Saturday, January 13, 2024
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Mahatma Gandhi
Our second in the series from contributing editor/writer/world traveler/adventurer, Duane Heil. Owner and Captain of Grateful – a beautiful 50′ Beneteau Sense now sailing in the Mediterranean – this former builder/developer from the Bay area takes us on the journey he began more than two years ago.
Duane Heil for The National Business Post
May 5, 2021
Log Entry 2
Let me preface this entry.
We are going back, before Grateful was even an idea, before having the faith or awareness that I had value, and the ability to help others, even myself.
Northern Greece, Spring 2016
It was surreal: I couldn’t believe I had cell service, three bars.
Here I was, standing in the middle of a bean field that was now home to 15,000+ Syrian refugees. Over the past month or so, an instant tent city had been created along the border of Northern Greece – the line where the European Union ended. This was not a living place, but only a path way that led to freedom. A thousand miles north was Germany.
In a chance set of circumstances, I volunteered to be here, but I really had no idea what I was going to do. I mean, I was a builder from California, what did I know about aiding refugees? When I was first asked about coming along on this mission, I was told that I would be handing out two thousand small square solar lights, to the people in the tents. Indeed, I carried two huge duffel bags, full of lighting potential, thru Miami International and then thru Thessoloniki International Airport for the trip, which had been organized by the non-profit, Third Wave Volunteers, (TWV).
My first realization that some of the planning was being made up on the fly, was when we first tried to get through custom agents at the airport. We were stopped. $26,000 worth of brand new packaged goods will get their attention.
Usually, I’m a problem solver, but in this case I was totally clueless. So, I slowly stepped back and let the leader of our pack, Dr. Alison Thompson, Founder/CEO of Third Wave Volunteers (whose years of experience has helped her sort out these types of scenarios), smooth over what might have been a possible disaster had this precious cargo not made its way to the camp.
It was late, around 11 PM and everyone was tired, jet-lagged and I could see in the custom agents’ eyes, they were out of patience. In just minutes, Alison appealed to the sympathies of the agents, and we were given a pass. I collected the cargo and we walked out of Thessoloniki International Airport.
Alison had reserved what she thought was a van. Instead, what was awaiting was at best a vehicle just slightly bigger than one of those Tuk-Tuks that run around south-east Asian cities.
So here we were, a party of six – three professional photographers each with a ton of gear, all our personal bags, the duffel bags filled with thousands of small solar lights – the size of each bag rivaling what you might see the training staff bring out on golf carts for Super Bowl Sunday.
Alison heads over to the car rental desk and tried reasoning with the car company, but they were adamant that this was what she had rented. Alison was no rookie at this.
Let me side track for a moment. Alison is a full time humanitarian volunteer, experienced in running large refugee camps, field hospitals and resiliency hubs in natural and man-made disasters around the world. She’s done it for the past 22 years. She founded Third Wave Volunteers on Sept 11th, 2001 where she was a first responder. Third Wave has now grown to over 30,000 first responder members. And she personally escorted me all the way here.
By now, it was almost midnight, and the six of us were standing at the curb wondering what was going to happen next.
At this point, my years of experience of running construction kicked in. I pulled her aside and asked, “Why not just rent a few more cars and get the hell out of here?”
Turns out these groups run right at the edge. Every cent raised is spent for each of these missions. And Alison works essentially for free, and has been for years. Total dedication. Besides sourcing the solar lights wholesale, (raising all the money in small donations from many), she curated this amazing group of volunteers, all of whom had come on their own time and expense. In the group were:
Jeff Bender, a well known photographer from Los Angeles whose seminal work can be seen online
• CNN iReporter and award winning film maker, Chris Morrow
• Ayesha Syaed, Interpreter and TEDx UAE organizer and speaker on the subject of language.
• Film maker Jonny Kloberdanz (Jonny was commissioned separately to follow and document the crisis. He spent several years closely following the stories that arose from this exodus, its genesis and re-establishment. The trailer for the documentary, DREAMS AT SEA can be seen here.
And then there was me, the guy from Oakland. I really had no idea who I was with, the quality of people that surrounded me.
Despite my obvious plebeian role here, I decided to approach our transportation problem as I would any challenge or project at home. I quickly did the math. We were six people for seven days. That’s 168 hours over seven days to hand all this stuff out and do whatever more we could for these people. Sleeping at least six hours a night and spending a couple more hours a day eating and taking care of ourselves. There’s eight to ten hours right there. Then there’s travel time to and from the camp. It left about 100 hours to complete our mission here in Greece.
