Meet Neda Kadri, the Syrian-American Who is in the Water Saving Refugees, One Boat at a Time

There have been times in the early mornings, before the sun has risen, and there’s still a chill in the air, when she has been on the beach waiting for something, anything. In the distance, a flash of light or a dot of orange will appear. To the untrained eye, it appears to be the reflection of an early sun rising off the water. But for her, it’s “humanity fighting to stay alive.”
The shimmer of the light is actually a small flashlight held by a passenger on a tugboat as they try to make their way to the island; the dot of orange is the compounded color of the many life vests on board. She calls out to them with a bullhorn, guiding them to safety, and when the boat gets close enough, she will run into the water and swim out to the boat. The water can be chilling, but no one feels it anymore. The volunteers are pumped with adrenaline, praying that everyone on board is safe and still alive.
It puts everything else they’ve been through in life in a whole new perspective, and she is left thanking God that another wave of people have made their journey safely.
She is Neda Kadri of Dearborn, Michigan, who left her family and friends, and traveled to the Island of Lesvos, Greece, in order to help the thousands of refugees arriving from various countries. Not knowing exactly what she was getting herself into, she started her journey as an independent volunteer. She is now in the process of forming an organization called Humans 4 Humanity in an attempt to further their aid to the refugee crisis.
Neda was recently featured in Vanity Fair, as well as in a documentary about the refugee crisis called Light on the Sea.  (You can watch it free, here!)

As an independent volunteer, Neda wears many different hats. At any given time she can be found translating, providing the refugees with food and clothes, or swimming out to the boats coming into the island in order to physically drag them in to shore.

“Our niche became the families that were stuck [on the island]. We would go pluck them out of the camps, buy them clothes, food, and water, and send them off to continue their journey,” she said.

                Neda checks on inventory collected for the refugees. Photo provided by N. Kadri

Muslim Girl had the opportunity to conduct a one-on-one interview with Neda in order to get into the heart and mind of the woman who gave up the luxuries of home in order to help others make one for themselves.
Muslim Girl: What is your educational background? Did it help you in the work you are doing today?
Neda Kadri: My educational background is in marketing/communications. I don’t know that I can say it necessarily helped with the work I am doing today. From a technical standpoint, maybe, but not a functional one. I’ve met people from all educational backgrounds in Greece. It more comes down to personality than anything, I think.
MG: What prompted you to pick up your life and go to Greece to help with the refugee crisis?
NK: Back in October, I helped search for my humanitarian partner’s (Rafat) family members (a cousin with her husband and two children) after they had gone missing during a boat sinking, which cost over 70 people their lives. I reached out to one activist after the next in Greece through social media and emails trying to find Rafat’s family. One thing that caught my attention was that none of them were Arab. It bothered me even more because I was half-Syrian.

This was “our” crisis and I felt we weren’t doing enough on an individual basis about it.

I started to wrestle with the idea of going. Rafat’s daily pictures and videos of rescues during the three weeks he spent burying his family (there was an issue with a Muslim Cemetery plot) were enough to cement the desire in me. By mid-December I made the trip to Lesvos in order to work with him on rescue missions.
MG: You began as an independent volunteer going to Greece, and then you decided to start your own non-profit organization to enhance your efforts with the refugees there. Can you explain what the organization you have created is about, what it does (will do), and why you felt the need to create it?
NK: There is nothing quite like being an independent volunteer.

You wake up with the sole thought, “Who am I going to help today?” No bureaucracy. No schedule. You simply help whomever you can, in whatever capacity you can.

A group of us “independents” would just work together to get the job done. The decision to form an official organization was one born out of necessity. When the EU Deal went into effect, everything in Greece changed. “Hot Spot” free movement camps became closed-detention centers; and refugees that would have previously passed through as transit were now stuck applying for asylum living in camps run by the military while waiting out the process. Becoming an official organization was the only way to access these camps and continue our service to these people.

                Children in the detention center hold up a sign that reads, “We want to know destiny…We want to go Athens.” Photo provided by N. Kadri

Our kick-off project is humanitarian-aid delivery to the camps around the Athens area. We have a container and a dozen volunteers arriving next week. We will be delivering much needed clothes, food, and medicine. Another container is arriving two weeks after that, with a third container coming a month after that.
Phase two of the project will be implemented in mini-phases, and concentrate its attention on a specific camp. The plan is to make it more livable for its residents by equipping it with a clothing distribution center, a kitchen facility, a baby changing station, an educational center, a mobile clinic, and implementing a mental health program. We’re working with students from University of Michigan & Wayne State University to set up a volunteer internship program that would give them semester credit hours in exchange for their time and effort in Greece.
MG: How have you managed to fund this project?
NK: The group of volunteers I work with and I were able to allocate funding through private donations from friends and family. I have a GoFundMe campaign that is currently running. It helps with taking care of the needs of the refugees. The volunteers and I have also managed to build a relationship with the Syrian United Relief Fund (SURF), where we receive referrals in order to help the people out here. We have become humanitarian aid brokers.
MG: What has been the reaction of your efforts by your family and community?
NK: I’ve gotten mixed reactions from both my family and community. The considerable majority of my family is incredibly proud of the work I am doing. Within our family, we have a few that have taken the “Trip of Death” themselves.

