The Refugee Route: Our Journey Begins

Our journey from Greece to Northern Europe to meet with leaders and collect stories along the refugee route has begun! We’re one week in, and in case you haven’t been following my daily updates on The Syrian Circle’s Facebook page, let me give you a quick summary.

GREECE has the weight of the world on its shoulders, or at least that’s what it seems like as of February 2016. Between political unrest, suffocating debt, and a massive influx of people, Greece has been having a pretty rough year (and that’s all I’ll say without getting political)—Now to the reason we’re even in Greece: refugees.

The arrival of refugees in this part of the world is nothing new. It has been happening for hundreds of years with one people group or another as wars have been fought and different populations have fled oppression.

However, what distinguishes this movement of people from any other is the sheer scale of it. With over 1 million refugees arriving on European shores in 2015 alone, that number is only expected to increase exponentially as 2016 progresses. One Greek woman explained to me in Athens, “this is not just a tragedy, this is an exodus.”

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Responding to the Refugee Crisis

When I first started my “Seek the Good” project, it began with a dream to find voices that needed to be heard, to put a megaphone where there had been none, in order to pierce the darkness in our world with light–with hope. Something was stirring in my heart to tell meaningful stories  locally and internationally, and now that dream is becoming a reality.  Let me fill you in on what my Spring will look like…

This December I was asked to join a team working to mobilize locals, aid-workers, missionaries, etc. across Europe to care for refugees in the midst of this historic human migration. If you aren’t aware of what is happening across the Middle East and Europe, I encourage you to start paying attention. Ever since the start of the Syrian civil war, over 11 million Syrians have been killed or forced to flee their country  (that is over half of the country’s entire population). Many have turned to neighboring countries and a growing few are turning to Europe for refuge. And it’s not just Syrians. By the end of 2015, Europe surpassed the 1 million mark of people (Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, etc.) fleeing their war-torn countries and seeking safety on European shores. The video below powerfully represents the humanity of this crisis.

Many of the relief efforts up until now have been slow to start, but full of sincerity in their efforts to meet the complex needs of this migration. Some of the “big fish” in the humanitarian pond like the UNHCR and Red Cross are already working with refugees, but this issue is too big to be left to large (and often slow-moving) organizations alone. In order to meet the immediate and long-term needs of our brothers and sisters moving to Europe, we need a movement of ordinary people, locals, and churches.

That is where the team I’m joining is hoping to step in. Starting in February a small research team and I will be traveling from Greece to Germany/Denmark along Europe’s refugee highway in order to face this crisis head-on.

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Sleepless in Seattle: Caring for Seattle’s Most Vulnerable

A little over a year ago I was walking along “the Ave” (a street known for homelessness in Seattle’s University District) with a friend as we looked for her acquaintance, Eddie Wang. We were meeting up with Eddie that night to talk with the homeless who called those streets “home.” As we passed a local grocery store my friend and I kept our eyes fixed ahead of us, not wanting to engage the homeless men sitting at our feet, mostly because we were two girls and it was getting dark, but also because we were waiting to interact with the homeless until we had a more “official” reason (like walking with the founder of the group, Sleepless in Seattle).

Five minutes passed with no sign of Eddie—and then it hit us. We turned around and, sure enough, he had been sitting with those homeless men outside of the grocery store the entire time… the men we hadn’t even acknowledged. The shame was instantaneous. I can assure you, nothing is more convicting than totally failing to be a good person in your pursuit of being a good person.

But that experience served as a much-needed wakeup call for me to understand homelessness in Seattle, as well as the people working to address it.

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Urban Hands: Giving Meals and Second Chances

Around the corner from a bus stop in North Seattle and down a wide alley is a nondescript white door many walk past without wondering what’s inside. I would have done the same, except on this day I had an appointment with Urban Hands, a nonprofit built around caring for the marginalized in Seattle, primarily by providing meals for the homeless and job opportunities for those in need of a second chance.

I had heard about Urban Hands through my friend Eddie Wang (organizer of the Sleepless in Seattle campaign) and was intrigued to learn the “who, what, and how” behind their use of for-profit businesses to impact the lives of Seattle’s most marginalized. So with my curiosity piqued, they became my first social impact feature for the “Seek the Good” project.

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Project: Seek the Good

In the past few weeks I have been asking myself a lot of big questions…

“What does it mean to be a ‘successful’ 20-something just out of university?”

“What is up with all of my friends suddenly getting engaged and married?”

“Does Ryan Seacrest even age?” (Okay, not totally relevant, but just as perplexing.)

But most importantly, I’ve been asking two central questions: If I was doing what I feel I was made for (no limitations), what would that be? And how do I best use my skills and passions in this season of life to give back? Truth be told, I think we often answer questions like these rashly or we give some “canned” answer that sounds great without intending to follow through. I’ve done both, but I wanted to dig deeper. For some reason I felt like these answers should be so easy to find, yet I quickly learned that finding definitive answers to these questions was more like walking through wet cement than a walk in the park.

