By Shivani Singh
How PATHFINDER’s humanitarian aid mission went unexpectedly
I had been traveling for almost an entire day when I landed in Beirut. I had secured the necessary approvals to enter Lebanon from General Security, their primary authority, but all my experience traveling had led me to expect at least a few questions at the border. There was of course, a tiny chance I’d get sent back to Canada, but it was an unlikely one at best. We had followed our instructions so we decided to proceed with the mission.
Over a matter of weeks, we had raised several thousand dollars to run a humanitarian aid mission for the children in refugee camps along Syria’s western border. We wanted to bring them some holiday cheer but more importantly, we wanted to get them essential supplies amidst heavy fighting in Aleppo and an impending cold winter. Most of the supplies were to be arranged in Lebanon for fear of uncooperative customs. In Canada, we made 250 gift bags for smaller children, I loaded a suitcase full of these presents, and 75 lbs later, we were set!
Detention in Beirut
When I landed in Beirut, the men in charge were curt at best. I showed emails and identifications of individuals who had vouched for me, but these guys were not too convinced. After some pleading for reason in vain, I was detained in a small room with a few others. Over the next five hours, I got to know some of these people.
There was an older Libyan couple, professors both, and lovely company. They translated between the others and me, the only one not fluent in Arabic. And there was a young Syrian mother in her twenties. She had two small children with her. The three had recently fled for northern Europe, leaving behind the father and everyone else they ever knew. I was told she was visiting Lebanon to bring supplies to loved ones in camps, with whatever little money she had. But Lebanon detained her and threatened to send her back to Syria. She was once again, desperate, and her children terrified.
The room we were in had no internet access and no phone. I’d say it was designed to be intimidating but I doubt a moment’s thought went into its design at all. There was no access to water or toilets. People often ask what would’ve happened if we needed the facilities and I honestly answer that I don’t know. They didn’t stop us from using our own phones but we had little access given we had just gotten off international flights. We were told to wait indefinitely while they decided how best to get rid of us.
Whatever little information I would get, I would share with the others. One of the officers had taken a liking to me and offered me few clues of what might be happening. They were working on getting us approved (the Libyans) or flown out (the Syrians and I). He acknowledged I had done everything right and that there was no reason to hold me but “it’s like a game of Russian Roulette.” He couldn’t help me because doing so would imply that I had bribed him and just like that, he’d be in serious trouble. It was times like these that he hated his job, he said, when he was confronted with their mess of a system. He was suggesting that while the authorities conflicted, the men in charge seemed to be on their own little prejudiced power trips. The kindly officer said that he’d “love to give (me) an explanation but unfortunately there was none.” So there I was, powerless, waiting to be tossed out in manner of criminal.
While I waited for news about my impending deportation, I had briefly turned on my Canadian phone. I needed to get a hold of the folks in Lebanon who had arranged my approvals. They tried so hard to reach their contacts in government, but alas, people were inaccessible for the holidays. Urgently though, I needed to let my friends know where I was last, should things have gotten worse.
I didn’t know my fellow detainees at that time. But the Syrian woman saw me using my phone and asked the professors to translate her most earnest request to use it briefly. That’s when I learned her story. I handed over my phone gladly, and asked her to do what she needed without concern. Meanwhile, I decided to play with her children who were actually scared stiff. They knew they were in trouble but probably had no idea why. They’d been through a lifetime of horror already. Wasn’t that enough? I pulled out some pages from my notebook and we made paper planes. Just like that, they were happy little children. We were goofing around until one of the nastier officers came by and yelled at them. I was incredulous.
About forty five minutes of phone calls later, the Syrian mother had notified the right people and made the necessary arrangements. She handed me back my phone and asked the professors to translate her deepest, most earnest gratitude. She was too strong to cry but she meant every word. If I hadn’t had helped her, she said, her children would have ended up badly in a way I could not comprehend. She wasn’t able to speak of returning to Syria, or even to let her mind explore the idea. I of course, was so embarrassed that she should be profusely grateful for nothing. But that’s when the professor explained how much such a gesture had meant to them. Everything they had experienced had made them question “where is the humanity?” Daesh had destroyed their entire region. Their own leaders were bombing them. Compassion was so long forsaken. I failed at holding back my tears while they were ever so graceful in managing their own.
There had been a few children in and out of detention that day. I offered them whatever little snack I had in my bag. All of them were petrified. And all of their parents were amazed at the generosity which, to me, was incredible. Truly, I had said, it was just a free airline cookie or a piece of gum. I had done nothing that required such a show of gratitude that day. And yet, it was more than these people had seen in a long time. The world has forgotten us, they had each said in those few hours. Millions of people in the Middle East have been discarded, by their own, by their worst, and by the rest of us. There was heartbreak in their voices, pain in their faces, and tears in their eyes when they had spoken of their world, destroyed.
What was my religion, the professor in hijab had asked me at one point. I had responded with the fact that I am not a religious person. I then followed with a cheesy quip about peace being my religion, along with love and humanity. Why? Because I like to diffuse tension with self-deprecation. But it wasn’t funny to them. They nodded in favor of my “religion”, perhaps even more so than their own, as the professor replied “that is the best; it is the only one that matters.”
