I could write a generic bio of myself (which I will likely do later, for reference), but I thought I would instead start with this story that I told at my Echoing Green conference a couple of weeks ago. The story was told for the WDYDWYD Project (Why Do You Do What You Do?), which is definitely worth checking out.
Here is the story:
I traveled to Eastern Europe to connect with my past – but I ended up learning much more about my future.
I had stopped in Hungary during a year of soul-searching backpacking in part to seek out my family roots – my mother’s parents had fled Hungary just before World War II. I found my grandmother’s old apartment house, now inhabited by what seemed like a very nice family who I hope understood my frenzied sign language. I also visited my grandfather’s village, where no trace was left of any Jewish history.
Tired of just traveling, I arranged to volunteer at the Debrecen Refugee camp, in Eastern Hungary. The camp struck me as a disaster. It was overcrowded – the old barracks designed for 200 soldiers housed 800 refugees. Terrible facilities, and a poorly organized quarantine policy kept large numbers of people confined in inhuman conditions.
After several days of work, I met a group of Afghan university students and their children, who had fled as a group from Taliban purges. They had walked, swam, and hitchhiked all they way from Kabul to seek asylum in Europe. I was blown away by their courage and endurance, and shocked by the horrors of the Taliban. When talking to their leader, a man named Nabi, I was instantly reminded of my grandfather, also a refugee, who had walked, swam, and sailed his way to New York, to flee a similar nightmare. Nabi asked me to help him tell his story, to write an article – do something – to spread the word about the plight of average people seeking an education in Afghanistan. I told him I would try. When I left the camp, he took my hand and told me, “You are always welcome.”
I returned to Budapest changed, horrified and inspired by the parallel stories of my own family and Nabi. These are stories that need to be told, and it was clear that the most appropriate storyteller was not me, but Nabi and my grandfather themselves. The world of my travels had expanded – the world became more than just a collection of places, but billions of stories. I was never able to get Nabi’s story out, but years later, I have made it my life’s work to help people use their stories to protect their rights and fight for justice. The lawyers’ cliché: “The lawyer who tells the best story wins” makes perfect sense. Empowering people to tell their stories is a key component in fighting for human rights, and making the world a better, more human, and more mindful place.