Facebook 'like' sparks refugee act of kindness

By Hayley Tsukayama

Refugees push their children in strollers as they continue their journey to Serbia from the transit centre for refugees near northern Macedonian village of Tabanovce. Photo / AP
Refugees push their children in strollers as they continue their journey to Serbia from the transit centre for refugees near northern Macedonian village of Tabanovce. Photo / AP

Facebook estimates that four out of five people on its network are connected - through a friend of a friend, or closer - to someone directly affected by the Syrian refugee crisis. We've certainly all seen the posts: appeals from charities, posts supporting or decrying efforts, political debates over how the world should handle the wave of people.

For most of us, we'll scroll past it. We may "like" something. We may comment. But most of us? We don't even click; it's just too big.

But when Marie Beechy saw a post on the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, from the popular blog Humans of New York, she clicked and read. And her eyes came across a comment from a woman named Anca Ponea, who lived nearby where the picture was taken in Greece, and who said it was heartbreaking to watch the refugees stream by each day.

The comment struck a chord with Beechy.

"I live 30km further south from the place where this picture was taken. This morning in my village, 2 boats like this arrived, actually were brought to the shore by the locals cause they run out of fuel apx 300m away from the shore. I am telling you people, the more I see them, the worse it gets. I feel ashamed when they pass by my balcony and say hello, I feel ashamed for being lucky to not have to go through what they went through in order to reach this point, I started to see the sea that is laying in front of my eyes every day in a whole different way. I start to feel their fear of the sea."

"Her first comment was the first one I saw," Beechy said from her home in Louisiana. "She said she was so sad to see families coming from the ocean, that she felt so sympathetic towards them. And she had that tender heart toward refugees, just looking to help." Beechy immediately messaged Ponea - a complete stranger - to ask how she could help from her home in Ponchatoula, La.

Hundreds of miles away in Washington, DC, Laneyse Hooks also clicked, and read Ponea's message. And the responses to it made her angry.

"There was a lot of negative, anti-Muslim stuff being written to Anca," Hooks said from Washington. So she, too, reached out to this stranger across the ocean - just to offer some support. "I was responding viscerally to Anca's post. It was hard to see people respond to her saying something so normal and human with such nastiness [and it] made me really angry."

It could have ended there.

But Ponea thought about it. She thought about how many of the refugees streamed off their boats holding all their possessions, pictured how they struggled with their children in their arms. And she realised what she wanted to do.

She wanted to give them strollers.

By the time she reached back out to Beechy and Hooks, Ponea had already handed out a couple of used strollers she collected from folks in her neighborhood. The two women in the United States connected, and then bought strollers of their own from online shopping sites in Europe to ship to Ponea's home.

"We set an initial goal for 10 strollers," Beechy said. Ten quickly became 23, when the women started spreading news of their efforts to their family and friends online. That became 54. The message spread. The three women made a Facebook page, called One Stroller - Many Steps Forward, where they posted (with permission) pictures of families receiving the strollers. Another couple of women in Chicago heard about it, just before Thanksgiving, and did some fundraising on their own. Others, with backgrounds in fundraising and marketing, joined them. Eventually, all the women formed a nonprofit organization - One Refugee Child.

Now, just months after Ponea's initial post, the group has shipped more than 200 strollers and has started projects to bring clothes, blankets and, of course, more strollers to refugee camps in Turkey and Greece.

Their efforts caught the attention of Facebook itself after Hooks commented on a post by chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. The executive asked for stories about interesting connections made over Facebook, and Hooks' co-worker encouraged her to respond. Once Facebook knew about the charity, it invited Beechy and Hooks to meet Sandberg and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg at the social network's California headquarters.

"That's how Facebook found out us," Hooks said, with a laugh. "I was shilling for more strollers."

Beechy and Hooks both said that they are proud of their charitable accomplishments, and are happy to keep them going. But they're also grateful for the opportunity to make friends with people they've never met and do something together. Without the friendship, Beechy said, the charity wouldn't work.

Soon, Beechy will meet Ponea in person for the first time, after exchanging "literally thousands" of Facebook messages to organise their charitable projects.

"I'm headed over with four suitcases full of clothes," said Beechy on our call. "Laneyse is filling one of those."

"Actually," Hooks broke in, sounding a little guilty. "I have to talk to you about that."

There's a pause. Then: "It's looking like it will be more than one."

- Washington Post

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