Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Good We Can Do - a heartfelt THANK YOU to everyone who made this possible!!

I've been so excited to share this update with you all for so long; it is especially exciting to be able to give it to you as a high note to end this crazy year on!

The trip to Serbia my dear friend Amy and I went on in October was unlike our usual trips.  It was an exploratory mission to find out what the situation was like for refugees and those helping them there, and much of it was spent making connections and scouting out need.  We did have baby carriers, of course, but they were held up in customs for the majority of the time we spent there. Carry The Future provided us $800 to spend on 'additional aid' as needed, so, after scouting out the various encampments and aid centers and polling folks for what the greatest needs were, we hit up our favorite big box store for a massive aid run.

This is a chain that we have used in Greece - both as a landmark to find our hotel (haha!) and to purchase aid items at reasonably cheap prices, so it was quite exciting to find one in Serbia, too!
Let me tell ya: remember all those shows where they'd give people shopping carts to fill with as much stuff as they possibly could?  That's essentially what we got to do - granted, there was considerably more math involved - but it was every bit as fun as I imagined it would be...and the fact that it was all meeting specific needs to boot?? My amazing travel sister Amy and I were positively giddy...which might be obvious from the pictures.

Probably the only situation in which I would be this happy buying an entire cartload of sanitary napkins.

Amy modeling the confusing hats...they were the same size, shape, and material as the full face balaclavas they had on the next rack, but they had no face holes...

we filled two whole carts with aid!
Two whole carts!!!
 Next, it was off to a Serbian version of Costco:

we got soap...
a LOT of soap...
by the time we checked out, we had overfilled yet another cart with much needed supplies.

There was just SO MUCH STUFF!
We were a little excited about how far our aid money was going.

...Ok, a lotta bit excited...

We loaded it all up into our trusty little car...

luckily there was still a little room for us!

Back at the hotel, I loaded Panther Pack up with as much as I could, and then some...

once inside, we spent the majority of our evening prepping little care packages - making sure that everyone who received soap had a way to store and reuse it as well.

We had a limited number of towels, which we included in a batch to be given to mothers with babies.

The next day, we dropped everything off at the various aid stations that had requested is a stack of diapers successfully delivered to Miksaliste's aid  distribution storehouse.
And I have to include this one because all of that on the fly math - calculating how much of each thing would give us the biggest bang for our buck, taking the exchange rates into totally paid off.  When we did our final calculation to see how close to our budget we were, we were Amazingly On Point!!

Not too bad for budgeting through exchange rates.

...But now we had a problem. We had all used up all of our aid money, and had prepped and distributed it all, but it was only a couple days into our trip, and our carriers were still stuck in customs.  Not wanting to waste our time there when there was such obvious and urgent need, we decided to strike out on our own and see if we could raise a little bit more to spend while we were there on the ground.  Amy created a paypal link where people could donate whatever funds they so chose, and we both shared that link on our own personal facebook pages - and that was it.  Overnight, our amazing support networks shared those posts and donated a whopping $900, giving us even more than we had from CTF the first time around.  Within 24 hours, that number had risen to over $1,400.  We were floored, and so, so SO grateful to our friends and family for rallying to make such an immediate difference.  We got right to work!

After a lot more math...

Exchange rates + ATMS + haggling prices in multiple languages = I'm amazed my brain could process it all!
Armed once again with cash:

Serbian Dinar notes
We headed off on an adventure to find the Chinese market; which we had been tipped off about by various aid workers there...evidently they have the best prices in Belgrade for the types of items we needed to get, and the sellers were open to haggling.  Edin gave us a lesson (seriously, wrote out diagrams on a whiteboard and everything) on the best way to haggle down the prices, and off we went.  Our GPS - which we named Charles, and spoke with a British accent once finally finding an English language setting - was utterly useless in finding this place, so it took us the better part of a day to find it, but we finally did - using old fashioned maps and landmarks and guesswork - and were not disappointed!

a tiny fraction of the Chinese market...we didn't take a lot of pictures because we were busy searching out and haggling over the best options for our aid purchases.

It went well, overall..I made Amy nervous at first because I kept walking away from potential deals, but after we got a deal on the same hats for literally half the price, she went into power mode and brokered several more awesome deals!

The most amusing part of the whole ordeal was the language barrier.  Many of the vendors only spoke Chinese or the local Serbian dialect, and not many (if any) of them spoke English.  This provided for a lot of non-verbal communications and speaking via a calculator...and at least one hilarious instance of me recognizing that the vendor was speaking Mandarin, and so I dusted off a bit of Mandarin from the corner of my memory and conducted an entire deal haggling in Chinese, in Serbia, to benefit people from places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, while trying to convert the numbers in my head to US currency.  It went quite well, overall...except that I totally blanked on the word for "one hundred", so I ended up asking for "ninety-nine and one" hats...

After a quite successful day at the Chinese market, it was time to head over to the Hungarian border.

But first it was back to city center to pick up some sugar.

A LOT of sugar.

Is this an appropriate face for someone about to purchase over 100 kilos of sugar?
 A note about all of this Sugar:

While on the surface this may seem like an irresponsibly frivolous purchase, it's actually a really important one. Tea is a super big deal to most refugees; tea in many middle eastern cultures brings people together, and can be a comfort in a dehumanizing situation...and to get that 'comfort of home' feeling, it needs to be SWEET. (Like, way too sweet for most Americans) - but obviously sugar is hard to come by when you are living in abandoned buildings or tents...So I consider it a contribution towards aiding the mental well-being of these people who have lived through things no one should ever have to witness.  

