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Literary nonfiction by award-winning writer and development worker Ming Holden about finding and assisting Syrian refugees in Turkey

The Gist

There are well over 1.5 million Syrian refugees by now, and we all know the situation isn't getting any better. I think a lot of us feel hopeless about Syria, that our human brothers and sisters across the world are suffering, and we'd like to see more being done about it. Sharing the stories of those who haven't been heard is one of the ways I have found not just to honor fellow human beings in pain, but to help bring them the international visibility that can lead to change.  

What I can offer are well-written stories of and from the Syrian refugee population. I've got a five-year track record of successful refugee advocacy in collaboration with the UNHCR in Asia and in Africa.  I've got the time this summer to spend a month on the ground in Turkey.  And I've got the willingness to go do what I can and try to write well about it, and I hope you'll help me to do that.  I made contact earlier this year with the UNHCR in Turkey, and now I just need to get over there!

One reason why this method of funding a project is unique is that I am asking you to invest in my track record as a writer and development worker rather than a specific spreadsheet and project plan when I state the mission of this project: I hope to find and assist Syrian refugees in Turkey this summer and produce a quality book of literary nonfiction about the experience.  The last time I had the opportunity to share the stories of people who had not been heard or seen, I worked in a Nairobi slum as an independent extension of the Golden Globe Foundation and founded the Survival Girls, a self-sustaining theater group for orphaned Congolese refugee girls that received support from Hillary Clinton within one year and resulted in the creation of my first book within two.  (The book tells the story of the Survival Girls project and the proceeds are for the Girls' university education.)

I won't wait years for a publishing house to notice the work I create about Turkey; I'll simply self-publish a nice little "nonfiction novella" that will hopefully inform and inspire readers as well as look good on their coffee tables--thought an e-version will be an option for donors as well.  (The flip side to this timeliness, however, is that there will not be national distribution of this book in bookstores. The way to ensure that you will receive a copy of the book is to preorder one [or more] through donating to this project.

 For those of you who would like to know more about me, my personal website is here, and my Huffington Post blogger page is here.

The "Roll-With-It" Approach

What if someone with over a decade of development experience in over ten countries, including a successful track record of refugee advocacy and a long record of publication--but no obligation to tow an institutional party line or endure the delays of related protocol--were to combine those skills on the ground in Turkey, in search of stories about Syria and ways to assist with the plight of those forced to flee from it? What if a person were enough of an independent entity to choose to do, on the ground, whatever would be of the most assistance to these refugees in Turkey--with minimum delay?  The "I'll do what I can, and we'll see what happens" approach is a risky method of assistance and writing in many ways, but my writing about this method has received support from everyone from Anne-Marie Slaughter and USAID to Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton!

What exactly is happening in these communities of refuge?  More than that, who are the people in this ever-growing population of refugees?  What are their dreams and struggles?  How might I best help them?  Could it be writing Huffington Post blog entries about the conditions of the camps?  Starting a group for traumatized youth like I did in a slum in Nairobi?  I fell backwards into refugee advocacy six years ago largely as a result of this very freedom to do what I could at the time.  It was a product of knowing what my skills were, what my values were, and accepting that I would not know how those two things would intersect before being present in a given environment.  I'd like your help in using the art of literary nonfiction and photography to continue to prove to the world that this "uncertainty principle" can be of value to Americans who mean to be of use in conflicted situations in the 21st century.  

Whether it's a story about how hard it is to make something happen over there, or how possible it is to be of use, I can promise a well-crafted piece of literary nonfiction about one of the most pressing humanitarian issues today.

The Difference You Make

I won't get there without your help, but it won't cost too much!  In addition to the cost of printing a limited run of the book, the expenses of this trip mainly consist of the airfare and the costs of a month of food and nightly accommodation through couchsurfing and/or at youth hostels (I don't mind a spot in a twelve-bunk-bed room!) 

Thank you in advance for any contribution you can make.  I am physically able and willing to do this, but I'm also a perpetual graduate student in the humanities (this summer is the break between my MFA program and my PhD program) and in debt to the tune of $80,000 for my undergraduate education.  Your support means the world!

In preparation to document the situation as best I can and as unobtrusively as I can, I hope to purchase a small digital camera to take photos (my old one bit the dust last year) and a modest field recording set.  Each of these can be found for around one to two hundred dollars each, often used and in good condition.  Most of the funding for this project goes directly toward a print run of the book in the fall.

