FORGOTTEN REFUGEES | Syrian crisis diverts attention from Iraqis

Nada sat in her sweltering hot, one-room home in Lebanon, grazing her fingers over a bullet wound on her right forearm. It’s a reminder of the moment ISIS kidnapped her daughter.

  The scar on Nada’s right forearm is a reminder of the day ISIS shot her while she tried to rip her 15-year-old daughter away from the terrorists.

The scar on Nada’s right forearm is a reminder of the day ISIS shot her while she tried to rip her 15-year-old daughter away from the terrorists.

She tried to rip the 15-year-old away from the terrorists, so they shot her. It was 2014, and the Islamic State Group had just invaded Mosul, Iraq. Thousands of Christians fled to a safe house outside the city -- including Nada's family. But the terrorists found them, stormed in and opened fire.

Nada's husband ran after the captors, but neither he nor his daughter were ever seen again.

“ISIS either kills their victims, rapes them or sells them,” Nada said. “But I feel my husband and daughter are alive. I pray nothing happened to them so we can one day be together."

Nada wants to go looking for them, but she can’t. Although Iraq drove ISIS out of Mosul in July, it’s still not safe. The Old City is a pile of rubble, following a nine-month battle that has been called the worst urban warfare since World War II. Nearly 10,000 buildings were destroyed. Basic needs, like water, electricity and medical care, are sparse. And the city is covered in mines and debris that the United Nations says could take a decade to clear.

“A family might be able to return home, but maybe their toaster oven is booby trapped and will explode,” said Wendy Taeuber, International Rescue Committee’s Iraq Country Director. “You have no idea if something might have been planted. It's going to take a long, long time to be able to confidently say any given area in the heart of the old city is safe.”

For now, more than 18,000 Iraqis are stuck in Lebanon — the last place you’d want to be as a refugee. The third-world country is already hosting about 1.5 million Syrians, who have fled the most catastrophic event in modern history. So headlines and international aid tend to flood toward them.

And in the media — Iraqis are often overlooked.

That’s not to say Syrians get all the help they need. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is struggling to give them all food, heat and money.

But Iraqis are struggling, too. Like Syrians, they’re sending their kids to work; living with diseases because they can’t afford medical costs; and feeling hopeless as developed countries deny them visas.

Below are stories of three Iraqi families I met in Lebanon:

NADA'S FAMILY

 Fadi (left) and Farah (right) work at a cafe in northern Lebanon. Their boss, Samir (middle), hired them to get the boys to talk again. They've been quiet since witnessing ISIS kidnap their sister and shoot their mother.

Fadi (left) and Farah (right) work at a cafe in northern Lebanon. Their boss, Samir (middle), hired them to get the boys to talk again. They've been quiet since witnessing ISIS kidnap their sister and shoot their mother.

  • Nada’s sons, Fadi (14) and Farah (12) , work at a cafe in northern Lebanon.

  • One day, I walked in and saw them washing dishes behind the counter. When I said hi, they quickly looked down. It turns out they’ve barely spoken to — or made eye contact with— anyone since witnessing ISIS kidnap their sister, shoot their mom and take their father.

  • When Nada and her boys fled to Lebanon, a priest gave them a small home to live in.

  • The priest asked the owner of the cafe to hire the boys. He thought that’d get them to talk again.

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  • Farah and Fadi also needed the money. Nada registered with the UN, and receives cash assistance — about $170 a month — but not consistently.

THE JINDOU FAMILY

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  • Saman Jindou (far right) shows me a photo of his family’s four-story villa in Iraq. That was before ISIS stole everything from inside and burnt it to coal.

  • Fast forward four years, the 21-year-old now shares a tiny apartment in Zgharta with eight relatives.

  • He and his 16-year-old brother (not pictured) are the breadwinners. They dropped out of school to work at a cement factory seven days a week, up to 12 hours a day, for 15 dollars a day.

  • Because they work, they’re not eligible for cash assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

  • “I feel like Iraqis are not getting enough,” Jindou said. “We’re all refugees. We’re all the same.”