When we had visited Edin at the Daily Center, in addition to our haggling lesson, we got to meet many of the regulars in his establishment, many of whom were giving him a good natured hard time about needing to ration the sugar - a thing that he clearly wished he could address.

By this time, Edin himself had spent an unprecedented amount of time and money to help us get our carriers out of customs, and we found out during our shopping spree that he had successfully obtained our carriers and they were waiting for us at the center.

Overjoyed, we wanted to show give him a small gesture of thanks.

So we bought as much sugar as we could fit in our trunk

(along with some hats and other things that had been requested)
And drove over to The Daily Center, where we built a little castle of sugar for him to find on the coffee table.

(we also gave them plenty of other aid from our plunders as well, but they weren't as photogenic as this magnificent I love all the pictures on the wall in the background!)

Reunited at long last!
Armed now with our carriers and remaining aid, we took the trek out to the Hungarian border.  There, we found another 'flea market' that reputedly had even better prices than the Chinese market in Belgrade...We got as much stuff as we possibly could, and filled our car to bursting.

It was one of those "don't open the door we may never get it shut again" situations.

who needs to see out the back windows anyway?

We would have gotten more, but we simply couldn't fit anything else in our car!! 

At North Star, we were able to distribute massive amounts of stuff.  Syd was especially happy to get the mylar emergency blankets that I brought from home (and yes, he already knew that they had to be used under people's clothes in order to be effective.)

Also stashed in my panther pack, I had two bags full of handmade hats from a friend here in DC; Laura had broken her ankle and utilized her immobile healing time to make as many hats as she possibly I had the great honor of handing those out as well.  The kids loved them.  They were the first thing we handed out, and it was so fun to see little heads running about with familiar bright pops of color throughout the rest of our stay!

One of Laura's hats spotted warming a small head from afar!

Amy hanging out with our tiny friend Sultan, and his new red hat from Laura!
Back in Beograd, we spent our last full day distributing the last of our aid stores. By giving up our free day, we were even able to distribute all of our baby carriers, despite the hold up! We held several training sessions with core volunteers from each of the groups we had worked with (and left them with small supplies of carriers), so that we could rest assured that they would be able to properly fit not only our carriers, but any they receive in the future, too!

Amy demonstrating that the wearer should be able to kiss the top of baby's head in a proper fit to a volunteer at Miksaliste

Box of carriers delivered to Miksaliste!

Amy, Baby-wearing Guru, leading a training session at Refugee Aid (Serbia)

At the close of that final day, we were faced with a bit of a conundrum.  We still had a decent chunk of aid money left, but no time, and frankly not a whole lot of obivously unmet needs that were within our means to address in that moment.  After much discussion and deliberation, we found a fabulous way to spend it all in a meaningful way while still on the ground in Serbia, therefore doing some serious good while fulfilling the terms we'd laid forth when we approached our friends for help.

For many of the refugees, having access to a computer is the only way to communicate with their families.  A few aid centers offer wifi, but only the asylum center had publicly available computers - and that is the place that is like a sardine can...getting a chance to use a computer there is not guaranteed. Knowing that having a way to contact family members is crucial to the wellbeing of these displaced people - and knowing that Edin had laptop computers on his wishlist for the center, and also taking into account how much of himself he poured into this place, what a difference it made to the people he served, and how far above and beyond he had gone to assist us in addition to all that, we decided to put our remaining aid money towards getting him a laptop for the center.

Amy had to leave early the next morning, but I had a later flight and was able to put my morning to good use.  After consulting with the AMAZING woman who worked at the hotel and helped us out -enthusiastically - many times, I found a place where I could get not just one, but TWO brand-spankin' new (which means that they came with a several year warranty, and should anything happen to them, he can take them in to get fixed) computers!!

(OK fine, we were short $50 just on the tax...which was simply too close not to go for, especially because we'd be left with a surplus I got two anyway.  Amy and I each agreed to pay an extra $25 to cover it.  WORTH IT.)

The AMAZING woman at the hotel helped to make it a nice surprise; she put them in the hotel safe and we sent a message to Edin to find her.  We left this note along with it:

(we threw in the sugar packets we had been collecting the whole week.)
Of course there were many, MANY simply wonderful people that we met along the way, and so many fabulous organizations committed to doing whatever it takes to help refugees on their journeys, but I genuinely cannot overstate the amount of work Edin put into helping us during that week.  He expended so much energy, time, and money on assisting us, we wouldn't have been surprised if he decided it was too much work to be associated with us anymore; so we felt a strong desire to show him how much we appreciated his work, and that we are willing to help his org as much as he helped ours...

But he didn't distance himself from us, instead he continues to work closely with us as a liaison within the Serbian refugee community, and was instrumental in us getting a count - and subsequent request to aid - the number of families in the camps in need of carriers. In January, our teams will be bringing 500 baby carriers to families in need in Serbia!

So, to sum up, I am proud to share with you the official numbers from this single trip; Amy and I - with the help of all of our wonderful friends and families - were able to provide:

Purchased with CTF funding:  $800 USD
5 reams paper
5 jumbo colored pencil boxes
480 bars soap
420 ziploc bags
48 small towels
24 bags diapers (size 4/5)
1,272 sanitary pads
120 tissue packs
21 baby wipes
21 mommy wipes
60 hats

Purchased with independently raised funds:  $1,423USD
100 pairs gloves
105 Kilos Sugar
200 double layer thermal hats
100 pairs thermal leggings
72 pairs men's thermal socks
60 pairs women/child socks
112 razors
54 boxes black tea
2 lenovo ideapad laptop computers

Also distributed: 
Laura's hand knit hats (20)
50 mylar emergency blankets
⦁ 50 baby carriers.

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