P.S. (My Track Record)

Below is something of a coda: my personal history with this kind of work, in case it would help you decide if my project is something you would like to support.

My discovery that the "uncertainty principal" boded well for the refugee context began with being selected as a Henry Luce Scholar in 2007.  Hardly anyone chooses Mongolia as their placement in Asia with the Luce Scholars Program, but I was intrigued by a landlocked frozen desert home to a post-Soviet parliamentary republic sandwiched between Russia and China.  A creative writer first and foremost, during my Luce year I served the Mongolian Writers Union as its first-ever International Relations Advisor.  Freedom to Write at PEN America put me in contact with Tumen Ulzii, an exiled Chinese dissident writer waiting perilously for Refugee Status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 

Tumen Ulzii
Tumen Ulzii

I went to the UNHCR with Tumen Ulzii in Mongolia several times to ask what the hold-up was and secured a letter of concern for his case file from PEN America. He was granted Refugee Status four months later.   

Here is Tumen Ulzii singing in a rough homemade video, February 2008:

In 2010 I was invited to speak about Tumenulzii at the Writers and Literary Translators International Congress in Istanbul, which Kickstarter enabled me to attend. The following year, with the added help of a Human Rights Watch grant for endangered writers that I nominated him for, Tumen Ulzii arrived safely in New York, and a year later, his family did also.  

Here we are in his home in Brooklyn, 2012:

Because I had no way of knowing before I got to Mongolia that I would end up doing all this, I have nursed an abiding faith in "uncertainty methodology" in my development work ever since.

Recently, that work has been recognized in Washington. While working as an independent operational partner of the UNHCR in Kenya during the summer of 2011, I founded the Survival Girls. Not only did the Survival Girls bring audiences to tears with their original theater performance piece that summer, but they went on to: assign each other roles of Public Affairs Officer, Secretary, and President; create a website for themselves; give an interview on local radio; meet with local refugee agencies; create more pieces about AIDS and the importance of education for girls; double in membership; and see themselves featured in the local paper. It began with four shy, traumatized young women sitting with me in a dirty room in a church compound in the slum of Kangemi. Now the Survival Girls have been contracted to perform all over Nairobi, and my book about them is raising funds for their university tuition.

Here are the Survival Girls on World Refugee Day, 2011, performing an original piece of theater, dance, and song about war and gender-based violence that they wrote themselves:

Survival Girls confer before a performance, 2011:

The Huffington Post piece I wrote about the Survival Girls as an example of the importance of "safe space" to community building and trauma recovery for youth in post-conflict environments was picked up on Twitter by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the recent and first-ever female Policy Planning Director at the U.S. State Department. A later version of the essay went on to win a spot in USAID's worldwide essay contest for inclusion in its 2012 Frontiers in Development publication alongside work by Bill Gates, Paul Collier, Indra Nooyi, and others. In the book's introduction, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote: "You'll be delighted to meet the Survival Girls."  My experiences gave me the belief that "we'll see what happens" is the best, most practicable, and most respectful standpoint from which to enter flux-ridden frays like the refugee context.

I don't know exactly what I'll write about beyond "refugees in Turkey," or what I'll do to help, simply because I haven't met the people there yet and I refuse to assume that I know what they'll need.  I only know what I'm skilled at (creative writing, being with people, and adapting) and what I value (freedom, recovery from trauma, the arts, social justice).  Armed with those specifics alone, I promise to emerge from a month in Turkey with good writing for you. 

Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter

The risks of this project are fairly obvious: security and access.  Turkey has experienced unrest and violence in those border towns where refugees are staying in large numbers.  All I can do is ask you to have faith that my experience working safely in ten developing nations over the past twelve years has lent itself to knowledge of common sense in these sorts of situations.  I believe this work is what I am on the planet to do and I do it with my eyes wide open.  Itake the attendant risks knowingly--knowing, especially, that the millions of humans in these places don't have a choice about their own lack of safety and that the improved visibility good writing, photos, and video can give them sometimes makes a great difference.  It's also possible that access to refugee communities will be limited, in which case my writing will be based on interviews with the people I am able to speak with and the experience of attempting that kind of contact in Turkey.

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