As I stood there at the car rental desk, I thought to myself, “At this moment $600 would get us a couple of mid-sized 4 doors for the week. Works out to $1 per hour per each of us. If I were home building another $3,000,000 home, I would make this decision in about two seconds, or in other words, a ‘no brainer’.”
I pulled out my credit card and made it happen. The response from Alison was like a kid who had just gotten a pony for Christmas.
By the next morning, we arrived on scene to one of the strangest sites I had ever seen – a tent city made up of thousands and thousands of displaced Syrians who had just walked the last several months, day and night, thousands of miles, no resources in hand, and no place to call home, only to be stopped by a big fence. Men and women, old and young.
We left the cargo locked up in the car, and waded into this sea of displaced humanity. I was shocked, speechless, and confused on what to say and do. Eventually I made eye contact with a young man. Some how we both saw the ridiculousness of all this, smirked, shrugged and began to laugh. He introduced himself as Hassan. He knew some English, and I had the translator on my phone.
After some niceties, he asked me back to his ‘family camp village’, which meant a sort of partial circle of tents , five or six, whose openings all faced each other. This was now their home.
Along the way were a line of porta-potties, some make-shift trenches in the ground that helped control water flow when it rained, and the ever-present and never-shrinking line – hundreds deep – to the ‘public-kitchen’, where one was to get a baggie including a piece of fruit, a cup of yogurt and a sandwich. In the evenings, chicken soup and fresh bread could be had. There was always someone trying to cut the line, claiming starvation, but everyone was hungry and everyone had to wait. And the ground was dirt, all dirty and bumpy and gross, and traces of human things that shouldn’t be in the dirt. The smell was noxious, putrid at times. Some of the lucky ones occupied unused out-buildings where the cows and pigs had once lived. The smells in there were even worse. Refuge.
Hassan led, but all eyes were on me and the little entourage I brought along, made up of Jonny, the camera man and Ayesha, the interpreter.
Hassan, barefoot, was careful not to step on anything. I couldn’t believe it. Nor could I stand it. Not far away, I knew I had another pair of shoes in the car. I was wearing my work boots from home, the ones with cement splatter, paint drops and scars from numerous construction sites. They were American made ‘Carolina’ work boots. I offered them up, noting the origin saying “Here’s to hope.”
Hassan tried them on. They fit. We both smiled.
His extended family which included cousins, uncles, and aunts, occupied about 6 tents in what was now their ‘area’, an irregular circle, a fire pit near the center. He asked me if I knew anything about medicine. His sister, Eman, who was about 24, had some sort of skin problem. Could I help?
Hassan then proceeded to ask his sister if we could come into the tent. But she’s not alone. She has a two month old baby. Keep in mind that they had been on the run for six months and all that separates her and that baby, breast feeding, from the beating sun and the cold air that slips down mountains at night, into this unprotected valley, was a millimeter of nylon tent fabric.
Hassan’s sister’s real problem was a grotesque skin condition. Ayesha and I look at each other in disbelief. Then I get an idea. I dial my good friend, Dr Ameena Ahmed, from San Francisco.
Ameena, a Californian, has familial roots in the Middle East and speaks Urdu, and at the time was the Medical Director at Survivors International, a torture survivor treatment center in San Francisco. She’s been painfully aware of this crisis for years. Just before I left, I visited with her and she opened her wallet, pulled out all the cash she had and told me to spend it the best I could while on this trip. Of course, she would have loved to be part of this group, but with a two year old at home, felt it would be irresponsible and asked if she could work vicariously thru me.
I put Ayesha in the middle of the video, left the women alone in the tent and waited.
Not much time passed, and all was diagnosed. Folliculitis. Ameena writes a prescription, calms the poor young mother while I immediately took the rental car to the nearest pharmacy. The pharmacist, all too aware of the encampment, handed over the drugs for cash. No paperwork involved.
By the time I got back and made the delivery, there was line of at least a dozen other women who had special needs. Word of real help traveled fast. What started as a simple run to the pharmacy turned into a daily ritual. Each day, mostly the moms and other women, would find me and ask for additions to the list. Here was one day’s fetch:
Diabetes pens for lady by polio pond
Baby’s milk
Chairs for hair-cutting station
Bronchitis for 2 yo medicine?
