspect of Iranian culture that Aussies should adopt and why?I believe individualism is killing people here. It is mentally effecting people very badly. I found many people are lonely and suffering from anxiety. I personally can feel it here. On the other hand, in Iran we are the opposite. The culture is based on togetherness. Respect to elders, lots of gatherings, close relationship with relatives. I would drop a bit Iranian culture here and would make it perfect!

Amir Solangi

Amir Solangi is a Pakistani living in USA. He misses daily (family??) members and the respect that people generally give one another. In America, “I can live without being afraid for my life”. 

Angel Rafael Arellano

Angel Rafael Arellano is my cousin living in Bogota, Colombia. His successful consulting business had to close down and at 48 years of age, he had to start from scratch. He misses his wife, kids, parents and siblings. He also misses his friends and close acquaintances. He has enjoyed the prosperity of the city and the strong economy of the country. Most pleasant surprise is the fact that all basic services are available. Loneliness is an ever present challenge. 

Daniel and Dayana Fernández

Daniel and Dayana Fernández, Venezuelans living in Paris. Daniel is my cousin. He is a chef. They recently got married. Life has been safe but hard. Work, work, work. Dayana arrived recently and after her documents were in order they got married. She has struggled with language and a sense of fitting in. They live very modestly in a very small studio with a table and a bed for furniture. The costs are very high but in Paris they need not fear for their lives. They dream of returning home. 

World Refugee Day 2019 and the 70.8 Million

Back in the mid 90’s while living in Germany, I became personally aware of the plight of refugees. At that time, the Balkan wars were raging and Muslim refugees were coming to Germany. The were being housed in building where many lived together. One day, one of the buildings was burned out and the people there lost whatever little they had. I experienced their pain as I saw children and old folks left out in the cold in tears. Ausländer Raus (Foreigners Out) was painted in walls around town. As a foreigner, I wondered what would happen to me and my family. We were safe, we were Americans, we did not have to fear. Yet, the faces would not escape my memory. 

Years later, I led a team of USA doctors, nurses and other specialists along with my 14 year old son Matthew north of Skopje, Macedonia to visit Kosovo refugees while US Air Force planes bombed Serbian positions along the Kosovo borders. A vast sea of white tents with UNHCR (United Nations high Commission for Refugees) printed on the side provided shelter to large numbers of families. The stories I heard gave me a deep sense of responsibility for those who were forced out of their homes.

Besides them, I’ve also had the honor of getting to know Pakistani Ahmadi Muslims seeking refugee before they were exterminated in their home country. Syrians in Greece and Germany fleeing war. Chileans and Argentinians fleeing terror in Canada. Cubans seeking freedom in the USA. Palestinians living behind barbed wire in their own homeland. Sudanese trying to make a living in Egypt. My own people; Venezuelans in Colombia trying to make a living. 

Having lived in 12 nations I can relate to many of their experiences except for the terror they live with seeking safety, food and medicines.  
On this day, 20 June 2019 the world is being encouraged to recognize the plight of refugees everywhere. For me, “Refugees” no longer are just a problem out there. The tragedy of my own country of birth, Venezuela have made me feel the pain in my own skin. I now have relatives living in 8 nations! Four million have left mostly by foot to neighboring countries. They represent 12.5% of the population of one of the wealthiest nations.
One can discuss the myriad of reasons why people choose to leave their country of birth. The issues are usually complex and often have perplexing components. However, the fact remains that according to the UNHCR 37,000 are daily forced leave the familiarity of their place of birth, the language and customs they grew up to find a place of safety. 

It is important to understand that:

  • Refugees are people forced to flee to another country because of war or persecution. They are recognized as “refugees” because it is too dangerous for them to return home and they are protected by international law.
  • The majority of refugees stay close to home with most fleeing to neighboring countries. Only 1% of refugees are ever resettled in third countries. Turkey hosts the most refugees followed by Pakistan, Uganda and Lebanon.
  • Around the world, fewer than a third of people forced to flee live in refugee camps. Most refugees are actually struggling to survive in cities and towns. This is especially true for Syrian refugees.