  • UNHCR says because of the overwhelming number of refugees pouring into Lebanon, it has to target those who are most vulnerable. Refugees from Syria, many of whom left their home with nothing and now live in makeshift camps and tents, set the bar high for what's considered vulnerable.

FAMILIES GETTING MONTHLY CASH ASSISTANCE FROM UNHCR

30,000 SYRIAN FAMILIES, 1,500 IRAQI FAMILIES
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THE HINDOU FAMILY

  • 11-year-old Sidra Hindou (middle) hasn’t stepped in a classroom in two years.

  • Her family, now in Lebanon, doesn’t qualify for cash assistance from UNHCR.

  • Sidra’s father, Samir, is partly blind -- so he can’t work.

  • When they moved to Lebanon, he enrolled Sidra in school for just two months. But when he couldn’t afford book and transportation costs, he pulled her out.

  • “If we get accepted into Australia, I hope she will go back to school,” Hindou said.

  • But the odds of his family getting accepted are slim.

  • Because of the Syrian crisis, Iraqis have a long-shot at making it out of the Middle East

  • Refugees themselves cannot apply for resettlement through UNHCR. Instead, they register with the UN and are referred to leave the country only if they fit the criteria — based on who is most vulnerable

  • “We’re working against limited resettlement quotas and the decision ultimately falls with a country,” said Dana Sleiman, a spokesperson with UNHCR. “When we break the unfortunate news to a refugee family that resettlement is not an option for them, it shatters their entire existence. Because it means their stuck.”

Five Life-Changing Habits I Started in 2017

I sat in my car crying.

It was a bitter-cold afternoon in Buffalo last January, and I felt stuck. I was a TV news producer, but wasn’t fully passionate about it. I was making decisions based on what others thought of me. And at 24 years old, I still hadn’t kicked my lifelong habit of thinking negatively.

Three months later, I quit, moved to Lebanon and began building an online platform as a freelance journalist/blogger/YouTuber.

Wait, what? This was the girl who barely had the courage to post on social media -- let alone take such a risk. Where did the boldness come from?

It came from five habits I decided to adopt in 2017. Slowly but surely, these practices have helped me go from worrying about what others think to not caring; focusing on what could go wrong to focusing on what could go right; and realizing success comes from learning and growing, not just landing a big job.

Here are the five steps that have changed my mindset:

 My friend Lucien and I went ATVing up a mountain in Ehden, a town in northern Lebanon, to catch this incredible view.  Photo cred: Lucien Khoury

My friend Lucien and I went ATVing up a mountain in Ehden, a town in northern Lebanon, to catch this incredible view. Photo cred: Lucien Khoury

 

  1. Got a life coach: When one of my friends got a life coach a few years ago, I thought it was weird. That is, until I started noticing him making huge strides in his career and becoming a happier person.

    So last year, I went to that same coach -- Devin Martin. I wanted to be a reporter, but I didn’t love the idea of TV news or newspapers. I was hoping Devin could help me figure out what I wanted.

    We spoke once a week for 12 weeks, and he tried to convince me I didn’t need to be a TV or newspaper reporter just because that’s what everyone else has done -- I could carve my own path.

    But I fought him. I told him his ideas were crazy -- I couldn’t just buy a camera, do my own thing and put myself out there on the Internet. People would think I was weird!

    He said I needed to look at life in a much more positive way. So he challenged me to start two habits that have been simple, yet life-changing: write gratitudes and meditate.

  2. Write gratitudes: Every day, I jot down three things I’m grateful for: something about myself, another person, and a random thing -- like the weather. There’s just one rule: I can’t repeat.

    The first few weeks were easy -- I started going down a list of decent qualities I have, the most important people in my life, and objects right in front of me. Then, I started running out of ideas.

    So every day, I found myself searching for things to be grateful for -- wow, the mailman was really nice today. That embarrassing moment ended up teaching me a good lesson. And over time, I started to see the good in life more than the bad.

  3. Meditate: The first time someone tried to get me to meditate, I said I can’t because I’m too stressed. Now, I realize people controlled by their thoughts need meditation the most (and no, you don’t have to be a Buddhist or hippie to do it).

