“They’re arriving in flip flops sometimes”
Megan Tucker found herself in the middle of the Syrian refugee crisis with the harsh Macedonian winter quickly bearing down. And what started as a fundraiser for warm clothes for displaced people has turned into something much bigger.
It’s mid-November, and winter is staring you in the face. Thousands of people who have fled their war-ravaged homes are arriving in town every night. They’re running for their lives — arriving in flip flops sometimes — and are completely at your mercy. What do you do?
Megan Tucker found herself in that very situation one night. Through a chance encounter, she visited a Macedonian refugee camp and saw thousands of Syrian refugees pour out of the nightly trains. For them, this would merely be a short stopover — a night or two — on their unanticipated journey from their home to…nobody quite knows. For her, it was a calling.
Like most of us, Megan knew about the Syrian refugee crisis. But nothing compares to seeing something with your own eyes.
One day, as she and a local street vendor were struggling to engage in conversation thanks to a language barrier, the man summoned over a friend of his, Ziko, to help translate. Megan learned that the vendor was asking if she wanted to see any of the sites. She didn’t seem too excited. Sensing that he had a different type of person in his midst, Ziko switched course and asked if she’d like to go to a refugee camp with him.
“Ziko said, ‘We’re going to leave at 11 o’clock tonight and drive 40 minutes down to the camp and give soup to the refugees and we will be home at 1 o’clock in the morning. Would you like to join us?’” — Megan Tucker
Being wary of strangers in strange lands, she politely declined. But at the same time, she wanted to know if it was actually for real.
“So we sat down at the nearest coffee shop and he showed me his Facebook profile. It had photos with refugee children and comments from others about what a great job he was doing. After talking to him for about half an hour, I started to feel more comfortable, until I said, ‘I’d really like to go to the refugee camp.’ So that night I headed to the camp with him.”
When she got there, Megan saw just how real it all was. These were real people with real stories.
“[The people getting off the train were] very polite, graceful, gracious, very patient. There were women and children and babies. There were sick people. They were just so tired.”
But they were facing an unreal situation.
The people, many of them entire families arriving at this place, had to walk from Macedonia to Serbia over a nonstandard border crossing.
“They had to walk about four kilometers over wilderness. There was no light and there was no road. There was just mud and rocks and bumps and rivers. They didn’t even know which direction to go in if somebody wasn’t showing them.”
But that’s not to say that there was no one helping them. A group of volunteers had begun to gather at this place nightly. They call themselves Team Studeničani — named after the municipality in which they live — and are made up of about 35 local Albanian Muslims of all ages.
These volunteers had been helping refugees for months, doing everything they could. One of the members happened to be at the train station earlier that summer and was shocked at the drastic situation. When they found out what was happening, they decided to act.
“They would work at their regular jobs, and then at night they would go help refugees — until morning. Then they’d sleep for two hours, go do their normal jobs, and start over. That’s what they do every night, for months on end.”
Team Studeničani would provide food and vital survival supplies to the refugees. They’d often physically carry babies, bags — even those in wheelchairs — across the 4km route into Serbia.
They weren’t part of any organization. They weren’t funded and didn’t want to be in the spotlight. They just couldn’t stand by and watch this suffering without doing something about it.
“I was very happy to find out that there are still people like this in the world.”
That night, Megan’s heart broke as she watched thousands come through that camp. But on the way home, she heard some even harder news.
“Ziko told me he was very worried about the coming winter. They had funds for food to give to the refugees. But they didn’t have any funds for clothing. He said that ‘It’s going to start snowing soon and it gets very cold. I’m really worried about the kids. We don’t have clothes and we don’t have money for clothes.’”
Megan interpreted this as: if something didn’t happen, and quickly, these children could be freezing to death. She knew she had to do something.
So she went to her hotel and called her husband, William, back in Oregon.
She told him everything she had seen and they discussed the entire situation. William suggested that once she came home, they could begin raising funds to provide the needed winter clothing. She flew home the next day because she had booked her flight before meeting Ziko. Megan had experienced all of this on her last day in Europe.
Once she arrived home, Megan and William promptly got to work. William, having decades of experience in humanitarian work and charity, laid out a fundraising strategy. Since time was of an essence, they began with creating a Facebook page using the photos she had taken, and additional photos from the volunteers, to communicate to friends and colleagues on the the urgency and gravity of the situation. To expedite the fundraising process, she also set up a crowdfunding page on CrowdRise.
Donations made to this fundraiser will be used to provide aid on an ongoing basis to refugees fleeing war.www.crowdrise.com
Her original goal of a few thousand dollars was quickly eclipsed and they eventually set a goal of $100,000 — enough to get the refugees through the cold season. She began using the funds raised to purchase clothing and supplies.
While raising this money back home in Oregon, Megan found communication with her contacts in Macedonia to be difficult — as the volunteers already had their hands full. So she headed back to the camp. William and Megan funded the trip themselves as they wanted to ensure the money raised was making as big of an impact as possible.
They ultimately raised over $120,000 and Megan spent the winter in Macedonia helping out alongside the volunteers. But she is the first to admit that she could not have done this out without the help of many others, most notably William.
“I may be the person on the ground, and the face in the photos, but I am just one of many people on our team. William and I worked together throughout the entire project. I could not do what I was doing without him. In February, he worked alongside me at the camps. But even when he wasn’t there, we were on Skype every day going over the day’s activities and our next plans.”
And outside of this core operating group, she also knows that none of this would be possible without the people from all over the world who provided the financial backing.
“Without our donors, we couldn’t do any of this. We would be limited to distributing what we ourselves could afford to purchase — and that wouldn’t have gone very far. Our donors are incredible and they are part of our team. We had people from all over the world coming to our assistance and contributing anything they could. Even single mothers who were struggling with their bills would find a way to donate.”
But as winter wound down in the region, and cold temperatures were no longer the primary concern, a new crisis was starting to show its face.
“In early March, political changes left tens of thousands of refugees, including thousands of babies and children, stranded in wilderness areas and sub-human camps in Europe; lacking necessities such as food, shelter, hygiene supplies and the basics of survival.”
Faced with seeing babies go hungry and children sleeping in flooded tents, Megan and William made a decision. What had begun as a winter project would become an ongoing charity program.
So Megan and William founded Charity United, a 501(c)3 nonprofit aimed at providing ongoing aid to children in need, and to refugees fleeing war, throughout all seasons of the year. Their mission is to align and support individuals, groups and organizations who assist in the creation of a better world.
“Our vision was this: what we did this winter got the ball rolling. The foundation we built, the following that we accumulated, the donors we now have — this is just building a base for us to move forward with into the future.”
And while they’re still providing aid to the Macedonian border camp where everything began, they’re now able broaden their reach and to help in other places, as well. An example is Northern Greece where they’re distributing packages of food and essentials to stranded refugees.
And who knows where else is next?
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