A refugee is; someone who fled his or her home country owning to “ a well founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

“Refugees are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, with the same hopes and ambitions as us—except that a twist of fate has bound their lives to a global refugee crisis on an unprecedented scale.”- Khaled Hosseini
“To be called a refugee is the opposite of an insult, it is a badge of strength, courage, and victory”-
Tennessee Office of Refugees

Things You Might Not Know About Refugees

  • Every minute 20 people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror
  • 86 per cent of the world’s refugees are hosting by developing countries
  • The largest refugee camp is in Dadaab, Kenya and is home to more than 329,000 people
  • 51% of refugees are under the age of 18
  • The first-ever Refugee Team competed in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Brasil

An Upside Down Reality

These days in Bogotá, Colombia, one can find Venezuelans everywhere. Many are roaming the streets looking for work, others are asking for a coin to buy bread. It is heart-wrenching to see young kids in odd-sized clothing and dirty faces with either Mom or Dad looking sad and forelorn.

Colombia, with over 20 million more in population than Venezuela, has welcomed over 1.5 million Venezuelans that have simply walked across the border seeking food, medicine and safety.

In spite of its own problems and financial limitation, the local government has offered healthcare, education and even breakfast, lunch and a snack to families that process a permit to stay and legalize their documents.

In the the most amazing turn of events, Venezuelans who once hosted hundreds of thousands of Colombians now come seeking the most basic of necessities.

In the 70’s and 80’s the Venezuelan economy thrived as millions of barrels of oil were sold daily. During the same time, Colombians faced a relentless war against insurgents and drug cartels. Scores lost their lives while the rest lived in constant insecurity. With a stagnant economy, Colombians, mostly illegally, crossed into Venezuela and performed the lowest of jobs.

Colombians, a hardworking and entrepreneurial people, soon were prospering; large amounts of money were flowing back home.

Today the situation is playing out in reverse. After a tenuous yet hard-won peace agreement, Colombia is growing and its economy is expanding. Now the Venezuelans have come there, but competition is fierce and the opportunities are few.

Yesterday, I sat down with Ronald Torrez (28) from Barquisimeto. A father of four ran a successful Patacones business, a fast-selling snack. The crisis in Venezuela made it impossible for him to carry on so he sold his equipment and his house and came to Colombia with his wife and two youngest kids. Grandma took in the two older ones.

Ronald has been working as a mason. He needs to make $14 daily. He pays $7 for a small room for the family and the rest is for food. However, he often falls short and has to beg in the streets.

I offered to buy him some food and he thankfully agreed. He asked me to buy him a bread roll and when I said you must also ask something for your boy, he said okay, two rolls. His humility touched me deeply. 

Refugees share similar experiences globally. They are often not welcome in the host county, they are misunderstood and looked upon with suspicion. They are exploited and they suffer trauma. Refugees do not choose to leave home; rather, they flee for their lives.

On the other hand, they come prepared to work hard. Thankfully, Ronald and his boys are in a place of safety. 

Over 10% of the Venezuelan population have already fled their country in the last two years. As the crisis gets worse, the numbers relentlessly continue. The largest group are coming to Colombia. 

While in Bogotá, I met with my partners and other interested parties to talk about abating the refugees’ plight. We kicked off a process to develop technology to asses the skills of people like Ronald and match them to local job opportunities.

Refugees represent a grim reality and we must proactively help them to help themselves. 

Bogotá presents a great opportunity for this

Malaria Day

On this Malaria Day 2019, when African nations are at the focus of global attempts at eradication, one of the most tragic malaria epidemics exists in Venezuela.

Venezuela was the first nation in the world to be certified by the World Health Organization for eradicating malaria in its most populated areas, beating the United States and other developed countries to that milestone in 1961.