Five hours later, I was escorted to the plane I was to catch out of Beirut, to Toronto via Cairo. The kindly officer himself walked me to my flight, through the various checkpoints, all the while apologizing and expressing hope that I would consider visiting on a future passport. I would most certainly not, I assured him. I politely declined invitations to stay in touch on Facebook, wished him the best, and took my seat, only moments before the plane was to leave. They made damn sure I was gone.
As soon as I sat in my seat, I realized that I was dehydrated and badly needed to pee. It had been too many hours. I ran to the loos in the back of the plane. As I was washing my hands, I looked in the mirror. That was the first time I began to work out what had happened, and it was the only time I broke down, sobbing.
I slept the rest of my hour long flight, shaken and exhausted.
Plan C in Cairo
When I got to Cairo, I must’ve looked quite badly off. Everyone was immediately helpful. But then I found Egyptians to be so friendly in general. I decided to stay and coordinate my efforts from Egypt as best as we could. First though, I needed to inform my friends that I was safe and that I was in Cairo, Egypt. I needed to rearrange my flight home. And I needed a new place to stay. It must have been the adrenaline still, but I pushed through the shock and exhaustion to run around the airport finding a local phone, getting internet access, locating my luggage, arranging another flight, and booking a hotel. I badly needed a shower and a comfortable bed. More than anything though, I needed to feel safe. I needed to rest somewhere I knew I could lock myself in and hide until I was ready. About 36 hours from leaving Toronto, I was finally showered, I had reassured friends and family of my wellness, and I lay in bed, head spinning from the ordeal. I slept an entire day and a half before I woke again. There were moments in between, when I’d stir and remember where I was, and why, and there’d be this overwhelming urge to cry; I decided that I’d remain in bed and asleep until I was ready. I just slept it all off like a nightmare.
A couple of days after arriving (and hiding) in my hotel in Giza, I had regained my composure. We had a mission to complete. A lot of people were relying on me, some for their survival. I decided to “quit being a baby about it” as I said out loud to myself, and got back on my feet.
Shortly after that, we got our project back on track. After some impressive international coordination amongst inspiring people, several well explored options including access from Jordan or Turkey, we finally had the best plan: Plan C. Eventually, we were able to reach about 500 children, including the ones from the orphanage recently evacuated in Aleppo. I also had a 75 lb suitcase of goodies that I delivered to a local orphanage on New Year’s Day. We worked hard with our changing circumstances, we accepted no failure, helped each other out, and were able to do what we set out to do!
I’m not naive about the state of the Middle East. It is all but simple. While I do believe they have a responsibility to each other for the sake of regional peace and prosperity, and that they have to be able to see above their own superfluous differences, we must understand that these arguments apply only to those in power or hunting it. People like us – everyday citizens – they just want peace. And food. And shelter. And long lives for their children. And the dignity of work. And these are our fellow human beings we all fail, collectively.
In spite of our collective progress, the world is currently facing formidable challenges. Education has failed far too many. Inequality is out of control. Demagogues are rising to fame by praying on the fears of the vulnerable. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless. But I echo the sentiments of our better leaders when I say that now more than ever, we must get involved. We must act, in whatever capacity we can. We must stand up for each other and for our children. Indeed, the greatest reason things have gotten as bad as they have in the Middle East, is because we have allowed them to. “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” We must remain silent no more. Every life we affect, in every little way, makes the world a better place; it really, truly does. Every child we reach with our compassion is a future citizen who will grow to appreciate the power of love over hate. Just over one hundred of us ‘Average Joes’ decided to act in our own little way, to help even a few far away children of war. Today, over five hundred of these children are a bit better because of this little act. And we’re all a bit happier for it.
I ask you to consider this for a second: if just over a hundred from our own personal network, in a short span of time, could have made such a respectable difference, can you even imagine the power of us all coming together?
A dear friend, quite upset at my potentially dangerous plans, recently said she hoped I had learned my lesson. I understood why. She was terribly scared for me, as I would surely have been if it were her instead. She asked that I recognize there are professionals out there better suited to the job than I. I wouldn’t dare disagree with that. But I am now more determined than ever. The systems we have in place are clearly no longer enough. More people should be involved in their world, not less. More people should commit to affecting change, not less. We need new ideas, better ones, ideas that have and will continue to evolve with the world. And this world we speak of is incredibly diverse. We need policies that are inclusive and harness the great power of our diversity. So we need to challenge the systems that fail us.
Our social enterprise, PATHFINDER, is often a tough sell. We’re at the start of a young industry, we’re selling innovation and we’re asking for faith in our abilities. We work all the time, relentlessly. And we’ve decided this is it for us, we’ve got to make this work because not only are we committed to change but also, change will never be easy. And our first attempt at a humanitarian aid project, and what we learned from it, has only reinforced our commitment to do what we do, and to get damn good at it.
 The most unfortunate thing is that I cannot use any names or identifiers in this article, for the safety of the people involved. It is imperative they remain anonymous, at least for now. But I can assure you, the only reason we succeeded was because there are some absolutely fantastic people out there, people who have dedicated themselves to working tirelessly for those the rest of the world seems to have abandoned.
 I came back to North America to be reminded of the racial injustices that plague the wealthy west, and I wondered to myself, would these people care a little more if they knew that the children I saw were pale skinned and blonde haired? Would they treat them like children instead of animals if they knew they weren’t some illiterate, dark little Arabs running around shouting Koranic phrases at each other while our own civilized children learn the alphabet?
 Edmund Burke