However, as I’ve slowly waded through these questions one idea has consistently popped up–an idea for telling stories–specifically stories of people working to impact communities on the margins of society.

Considering how much of the media focuses on the darkness and danger in the world, I started asking myself what it would look like to spread the opposite–hope. So much of my life has been built upon the desire to see the good in others and to find hope in a hopeless situation. From the slums in Kenya to the streets of Seattle, I believe there are stories of joy and hope all over the place. The question is not, “do they exist?,” but, “how do we find them?”

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3 Types of Beauty

The way I see it, there are three types of beauty in life.

The first is the kind that we casually pay lip service to, without attaching any significant value. The second is a beauty that dazzles for a time, but quickly fades because it lacks real substance.

However, the third type of beauty is the one I think we all strive to find. It is a kind that touches your soul in such real ways that it leaves you feeling like your lungs will stop working or that your legs will cease to hold you. It is a beauty that leaves you with sudden tears in your eyes and a smile in your soul. This third type of beauty is one that doesn’t fade easily, it sticks with you and reminds you of a special secret your heart remembers, but your mind does not. A beauty that brings joy, peace, and childlike wonder. It is a beauty that speaks of the place we all came from, somewhere our hearts instinctively tune to when we allow ourselves to hope.

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10 Tips for Authentic Travel

It’s only been two months since I was last living out of a suitcase, but the travel bug is already starting to nibble again! In the past few years I have had the opportunity to travel to 14 different countries across 4 different continents and I am always anxious to add to that list. I’m enthralled with travel because being in another country strips you of typical comforts and allows you to learn and grow tremendously without the typical limitations we usually put on ourselves. However, this isn’t the way all people choose to travel–and that’s fine. But if you want to see the world, be challenged and infinitely rewarded with an authentic travel experience whether traveling with a group or on your own, these are my tips for you!

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Yours truly in front of the Lennon Wall in Prague, Czech Republic

1.) Make the Choice: Predictability OR Authenticity

Before you leave, pause and decide what kind of travel experience you want. You can travel in comfort by staying in nice hotels, following prescribed travel itineraries to only visit the main attractions, and only seeking the people, foods, and shops that reflect the culture you are familiar with.

You can travel comfortably and still have a great time OR you can choose to embrace a new context by simply immersing yourself in that culture and not paying for a cultural experience wrapped up in an easy to understand package. The next few points illuminate how travel this alternative way…

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Scary-Beautiful Change

Let me be honest; I’m not a fan of change. You see, I celebrate some changes–like new seasons and scenery–I just hate when change penetrates deep enough to affect my “constants.”

We all have things in our lives that we think of as constants; our childhood homes, families, friendships, even our annual vacation spots. We hold these portions of our lives close to our heart because they can often seem unchangeable in world that is constantly changing. However normal this tendency may seem, I am learning that this is no way to really live.

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A Love Affair with Books

Processed with VSCOcam with m3 presetLike many love affairs my adoration for books began with considerable resistance on my part. Until I was around eleven I was pretty neutral towards reading. Back then I was far more enamored by early Saturday mornings spent in front of a television than hours of staring at a bundle of paper.

Then one day my parents came up with an ingenious plan I couldn’t refuse; in lieu of an allowance they agreed to pay me one penny for every page I read. As an eleven-year-old I figured I could make bank with this plan. I still remember the next day, going to the library empty-handed, and walking out with a pile of books stacked under my chin, eager to make a whopping $10 over the next few weeks.

What began as a monetary incentive to dive into the world of reading soon morphed into a genuine love for books and what they could unlock—new characters, settings, histories, and fantastic storylines I had never before imagined.

From that day on reading has opened up the world to me in amazing ways. Like a man with poor eyesight gazing up at the stars and only seeing the 10 or 12 most prominent points of light, I had been missing much of the world that was right in front of me. What I needed was to look at the world through the right lens. So, much like that nearsighted man who gapes in awe the first time he looks at the night sky through corrective lenses, reading became my means for seeing and experiencing exciting worlds I never knew existed.

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Let Me Introduce Myself

Photo by Courtney Bowlden

(photo by Courtney Bowlden)

Who am I? Those three words combine to create a loaded question that few dare to ask and even fewer take time to thoughtfully answer. But don’t worry, I won’t hit you with that one just yet. The purpose of this post is to act as a little introduction. Whether you are reading this for the first time on your phone, in line at a coffee shop, or you merely stumbled across my blog while procrastinating from work (don’t worry, it can wait), let me just say…

Hello and welcome to my new blog, “See, Hear, Explore,”–but you can call it S.H.E. for short!

For years I have had the itch to write, and it is a passion I have indulged sporadically with a travel/personal blog I kept my last two summers in Eastern Europe and through a stack of old journals currently stuffed under my bed. I have shared bits and pieces of my life with the World Wide Web, yet recently yearned to have a single, consistent place to share my thoughts, dreams, stories, and faith in a blog that flows like a journal. I wanted to create this blog so that you can all walk along side me as I experience life the way I truly believe it to be; a grand adventure.

So what inspired the name, “See, Hear, Explore?”

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