It was a huge accomplishment that helped pave Venezuela’s development as an oil power and fueled hopes that a model to stamp out malaria across the globe was at hand. Since then, the world has dedicated enormous amounts of time and money to beating back the disease, with deaths plummeting by 60% in places with malaria in recent years, according to the W.H.O.

But in Venezuela, the clock has been running backward.

Over the past few years, it all started at the gold mines. With the economy in tatters, at least 70,000 people from all walks of life have been streaming to the southern part of the country, said Jorge Moreno, a leading mosquito expert in Venezuela. As they hunt for gold in watery pits, the perfect breeding ground for the mosquitoes that spread the disease, they are catching malaria by the tens of thousands.

Then, with the disease in their blood, they return home to towns and cities. But because of the economic collapse, there is often no medicine and little fumigation to prevent mosquitoes from biting them and passing malaria to others, sickening tens of thousands more people and leaving entire towns desperate for help.

The Chavez-Maduro regime went through 16 Health Ministers in 18 years. Then in 2015 they stopped releasing health data altogether. In 2017 Dr. Antonieta Caporale, Minister of Health, courageously released an alarming report detailing a terrifying increase of malaria and was fired immediately.

It is now estimated that 1 million people have been exposed to the virus, making Venezuela the nation with the fastest growing cases of malaria.

The Maduro regime continues to callously prevent all approaches to mitigate the crisis. In the name of national security, he is not allowing any solution to be introduced.

Venezuela has been here before. Back in the mid 1930’s malaria was the main public threat. 10,000 people died every year and a third of the population was sick. Fortunately, Dr. Arnoldo Gabaldón left a comfortable research position in the US returning home to battle the epidemic.

In 1935, the then dictator Gomez died and new possibilities emerged. The new president declared the malaria epidemic as a national emergency calling Dr. Gabaldon to return. By 1962 malaria was eradicated and no Venezuelan died of malaria. You can read the whole story here.

Today we have powerful new tools to mitigate the advance of malaria. Working with Interim President Juan Guaido, we recently met at a Stanford University conference on Venezuela Dr. Julio Castro, who leads the battle for health in Venezuela. Together with millions of Venezuelans Dr. Castro awaits for the day when malaria can be rolled back once again.

Making a Difference in Venezuela

Dear friends, the situation in Venezuela is very critical at the moment. In the last two weeks the electricity and water supply has been severely limited in 95% of the country due primarily to the lack to maintenance and qualified personnel to properly run it.

Maduro rule is literally destroying the people in this nation. Venezuelans who are able to work, are earning the equivalent of $1 per day (average). This is not enough to provide subsistence for a family. As for example 1 kilo of rice costs $1, 1 kilo of cheese $10, 1 kilo of chicken $18 (when found in stores). 

A working family of 5 can be assisted with two bags per month of basic supplies for $30 per month.

We have been actively involved through two local churches and pastors who have chosen to stay back and minister to people. Their decision is indeed a courageous one as anyone seeking to help outside the existing government structures is viewed as an enemy of the state.

We are directly working with two churches outside of the capital city of Caracas who are helping their local community anyway they can: The Lord is our Refuge Church in Colonia Tovar (42 kms outside Caracas) with Pastor Abihail Lara and New Jerusalem Church in Turmero (90 minutes from Caracas) with Pastor Alexis Cortez.

We would like to provide two bags of food per month to 300 families over the next three months. Each bag contains pasta, rice, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, sanitary napkins for ladies, 1 kg of sugar, 1 kg of flour, 1 kg of precooked meat, 1 dozen eggs. To make this reality, we need to raise

$9,000 each month for a total of $27,000

Accountability
Once the funds are available, a transfer will be immediately made of 100% of funds to an account that is accessible to our team in Venezuela. They use a debit card there to make wholesale purchases of the goods to be distributed.

We are in touch with our partners on a daily basis. We get receipts and updates for purchases made on a weekly basis. Pictures are sent of goods purchased and then pictures are sent of distribution opportunities. We continue in regular discussions regarding impact and response. 