Gun wound dressing
Million packs of pedialite
More antibiotics Ibuprofen
Pregnancy test kit
Sterile kids Band-Aids
Birthing kit
Baby antibiotics
More cough syrup
The Encampment
Since 2011, 6.6 million Syrians have fled their homeland due to war. The current death count is unconfirmed, but lies between 400,000 and 600,000. Note that the entire population of the country was only 17 million.
It was during the Spring of 2016, that the camp was established. Known as the Syrian Refugee Camp Idomeni, the name came from the adjacent village located at the border of Macedonia and Greece, north of Thessaloniki – a valley filled with farms.
Idomeni’s refugee camp population was around 15,000 and growing daily. Across the valley were the mountains of Southern Macedonia, between and around which millions of refugees had been walking to Germany, a thousand miles north. It was where freedom and a new chance of life had been promised.
In 2015, terrorist attacks in France caused the UN and the EU to immediately restrict the flow of displaced Syrian refugees into the region. Erecting a large, fully militarized fence at the Macedonian border, the oncoming flow of migration had nowhere else to go. And so it was, Camp Idomeni took root: a sea of tents in a bean field.
Far away from home…
Just six weeks earlier, I had been working near my home, in Oakland, California, on my knees, beating and breaking a concrete floor with a large hammer, in a dirty restaurant remodel, soon to be a wine and cheese shop, searching for a lost floor sink. Sweat and greasy cement dust stung my eyes. Lisa, the proprietor, assured me it was there, somewhere, beneath the rubble. Between the slams and the dust I overheard her talk about Greece, and how she had been working there with the Syrian Refugee Crisis.
She mentioned that soon there were to be artists and musicians, refugees from Syria playing and displaying right here where I was working, people she had met on her missions during the past year.
All of this simply amazed me. I knew very little about the crisis, the Agean, or the Middle East. But the idea that people here, in Oakland, could be making a real difference to people half way around the world, I wanted to know more.
She had been working with Dr. Alison Thompson of Third Wave Volunteers. Maybe they had an open spot on their next mission to Greece.
Looking back and looking ahead…
Over the past few years, I’ve looked back at my heritage and how some amazing events have occurred. Much like where I now find myself in the middle of this encampment of displaced Syrians, my life has been filled with cycles of hope, loss, tragedy and re-emergence. Just six years ago I found myself alone, broke and homeless at the age of 53, with little to almost no connection to even the three kids I raised. Despite the best of intentions and even huge successes in many aspects of life, we are often faced concurrently with total failure in other parts of life. So how do we find hope and gratitude in these times of otherwise certain terminal, life-changing loss? How do we find forgiveness, move forward, and regain a new sense of freedom, sometimes even while being caught in a situation created entirely by human forces – forces we have almost no control over? How does one person, a family, a village or a culture, regain a sense of humanity when such loss occurs? Yes, anger is a very human emotion, but in the long run, does not serve us well finding a new positive path forward.
While tragedy and loss has happened many, many times over the history of humanity, the epic proportions of the Syrian refugee crisis, in this modern world, full of progress, opportunity and mass awareness, is especially noteworthy, and I believe, the underlying cause of this exodus needs to be addressed.
My own roots…
In 1921, my grandparents left Greece and arrived to Brooklyn, New York. By 1932, only eleven years later, at the height of the Great Depression, when my mom was only two years old, her mother died while giving birth to her brother Tony. So there stood my Grandfather Arthur, or Athanasius – as he was known in the old country – from a tiny village in the Taygetus mountain range, the range that separates Sparti and Kalamata – 28 years old, suddenly alone with two babies. Even his business, a diner in Brooklyn, was lost to the ‘great depression and the stock market crash of 1929.
With little other options, he traveled up to Boston and asked his late wives’ sisters, Thea Flora and Thea Reina, if they could care for his kids while tried to find a way to support his family.
In Southern California he found an under-serviced market of food delivery and started what eventually turned into Orange County Food Service. In a few years, he returned to Boston with a new wife, a good automobile and enough to cash to collect his kids and move his family all to the promised land of endless orange, lemon and avocado orchards – Southern California.
The business flourished.
Then, in 1956, right at the peak of his career, just after my mom and dad had married, in downtown Orange County, a drunken driver smashed into one of the work trucks he was using to train another new employee. He was killed instantly.
Despite these horrid losses, I never once heard my mom utter any discouraging words of anger or regret. She even told me that her step-mother decided not to pursue the drunken driver for monetary damages, but instead decided to practice forgiveness saying, “That driver would have his own hell to deal with as he sobered.”