    In fact, some of the world’s most successful people meditate (i.e. Oprah Winfrey, Arnold Schwartzenager and Ariana Huffington). Sure, the practice makes you calmer. But it can also help you conquer your fears.

    There’s a myth that meditating = turning your thoughts off. Actually, meditating is about having a ton of anxious and stressful thoughts and changing your relationship to them.

    For example, I meditate with an app called Headspace, in which a nice British guy named Andy walks you through 10-minute sessions. When my mind wanders, Andy has simple advice: gently bring your attention back to the breath.

    Whether I get a thought as deep as ‘what am I doing with my life?’ or as simple as, ‘what am I going to have for breakfast?’ Andy has made me realize they’re just thoughts. They’re not reality. Let them come, and then let them go.

    The same applies to real life. Now, when I start getting anxiety, I let it happen, hang out in my brain for a bit, and then I let it go. I try not to let fearful or anxious thoughts stop me from going after anything.

  4. Daily prayers: This list has a theme: it’s all about me. Praying has helped me realize there is a God much bigger than me, and He’s already blessed me with so much.

    When I went to Lebanon in 2013, I met a nun who knew St. Rafqa -- one of Lebanon’s patron saints. She said St. Rafqa told her fellow sisters to pray five Our Father’s and five Hail Mary’s every day.

    I’m not sure why, but from that day on I started doing the same. This past trip in Lebanon, I’d start my day with those prayers -- as well as asking God to protect and guide each of the people in my life. It’s helped begin my day on a grateful note.

  5. Surround myself with positivity: They say you are the average of the five people you’re around most. But I think there’s a world of intelligent, driven and motivational people you can also find via books, podcasts and social media. Here are some of my favorites:

    YouTube: In my opinion, Brian DeCosta is the Tony Robbins of our generation. In September 2016, he started a YouTube channel about fitness -- but gradually started opening up about other aspects of his life. Now, he's one of the most authentic influencers online, inspiring tens of thousands of people to step out of their comfort zones, both in fitness and their personal lives.

    Instagram: ShutTheKaleUp is my favorite account on the gram, and not just because of her pretty food pictures. Jeanette Ogden shares photos of food, fitness and family from a place of love -- not weight loss. She shows how to live a healthy and holistic lifestyle versus going on a diet; nourishing your body versus depriving it; and valuing the people in your life over solely going after your fitness goals. It's refreshing and positive to follow.

    Podcast: The Tim Ferriss Show pumps me up. Tim asks world-class performers from all industries about their tools, tactics and routines in day-to-day life. When you hear about what someone like Maria Sharapova has for breakfast, or how geniuses like Malcolm Gladwell sometimes can't get themselves to work hard, you realize these hugely successful people have problems just like us -- so we, too, are capable of greatness.

    Book: There are a ton of self-help books out there, but Man’s Search For Meaning has moved me the most. Viktor Frankl, the author, was a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust. He was able to find meaning in life, even when everything was taken away from him. I won’t give away his secret, but if he could stay positive during that time, I guarantee you can, too.

LIGHTER SIDE OF LEBANON | How a Tiny Village Taught Me A Big Lesson

I never really cared about where my mom came from.

Terrible, isn’t it? As Lebanese tradition goes, you inherit your dad’s hometown as your own. So growing up, trips to Lebanon meant trips to his village, Mazraat Al Touffah. I fell in love with everything about it — the warm people, the peaceful mountains, the impromptu get-togethers at night. And I became just as proud of the Mazraat as my dad.

Along the way, my mom’s village kind of fell to the wayside. In fact, in my four trips to Lebanon, I never spent more than a day there each time.

This year, I decided to change that — and was shocked at what I found.

My mom is from Basloukit, a village hidden in the northern mountains — about 4,500 feet above sea level. It has one church, quaint, stone homes (one of which, my mom was born in) and is best known for its fresh water springs, colorful fruit orchards and lack of cell phone service.

 My mom's hometown, Basloukit, is simple but beautiful. It consists of fruit orchards, narrow roads and old, stone homes -- one of which, she was born in.