People need food now and we are prepared to purchase and deliver as soon as possible


Any gift is tax deductible and should go though Next Step Ministries Tax ID 20-0287873  Address: 809 Pinon Ave. Millbrae, CA 94030  



See the video: Walking Backwards: One woman’s journey in Venezuela.

Venezuela: Lost… this time

Last Saturday a heroic attempt to bring food and medical supplies into Venezuela failed.

Two of the trucks that pushed through were burned as they attempted to cross the border. One of the drivers was killed. Young people tried to salvage what they could from the burning vehicles while others threw rocks under clouds of tear gas, attempting to protect their friends. 

Interim President Guaidó went in the first truck

At the Colombian border, people of all ages and backgrounds led by Interim President Juan Guaidó and members of the National Assembly, attempted to cross the three bridges that connect both countries. They were met by fully armed Venezuelan National Guards and bands of militants empowered by the regime to attack civilians. 

As the Aid supplies burned young people battled Maduro’s forces

On the southern border with Brazil, the First Nation Pemon people were merciless attacked by Maduro’s forces. Local reports reveal more than 30 killed and scores injured. The aid did not get through at this point either.

Maduro showed his true colors, caring more about remaining in power than allowing desperately needed food and medicines. Finally, the whole world was able to see plainly what Venezuelans have endured during his 6 years of despotic rule.

In another significant development, the day after the border showdown, Mexican-American award winning journalist Jorge Ramos was granted an interview with Maduro. Ramos, well known for his incisive questions and polite but direct style, ended up detained as Maduro abruptly left the interview when confronted with a video that a Ramos had taken earlier. The video showed three men eating out of what they could salvage from a garbage collection truck. The journalist’s equipment was confiscated, including cell phones, and they were all kicked out of the country the next day. Jorge Ramos described his experience in a New York Times piece.

These three stories undeniably point to the larger story the people of Venezuela face. Maduro has usurped power through a fixed election. The Venezuelan Constitution makes provision for situations like this in articles 233, 333 and 350 stating that in such cases the President of the National Assembly must take charge as Interim President allowing for elections to take place within 6 months. This is the legal standing in which he has taken authority for himself. 

The international community overwhelmingly responded positively to these developments in Venezuela, thus recognizing the Constitutional right for Juan Guiadó to be known as Interim President. Last January 23rd, immediately following the announcement from Caracas, United States President Trump was the first to affirm recognition for Guiadó. He was followed by the major Latin American nations and Canada, the European Union, Japan and others totaling more than 50 countries. China, Rusia, Turkey, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua still support Maduro’s illegitimate claim to the presidency.

Since Saturday, a steady number of National Guardsmen, both officers and soldiers, have crossed the border into Colombia and have pledged their support for the Constitutional process while denouncing Maduro as a cruel “usurper” who must go.

At this point Guaidó intends to keep the moral and political mandate as he seeks a peaceful resolution for the situation. 

Everyday people in Venezuela continue to face hunger and the threat of death as medicines are desperately needed.  

A Decisive Weekend for Venezuela and The Americas

This coming weekend, a slow but decisive process of change is launching. More than 50 nations have recognized Interim President Juan Guaidó who has put in place a recovery plan that starts with Humanitarian Aid of Food and Medicines. Maduro has said that the aid will not come and no one knows what will happen.

After 20 years of Chavez and his handpicked successor Maduro, his failed “Socialism of the 21st Century” has utterly failed. The country of my birth has gone from the land of plenty, where everyone had free access to quality education, decent free medical and dental care and where anyone who worked could provide food and shelter to their families, to a place characterized by despair, hopelessness and a distorted outlook on life.

Venezuela shamefully has the highest inflation rate in the world. By the end of last year, prices were doubling every 19 days on average. This has left many Venezuelans struggling to afford basic items such as food and toiletries. Income loses its purchasing power the moment it is received. The minimum monthly salary is equivalent to US$6, which currently buys three cans of tuna fish. As a result the body weight of Venezuelans has been reduced by an average of 19 pounds!