Twenty years later, circa 1976, my mom and dad would have a similar tough decision to make when my sister and her boyfriend, on an early afternoon ride to the coast, encountered a drunken driver on the busy 605 freeway, coming up the wrong way on a freeway offramp in a big, V-8 Chevy, encountering their cute little Fiat x-19. It was a head-on disaster. My sister’s boyfriend was killed on the spot. My sister sustained major injury – two thousand stitches to her face, multiple body fractures and many other life altering physical maladies. Again, my parents did not seek personal damages from the offender.
Taught to practice restraint rather than seeking righteous justice as a child, I believe, has served me well during times of loss and great pain.
One of the worst moments of my life, was recovering, or trying to recover from the total loss after my disastrous divorce. A midlife re-start, I was hurt, angry, sad and confused – the result of going from successful business and family man to the bottom of the ladder; laborer, single, homeless. And yet, I was nearly the same age as when my Grandfather had died, but yet, here I was very much alive. I had another chance.
I looked back at my own family history, and started to dig deep. How did they deal with such loss? I was curious. What was it that created the family lines that would have us persevere, rather than fall down, after tragic events? Greece, its history, my family’s Greek heritage, and the stories of millennia, I needed to know.
My mission trip to the Syrian refugee camps at Idomeni – part of the Third Wave Volunteer team in 2016 – became the first of several trips I made to Greece. And while Thessaloniki and Sparta are on the opposite ends of the country, it was the perfect introduction to what would become a voyage of discovery that was and is changing and reshaping my life.
A side note. During our final days in Thessaloniki, Ayesha, being the TEDx Dubai organizer, had given us an open invitation. She was able to get us into the sold out, live TEDx event which was happening at the epic Concert Hall de Semmes on the waterfront. It was an amazing experience.
By 2019, I had spent a full year in Greece, exploring the islands aboard Grateful, discovering the full proof of my Greek ancestry, originating from a small Spartan village in the mountains. Today, I am connected to cousins, living in Sparta, that I didn’t even know I had.
A journey that began with concrete dust on the floor of a Bay area restaurant, turned into deep and meaningful stories, connections and relationships that will last forever.
It is the story of Finding Grateful.
I leave you with this.
“Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore, seek not to understand what you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”
– St Augustine of Hippo
Here’s one of my favorite poems…
Moments by Mary Oliver, Felicity, 2016
“There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
Like, telling someone you love them.
Or giving your money away, all of it.
Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?
There is nothing more pathetic than caution
When headlong might save a life, even, possibly, your own.”
Epilogue 1:
Months after our mission trip, Alison returned to the Syrian refugee camp at Idomeni. Her selflessness is endless. My phone rings. It’s Alison. She wondered if I might be able to donate a larger tent to the camp to be used as a ‘school house’. As it turned out, Hassans’ sister, the one with the skin ailment, was a school teacher back in Syria, and wanted to continue her craft. I found the tent online, and had it drop-shipped to Alison’s home in Florida.
Yea! That’s the tent with a print of a building on it. It’s the new school house at camp Idomini. They even named it the ‘Duane School’! Wow…I was honored.
Recently, I reached out to Alison and found out that in fact, she had kept in touch with Eman, the teacher. She gave me her contact number and immediately, I was able to pull her up on Whatsapp. Amazing, Eman is now living in Germany re-united with her husband. Her little boy, now five, popped up on screen, smiled and said hi.
Epilogue 2:
Earlier I mentioned my sister, August. After recovering from the horrible car accident during her teen years, August went on to became a TV talk show host for the popular 80´s program ¨What’s New for You”. Today, she is married to one of the coolest men I’ve ever known, Hal, and together they ran a successful ad agency Heil-Brice Retail Advertising for thirty years. August now runs TechWellness, a site focused on educating the general public about the effects of EMF’s (electrical and magnetic fields).
Yes, technology is not always good for us and our well being.
Copyright © 2021. The National Business Post. All rights reserved.
Duane Heil is owner and Captain of Grateful, a 50′ Beneteau Sense that is currently sailing around the world. A successful builder/developer from San Luis Obispo, Duane has built more than 80 custom homes throughout the Bay area and Southern California and owns several building system patents. In 2018, Duane began a journey to find Grateful. He continues to explore and write as he makes his way back to this side of the pond. If you would like to connect with Duane, you can reach him here:
Instagram @grateful_travel