My mom's hometown, Basloukit, is simple but beautiful. It consists of fruit orchards, narrow roads and old, stone homes -- one of which, she was born in.

My mom's mother, Tayta Rose, dreamed of giving her kids a better life. So in 1965, she convinced my jido Tannous to move to America. But by the time they made it to Buffalo, N.Y. — she got cancer and passed away.

My mom and her siblings never took the opportunity Tayta gave them for granted — especially my uncle Pete. He was 16 when he moved to America, barely had anything in his pocket and didn’t know a word of English. He went on to join the U.S. Army, get married, have four kids and work his way up from a truck driver at ABF Freight to regional vice president of sales. 

He's the epitome of the American Dream — and yet, he goes back to Basloukit every year.

I never understood why. So this summer, every week, I visited him and his wife, Aunt Mona, at the summer home he built right in the middle of town.

Uncle Pete would spend hours in his garden, planting tomatoes and watering the apple trees, while Aunt Mona made dinner with ingredients fresh from their land — just as my grandparents once did. We’d go to mass in the church our ancestors helped build and drink Arabic coffee with the locals, whose ancestors grew up with our own. 

One night, Uncle Pete and I sat on his balcony, which overlooks northern Lebanon, all the way to where the coastline meets the Mediterranean Sea. We watched the sun set over the green mountains and red rooftops, and he told me what it was like to lose his mom at such a crucial time. As I teared up, he smiled and said, despite the hardships, he always remained thankful for the life she allowed him to build in America.

What struck me most was how much Basloukit played a role in Uncle Pete's success. Because he grew up in a one-room home, he appreciated every opportunity that came his way. Because he grew up with humble parents, he treated everyone with respect. And because he moved to the states with no money, he learned to work hard.

It was then that I had an epiphany: Uncle Pete's life goal isn’t just the American Dream. Actually, his time in Basloukit is helping him achieve something much deeper.

By dedicating three months a year to this tiny village — growing crops on his land, playing Lebanese board games with friends, and heck, even drinking the freezing-cold water from Basloukit's ancient spring — he is keeping his parents’ spirits alive.

Tayta Rose, who would never live to see her son become vice president of a huge American corporation, can look down and see that despite all his success, he never forgot about where he came from.

It made me realize that — at a time in which I’m obsessed with finding success — I won’t find it in just a career. True satisfaction comes when you achieve something deeper — even if, from the outside, it appears to be as simple as watering plants in an unknown village.

Every Oct. 7, Basloukit celebrates the feast day of its patron saints: St. Sarkis and St. Bakhous. Uncle Pete and Aunt Mona closed their house for the summer and went back to the states a few weeks ago, but I still decided to go.

A family friend invited me over for dinner that night, and like Aunt Mona, made everything with fresh ingredients from her land. Something about it warmed my heart.

After dinner, I walked to the celebration outside church. A teenage boy led the Lebanese dabke — kicking his feet high in the air while staying on beat to a live Arabic flute and drums.

A guy came up to me and asked what brought me to Basloukit. With a new sense of pride, I told him it’s my mom’s village. I asked which of his parents is from Basloukit.

“Neither,” he said. “They just chose to build their summer home here.”

A year ago, I would have thought his parents were crazy to pick such a small, boring village.

But now, I realize they chose one of the most beautiful places in the world — a town that is simple, but was built upon values that are everlasting.

LIGHTER SIDE OF LEBANON | Food & Fireworks

Whenever Lebanon is mentioned in the news, it’s usually about a few things: terror attacks, an unstable government and the Syrian refugee crisis.

But that’s only half the story.

It’s also filled with picturesque beaches, religious history, mouthwatering cuisine and a wild nightlife that brings in more than a million tourists each year, according to Databank.

I came here to report on the refugee crisis, but I’ve also been soaking in the beauty of this country — which I’m going to share in a series of blog posts, starting today! Today’s blog is about two things Lebanese people love: food and fireworks (just ask the kids in my village, who set off fireworks every night).

On Saturday night, my friends and I went to Jounieh, a city on the coast of Lebanon, for a huge fireworks display over the Mediterranean Sea. The 11-minute show, with more than 50,000 fireworks, kicks off the week-long Jounieh Summer Festival.