Venezuela had the most developed economy in Latin America. Since the end of World War II, the country experienced an unprecedented development boost, becoming a magnet for immigrants from Southern Europe, the Middle East and other Latin countries. In the 1980’s the economy began to wobble, its meltdown accelerated by the corruption and poor stewardship under Chavez and Maduro. 

By 2015 medical care collapsed as only 35% of hospital beds were available and 50% of operating rooms were not functioning due to lack of resources. In May of the same year the Venezuelan Medical Federation announced that 15,000 doctors had left the public health care system because of shortages of drugs, equipment and poor pay. Malaria, which was almost non existent in Venezuela, is now projected to rise to over 600,000 cases per year. Measles and diphtheria have also returned with a vengeance.

Life has only become worse for Venezuelans

Venezuelans have left the country in droves. Some estimates are as high as 4 million or 12% of the population. And many of those who have left in the past are not allowed re-entry back into Venezuela with their US visa. Venezuelans are regularly posting requests on social media for blood pressure medicine and other basic medicaments. Many of those supplies have been denied entry and stopped at the border. With Maduro’s announcement that the Brazil border will close, and possibly that of Colombia, this desperate need for supplies will only escalate.

American-Venezuelan family joining in protest in San Francisco, CA

This coming 23rd February, 2019 is the day when the Interim President of Venezuela Juan Guiadó has committed as the decisive moment when the International Humanitarian Aid will come in to begin the process aiming to end some of the darkest days in Venezuelan history.

President Guaidó commands the hearts and minds of the people

The best case scenario is that people will come to the border points to receive humanitarian aid and the Venezuelan soldiers will stand down, allowing them to move freely. Their mothers and siblings will be among them for they also face the same tragic reality.

The interim President has also established a distribution network designed to reach everyone in the whole nation. The BIG question is, “What will the Army do?”

Here’s how you can help Venezuela:

  • Watch Venezuela Live Aid and contribute towards the $100 million Richard Branson is seeking to raise.
  • Read more and share on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to create awareness of the needs.
  • Support Next Step as we fund agricultural projects and micro-enterprises in Venezuela.

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Back to the Future

A few days ago I met Eitaro and Tamae originally from Osaka. Common friends Boon and Cheryl Lim brought me over to their apartment to bid them good bye. Eitaro and Tamae have been living in Singapore enriching lives through their artistic gifts. After several years, they are now relocating to Okinawa.

Back in 2001, I went to these beautiful islands together with Kenny Mitchell, a DJ who  came alongside locals to learn of the existential conflict Okinawans faced. We were encouraged as we connected well and together inspired local Okinawans on how they could make a difference.

I first heard of these Japanese islands through the stories of a World War II veteran who was stationed there. He told stories of difficult battles and scenarios. Nolan McDaniel was my kids’ grandfather and he was a big man with a bigger heart. 

Like many groups all over the world, their own heritage, culture and language had been swallowed up by a much bigger nation. The Okinawans’ case is further complicated by many years of US rule (until 1975). Today, they face a fractured existence defined by allegiance to their national identity as Japanese while at the same time recalling the rich inheritance from their ancestors, all in a world saturated with American influence. 

A few days earlier as I went back to the US, my plane flew right over Okinawa and I was stirred as I recalled my visit there. From 30,000 feet in the air, I took a picture. Little did I know then how meeting a Japanese couple in Singapore would be woven with my past there. 

Taketomi one of the islands of Okinawa

Eitaro and Tamae plan to establish themselves in Okinawa and bless the people there with their artistic gifts, allowing normally introspective people to express themselves in fresh ways. Their theme is Love and art is their medium.

As I listened to them it made so much sense to use art as a way to integrate fragmented hearts. Eitaro agreed with me and we committed to stay in touch as they explore how to heal hearts, restoring the elusive dignity and destiny that people there are craving