Buffers Soften the Blow

Who knew Amazon wishlists could connect total strangers.

I sat with Lisa Nowak Wilkins in a Washington Square coffee shop, in awe of her drive, focus, perspective, and compassion. But I imagine she doesn’t want this blog post to be about her, her compelling storytelling talents, and her remarkable way of connecting people of all ages, continents apart.

Our conversation taught me many things, including that Lisa Nowak Wilkins will always deflect the attention away from her — and towards the refugee crisis.

Dozens of Diapers

Lisa started her journey of assisting refugees with some calls to nonprofits in the area. She called and called and called, and her inquiries fell flat. Finally, she showed up at one and asked how she could help. The staffers said the demand for services far exceeds their funding streams. A financial donation will always be appreciated. Lisa dug deeper. What specific things do the refugee families in Boston need?

Well for starters, they need diapers.

Lisa went home, created an Amazon wishlist for diapers, shared it on Facebook, and didn’t have to wait long. Within 24 hours, a whole room of her home was full of diapers. Her network of friends, families, and neighbors had answered the call. She was astonished, and she discovered something significant that day.

When she asks peers to buy something simple and specific for a refugee that they themselves would need to fulfill basic needs, her peers say yes without any hesitation.

50 Cans of Tuna

People are much more likely to buy nonperishable food, clothing, and bedsheets than they are to donate money. You and I know what we need to survive each day, and so it’s easy for us to understand what others need, too.

People are more likely to donate 50 cans of tuna than $50 to refugee families.

What started as a Facebook post for diapers quickly led to a larger movement. Lisa’s theory took on a life of its own, and gained speed. She saw how many people were ready to jump on board with the work. People saw devastating pictures of Syrian children on the news and they wanted to do something. Lisa provided the vehicle for doing just that.

Since the day she made that first visit to the Boston Center for Refugee Health & Human Rights, Lisa has created Boston Friends for Refugee Support, BFFRS. Buffers soften the blow.

Lisa and her group may be far away from the crisis, but they can do their part to buffer the impact for families and individuals facing the brunt of it. 1600 members strong, BFFRS is still growing and adapting to meet the needs of refugees here and abroad.

Lisa’s message isn’t only that people should part with what they don’t need, to share with someone else, although that is part of it. At the very DNA of BFFRS is the idea that each person has his or her own way to contribute. Whether its through our words, technology, clothing, toiletries, or nonperishable food, we can improve someone’s day-to-day reality.

A New Lesson Plan

Miraculously, Lisa has found her role in responding to the Syrian refugee crisis: she pinpoints areas of need in partnering organizations, and she reaches out to her vast network. She inspires people to think beyond themselves and creates pathways for them to serve. Lisa has her role, and she inspires people to find theirs.

Lisa’s background is in teaching. She swears by the importance of character development through service to others, for children, teens, and even adults. Service is a about a relationship. It’s reciprocal. Through her work, she sees that not only do the refugees benefit, but so do the people sharing with them.

When Lisa told me about her work in schools, her eyes lit up. She’ll go into high schools and task students with writing letters to their counterparts in camps. Through their writing, the geographic distance dissipates. The students express their hopes for the refugees, and tell them that they’re thinking of them and their families. As the students compose the letters, the refugee crisis becomes real and tangible to them. The letters build bridges between people living very different lives, but who at their cores have the same needs and dreams.

Writing is not the only way students participate in BFFRS. Lisa loves bringing backpacks to schools. She asks the students to fill them up with anything but technology that would make them smile. Then they share the backpacks with children of refugee families.

Dignity and Wifi

One of my favorite BFFRS ideas is the cosmetic bag gathering. After receiving a bunch of makeup donations for women, Lisa asked girls to “shop” through the items and put together kits for women in refugee camps. They made handmade tags that said “You are beautiful” in English and Arabic, to send dignity and love to other women they may never meet. Lisa told me about the high rates of depression in refugee camps, and how she believes little things like this can make a difference for a woman who is suffering.

A different, also powerful way to give is through donating phones. There’s a real need for smart phones and devices with internet in camps. A phone can pave the way out of a refugee camp; when an individual can contact a family member outside the camps, he or she can begin to conceptualize a way out. There are solar-powered charging stations in refugee camps, but people don’t have devices to charge and use. So if you have an iPhone lying around, clear the data, unlock it, and give it to BFFRS or another refugee-supporting organization. Same with tablets. A device with internet will change someone’s life, I promise.

Humanwire

Then there are bolder ways to give, if you have some disposable income you can share.

Lisa told me about Humanwire, an organization through which individuals can “host” refugees. After creating a profile and making a donation, an individual can follow the donation to the refugee who will receive it. Through their Tent to Home campaign, Humanwire works to transfer families from tents to apartments.

A donation of $200 per month can house a family in an apartment in Greece, where they can work and restart their lives. I love the idea of a family, a group of friends, a church group, or an office adopting a family and giving them a home. Through pooling together resources, we can give children better, safer futures and adults a way to break away from the horror and heartbreak.

A Bit of Introspection

My notebook is full of other ideas that Lisa shared with me. Here are some of the others:

Are you…

  • An extreme couponer? I challenge you to maximize your savings on any of these items, and give them to someone who needs them: wool socks, feminine hygiene products, soap, cans of food.
  • A parent or mentor to teenagers? Consider bonding with your daughter/son/niece/nephew/mentee through picking up a volunteer shift at a local organization supporting refugees. Invest time in their character development, while supporting refugees. If you live in Boston, BFFRS has a handy list of their partner organizations here.
  • An art collector? Support refugees through buying their art!
  • A writer? Send letters to refugees. Email your congressmen, if you are inclined, to strike the issue at a systemic level.
  • A chef? Host a refugee family in your area for a meal.
  • A teacher? Plan a lesson or two about humanitarian crises, or adopt Lisa’s letter-writing or backpack-stuffing activities.

Do you have…

  • Work suits or dress shoes you don’t wear anymore? There are refugees in the Boston area who want to start their careers here and need them for interviews. Bring them by the nearest drop-off location.
  • Extra Legos lying around your house, or other toys your kids don’t need? Your kids will enjoy the process of sharing them with children who unfortunately don’t have toys. Or if they’d be interested, for their next birthday party, ask children to bring $5 for refugees instead of gifts.
  • A spare couch or bed? Families new to this area are arriving with next to nothing. Lend them a hand in furnishing their homes. Or, sell your couch and donate the money.
  • 1/1000th of the social media followers that Selena Gomez has? Share this post, the BFFRS website, and stories of the crisis in Syria.

Think Global, Act Local

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you have other ideas, please give me a shout and I’ll share them on Twitter. There are infinite other ways to join the movement, one for each of us. And as we begin to look outwards, to help others, we discover our best, most authentic selves.

Just like local citizenship, global citizenship is about the bonds of human connection.