We booked a table at Amor, a restaurant with outdoor seating and a stunning view of the Jounieh Bay. For $50 a person, each table got a bottle of alcohol, a traditional Lebanese four-course meal and impeccable service (when I tried to pour a glass of sparkling water, the waiter ran over, intercepted the bottle and continued pouring for me). The series of dishes are known as “mezza,” which means appetizer in Arabic.

The first course was a variety of vegetarian dishes — fattoush, tabouleh, basil-pine-nut hummus, labne, classic hummus, mozzarella cheese over smoked eggplant and stuffed grape leaves. The second course included some meat: fried sausage, grilled potatoes, kibbe, sambousek, and a Lebanese-style mozzarella stick (phyllo dough stuffed with cheese). The third course is known as “mashawi,” which means barbecue. There were three meats: kafta (ground beef with parsley and spices), beef kabobs and chicken kabobs. The fourth course was dessert: ashta, a homemade cream, topped with strawberry jam, as well as fresh watermelon and cantaloupe. 

By 10 p.m., everyone at the restaurant got up from their tables and watched the show together. People from across Lebanon — of all religions — were there to watch. In a way, during a time of tension and turmoil in the Middle East, the fireworks brought everyone together.

A Leap of Faith

I’m standing in the same spot my dad had a stroke last summer.

It's right in front of the church in Mazraat Al Toufah — or Orchard of Apples, a tiny town hidden in the northern mountains of Lebanon. My dad and his family left this village 40 years ago to escape Lebanon’s civil war. He moved to Buffalo with nothing in his pocket, determined to give his future kids a chance to live the American Dream. The funny thing is, everything he taught me led me right back to this place.

 On the side of the road leading into Mazraat Al Toufah, you can see a beautiful view of the town. The church in the center is located right next to our home.

On the side of the road leading into Mazraat Al Toufah, you can see a beautiful view of the town. The church in the center is located right next to our home.

My dream is to be a news reporter. When I met Diane Sawyer during my internship at ABC three years ago, I cried. I was starstruck — not because she’s famous, but because she gets to dedicate her life to going in-depth on stories that shed light on real people, their struggles and their triumphs. She shows the world what others are going through. We relate to them. We cry with them. And we’re better because of it.

So last month, I took a leap of faith.

I quit my job as a TV news producer to temporarily relocate to one of the most dangerous areas in the world — one that's filled with stories. The ongoing war in Syria continues to spill into Lebanon, a third-world country already suffering from an unstable government, terrorism and poverty. But those aren’t the only stories Lebanon has to offer.

 My dad and I standing on the porch of our home in August of 2013

My dad and I standing on the porch of our home in August of 2013

My dad and I came here together in 2013, and it changed my life. I instantly felt a connection. I’d wake up every morning, tie my sneakers and head out for a run — completely entranced by the green mountains, red roof tops and apple orchards around me. I’d get goosebumps every time I went ATVing up those serene mountains, or took a dip in the clear-blue Mediterranean Sea. I literally became more spiritual, not only from learning about the many saints who came from Lebanon, and touring the cedar trees Jesus once walked through, but also by meeting some of the most loving and warm people you’ll ever find: people who barely knew me, yet stayed with me bedside when I had a stomachache. People who barely make enough money to survive, yet offered me everything they had when I walked through the door.

 A towering view of northern Lebanon after ATVing up the serene mountains. (photo credit: Lucien Khoury, July 2016)

A towering view of northern Lebanon after ATVing up the serene mountains. (photo credit: Lucien Khoury, July 2016)

My love for this Middle Eastern country brought me back last summer. Once again, my dad and I bonded over the beauty of the land he and my mom came from. He ended up having a stroke right in the middle of the village — between our home and church. He survived, thank God, but is limited both mentally and physically.

He's still good old Victor Khoury, though. The man who literally fears nothing. The man who has always been in my ear, saying, “You can achieve anything you put your mind to."

So here I am, right back in the Mazraat, to pursue my dream of telling stories.

