Relationships

My Midlife Crisis Ended in a Syrian Refugee Camp

Volunteering helped me feel something I hadn't felt in a long time—the purely selfish pleasure of making a small difference

Some of the lovely young faces I met who put a smile on my face.

I didn't think turning 50 this summer would be such a big deal. To be honest, I didn't really feel like 50 applied to me. My 50 would be another woman's 35.

But a week after my birthday, I fell into a bona fide funk. At first, I couldn't put my finger on the reason why. It was everything and nothing.

I didn't like the look of my face anymore, and my life as a wife and mother of a tween and a teen seemed more routine than ever. Whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not, my midlife crisis—complete with its search for meaning—was right on time.

Then something kind of crazy happened. A friend asked me if I'd be willing to volunteer with her in Syrian refugee camps on the island of Lesvos in Greece.

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With ISIS no doubt waiting for me to land at Mytilene Airport on that tiny island, there was no fucking way I was going.

"You've got to go," my husband Henry commanded. "You're in a major rut."

Apparently, he'd picked up on my self-absorption and ennui. That night, I couldn't sleep. I realized I was in a rut, that I felt kind of useless. I was no longer sure who I was.

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My kids still needed me, but not like they did when they were little. My husband certainly loved me, but he didn't really need me. And my career was more focused on earning than helping.

Two weeks later, I was on a plane to Athens and then another from Athens to Mytilene. The first thing that greeted me at the airport was a Syrian family who'd just landed on the island in a dangerous, flimsy smuggler's boat from Turkey.

As soon as they saw me, they erupted into smiles and greetings. I asked if they needed warm clothes for the winter journey into the European Union. They did, and before I left the parking lot I had given them all of my family's unused winter clothes (we live in Los Angeles) that I'd brought in a massive duffle bag.

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The 10-month old baby was carried off with my daughter's no-longer-cool One Direction beanie on his head. The father sported my rather stylish, lavender beignet hat and the rest of the family were mummified in a sea of scarves and gloves.

I felt something I haven't felt in a long time—the purely selfish pleasure of making a small difference.

I spent the next 10 days working in the local volunteer communities and helped with boat landings, clothing and food distribution, and anything else that was needed.

While I can't find adequate words to describe all the ways the refugees affected me, I was profoundly moved when I asked a 20-year-old Syrian girl what she'd most like people to give her.

"Respect," she answered.

Because she'd lost everything when her boat capsized in the Aegean, I asked what she'd most like to buy, thinking she'd respond with essentials, like warm clothes or a sleeping bag.

"Makeup," she said. She just wanted to be pretty. To be a "normal" girl again.

Day after day, I saw people struggling to remain gracious and to preserve their dignity during what had to be one of the worst moments of their lives. I never felt more humbled in my life.

The terrorist attacks in Paris occurred during the middle of my stay and my first impulse was to return home. But several of the volunteers reminded me that the Syrian refugees are running from the same terrorists that committed the atrocities in Paris.

I stuck it out and discovered something I knew when I was much, much younger—we must go visit the world to really come to know it and the many different lovely people that inhabit it.

The other obvious yet important lesson: When you quit obsessing about yourself and turn your attention to others, especially those who could use it, turning 50 is no big deal at all.

Photos courtesy of Jade Beall and Lori Dorman

Tags: aging
   
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