The term, “Trip of Death,” is what the refugees have coined their voyage on the small tugboat from their country to the island.

Although the water appears calm and beautiful from the coastline, it can swallow their boats with one gulp. Other dangers include thieves who hijack the trip and take everything from them, sometimes even lives, before taking them back to where they started. It’s an extremely dangerous trip and many have perished, from the old to the young.
There has been, and continues to be the occasional “but you have to do something for you” reaction. I laugh every time. I explain how I have never felt the joy I feel doing the work we do.
My community has been just as mixed. For the most part, I am encouraged immensely. The level of mental, emotional and moral support I’ve received has left me dumbfounded and in awe. I’ve also had those that oppose me; not something that is entirely surprising, given the sensitivity of the subject. Contrary to the campaign slogan, refugees are NOT always welcome. The Trump rhetoric has unfortunately embedded itself deep within the psyche of many, even those from our own community.
MG: Did you face any hardships in the work you do as a woman on the ground?
NK: The gender issue is another one that is mixed. It depends on how you want to look at it. Physically, I don’t let my being a woman get in the way. When working the coast, I run out to the boats and climb up the hills… even when the task at hand is a little more challenging than what I think my body can endure. I’ve torn my left knee ligament doing just that. The adrenaline pumping through you during the action doesn’t allow you to think of it. On a more interactive level, Rafat, along with the other independent volunteers we work with, and I have learned to compliment each other. There are instances when it is more culturally appropriate for the men to take the lead; while there are others (like when dealing with women traveling alone) when being a woman is the biggest tool in our arsenal.
MG: What has been the most challenging part of it for you?

NK: I think the most challenging part of it all has been the emotions and how to keep those emotions in check. You have to care enough to do everything in your power to help given the situation, but have to be numb enough to allow yourself to keep going. Too much emotion and you lose it mentally, too little and you don’t have enough to keep going because the stress factor is at 100%. It’s impossible not to absorb the pain after hearing some of the stories. Finding a way to balance those emotions without breaking down has been, by far, the most challenging part.

MG: Have there been any moments that have stood out for you in this experience?
NK: It kind of feels like a dream, believe it or not.  You’re so in the moment and it flashes right by. There was a family of Kurds who were stuck on the camp for three days. My team and I arranged for them to stay at a hotel. The father, who had a disabled brother on the journey, was grateful and asked us what we wanted in return for helping his family. He was so surprised when we said we didn’t want anything in return and began to weep. It really touched me.

              One of the many tugboats filled with refugees making its way to the shore of Lesvos. Photo provided by N. Kadri

There have been times when my team and I would be waiting for boats to arrive.

We’d receive calls from refugees on the boat pleading for help. They’d say, “We are dying, we are dying, we are not going to make it.”  I can still hear a lot of those calls playing in my head.

There was a lady named Umm Ramy and her four kids who arrived to the island. They were headed to Germany to join her husband and son who were already there. They were being treated for cancer. Umm Ramy and her kids got stuck on the island and had no where to go. I don’t know how, but by the miracle of God, Umm Ramy’s story went online and was picked up by the Independent. The family was able to reunite within days. I think of all the work that we’ve done, that will be the proudest moment forever. We were able to literally move governments, and it showed us and the world that when humans come together, they can do amazing things.
MG: What can our readers do if they want to help?
NK: They can do several things to help with the refugee crisis.

The first thing is raising awareness about the refugees. They’re just like you and me, but happen to be born in a country where war has torn apart their normal lives. They just want a chance to live.

Support independent volunteers, since often times larger organizations like the United Nations are limited to what type of work they can do. Bureaucracy hinges their [UN} ability to help. That’s where the little guys like us fill the void. If you can, contribute to GoFundMe campaigns–it doesn’t have to be mine (although that would be great), as long as it is for someone you know will help.
You don’t have to be Syrian, Arab, Muslim, or from that region to help. In fact, the majority of the volunteers are not any of those things I mentioned. It would help if more Arabic speaking people volunteered. It’s definitely needed. I was surprised to see only a handful of Arabic speaking volunteers; even then, the majority of them were Palestinian groups, a nation of people who are living under their own oppression and occupation.

While Neda has dedicated her life to helping refugees, a beautiful blessing has come her way. Remember her “partner,” Rafat?  The one she started this journey with while helping him search for his lost family members? Their love for humanity has evolved into a love for each other. By this fall, they will be standing on the shores of Lesvos waiting for refugees together as husband and wife.
Her story has always been about the love of humanity, and now humanity has found a way to love her back. We wish her and Rafat a beautiful life of good health, happiness, and a continued dedication to save the world, even if it’s one boat at a time.

                Neda pictured with her humanitarian–and now life partner–Rafat Al-hamoud. Photo provided by N. Kadri

                One of the many orange life jackets that have saved lives marks the beginning of life together for Neda and Rafat. Photo provided by N. Kadri

Co-written by Aya Khalil and Maysoon Khatib