To be honest, taking this leap of faith was terrifying. Not a day goes by that I don't question my decision — not because of the tense situation in the Middle East, but because leaving a stable job to report alone in a foreign country is overwhelming.

But as my dad taught me, I must put my mind to it. If I fail, at least I know I tried. I hope to shed light on the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as show the beautiful side of this country that doesn’t always make it on the news.

I hope you join me on this adventure by following along :) 

Jamie Zimmerman’s Life Lessons After Death

This story was first featured on Huffington Post in October 2015

I was pouring my heart out in the cafeteria of ABC News.

What am I going to do after this internship? What if I don’t find the right job? Do I have what it takes to achieve my dreams?

Sitting across from me was Jamie Zimmerman.

Jamie was a doctor and medical reporter at ABC. But that barely defines her. She was also an aspiring life coach, a meditation guru and a compassionate, caring friend to every person with whom she came into contact — from big-time ABC World News reporter Bob Woodruff to a young intern like me.

I witnessed Jamie singlehandedly change the tone of our newsroom during my seven-month internship at ABC. She was on her way to changing the world until she suddenly passed away on Oct. 12 when she slipped on some rocks on a mountain in Hawaii and was swept out to sea.

When I started at ABC, Jamie just so happened to start a meditation session with the medical unit, just three days a week. It soon became every day. By the end of my internship, people all across ABC — from veteran cameramen to reporters and anchors — fled to Jamie’s session to try to get a seat. She ended up holding a second daily session in another part of ABC’s building because it was so popular.

She lived by this quote: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose that response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

What many don’t know is Jamie’s father died before she was able to meet him. As a teen, she set out to find her dad but found out he was struggling with personal issues that led to his death.

She took that tragedy and used it as motivation to change the world. Jamie dedicated her life to teaching mindfulness and spreading positivity. She believed that if her dad would have found that space between feeling and responding, maybe his life would have turned out differently.

And boy, was she succeeding.

Jamie’s career was skyrocketing. She was writing a book, giving talks and presentations across the country — including a TED talk. She was a contributing writer for Huffington Post, Yoga Journal and Sonima and working on her own online show for ABC News called “Make Your Passion Your Paycheck.”

If there’s one thing she taught me, it’s that we’re all on earth for a reason. Life is about finding your purpose and making an impact — no matter what challenges you face along the way.

As successful as Jamie had become by the young age of 31, it wasn’t what she accomplished that we’re all left struck by. It was how she treated us all.

If we can take Jamie’s death the way she took her father’s, and try to be better people because of her, then maybe her premature death won’t go in vain. Maybe she’ll have accomplished exactly what she set out to do in the first place.

As I sat in that cafeteria, complaining to Jamie about the challenges I was facing in becoming a journalist, her crystal blue eyes remained focused on mine. She listened intently. She gave me advice I’ll never forget.

“You know exactly what you’re supposed to do,” she said. “Stop being scared, and go do it.”

No matter what you do, hard work "stands out"

Growing up, the only times I felt like a "standout" were when I was an 8-year-old tomboy on an all-boys hockey team, or the Lebanese "foreign" kid at an all-white high school.

I didn't necessarily feel cool in the eyes of others.

So when College Media Matters called me a "standout" yesterday, it felt, well, really cool!

College Media Matters, a site that partners with Associated Collegiate Press, wrote this story about my career so far and my advice to young journalists. In the Q & A, I lay out how I didn't attend a fancy journalism school but found a way to beat students at some of the best journalism schools in national competitions.

I've realized that if you find something you love, like I found journalism in college, and you really dedicate your time to it (yes, even weekends), pour your heart and soul into it, and endure the stressful, scary moments your passion can often bring, it pays off.

I think in life, that's how you stand out. By being yourself and doing what you love wholeheartedly.

PS: Shameless plug -- if you want to check out the other articles College Media Matters has featured me in during the past few years, here they are:

"Year in Review: Most Viral Student Media of 2012, Part 1"

"The Ultimate Student Journalists’ Guide to Avoiding & Surviving an ‘Internet Drubbing’"

"Student Newspaper Investigation Pierces Silence Surrounding Illegal Frats"