Jon Halperin was more than a little nervous when he accepted one of the most important jobs of his life—designing lesson plans for preschoolers. The veteran talent buyer who has spent decades producing legendary concerts for the Glass House, Chain Reaction and festivals all over SoCal had no clue what he was in for.
That job would've been hard enough for him to pull off at a public school in his hometown of Long Beach. Instead, Halperin was doing it on Greek soil. Last November, Halperin landed on the island town of Chalkida, Greece, and traveled to the Ritsona camp, which is filled with about 800 refugees from the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo. "We see stuff on Facebook feeds and whatnot, but I had no concept what a refugee camp was gonna look like," Halperin says. "I had people warning me to watch my back and make sure people didn't follow me back home, to really be careful."
For four weeks, Halperin left behind the music world and the comforts of home to volunteer through Swedish NGO Lighthouse Relief, working specifically with young children of displaced families. Prior to this trip, Halperin crowdsourced $8,000 from friends and family through GoFundMe to purchase some essential supplies for his job at camp Ritsona.
What he encountered when he got there was the total opposite of what he expected. The bearded, lifelong punker was suddenly surrounded by boisterous, laughing children playfully pulling his heavily tattooed arms and kind-hearted families welcoming the American stranger into their makeshift homes. His days were spent coloring and playing with kids, with whom he formed bonds without speaking a word of Arabic.
As a married man in his 40s with a stable income and no kids, Halperin is able to travel on a fairly consistent basis. Usually, he's going to festivals or meetings to benefit his primary passion, booking events such as last fall's Music Tastes Good in Long Beach. He never thought that listening to a random episode of This American Life on the radio and hearing about the struggles of displaced Syrian children at the camp would inspire his own humanitarian efforts.
His 15-hour flight to Greece was nothing compared to the harrowing journey of these refugees and their small children. Most escaped from Turkey on gray, rubber dinghies, fighting to stay afloat all the way to the island of Lesbos. From there, they were brought to the refugee camps.
Despite his background in clinical psychology and a day job working for LA County investigating child abuse for Child Protective Services, he was unprepared to fully understand the death and destruction these Syrian children had seen practically since birth. His job now was simple: distract the kids and take their mind off things as best he could. "Basically, it was me and three or four other people running a preschool and giving the kids structured activities during the day while their older siblings were in school," Halperin says. "Otherwise, there's nothing to do there; kids are just walking around."
For several hours five days per week, Halperin and his fellow volunteers organized nature walks, coloring sessions, snack times and playdough activities, plus they planted seeds to grow in nearby soil. The idea of establishing a sense of normalcy in the most abnormal circumstances as their home city burned during the Aleppo Offensive was a balancing act. It required an extra amount of sensitivity. "You have to really think about things," Halperin says. "You might be like, 'Let's have the kids play with balloons,' but balloons pop, [which] sounds like guns or explosions. You have to think about water play with the kids because you don't want to remind the kids of being on that boat, and what did they see? Did they see someone fall out of the boat and drown?"
At night, Halperin met with various camp leaders and other volunteers to shop for supplies and create plans for rationing goods. He used his little downtime to shop for records in Greece and continued booking bands via email for the upcoming second installment of Music Tastes Good. And he kept an extensive diary of his experiences.
Ritsona is one of about 40 Syrian refugee camps in Greece. Though it's considered one of the nicer, well-maintained camps in the country, the major task of the stressful, everyday issues of feeding, clothing and sheltering thousands was eye-opening to Halperin. "Every family has to have an equal opportunity to obtain the things that the family next to them got," he says. "So if there's only 50 pairs of shoes for boys 7 to 9, but there's 100 boys in that age group, then you have to wait to get a donation of another 50 before you can pass out the first 50. Otherwise, they just sit there."
Though spending every day with victims who've lost everything left a mark on the volunteers, it was the similarities between the average American and the refugees at Ritsona that really resonated with Halperin. "These are kids who were in college, or parents who were teachers, or parents who have particular skills and full-time jobs," Halperin says. "Could you even imagine—tomorrow, I have no idea what country I'm gonna be raising my family in, and I probably don't speak the language. But at least you don't have to worry about your house being bombed."
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Recently, Halperin got the words "The Peace" and "The Love" in Arabic tattooed on his hands, a memento and a reminder to himself that he'll always do his best to return. Though he hopes the kids and families he bonded with won't be there. "It would be so selfish of me to say I hope the same kids I bonded with over there would be there when I go back because they need to move on with their lives and their new homes in whatever country it may be in," he says.
Since returning home, Halperin has worked to inspire others to do what he did. He says he still keeps in contact with one Syrian family, video chatting with them online almost every day. The family threw a nice party for Halperin on the day he left, with food cooked from scratch over a fire pit, something he'll never forget. Recently, he learned they were given asylum in Germany, giving him hope for not only them, but also the future of all of those waiting for their chance at a better life.
"I have a trip planned in August to go see some music festivals out [in Europe]," he says. "My plan is to go see the family, if they're in Finland, Poland, Germany—wherever they are."
If you're interested in helping the people of Syria through volunteer work, check out the following links:
*Lighthouse Relief (The organization Halperin volunteered for) visit http://www.lighthouserelief.org,
*Echo 100 Plus (the warehouse for donated goods in Syria): http://echo100plus.com/en
*Cafe Rits (the cafe making Syrian food for the residents): https://www.facebook.com/caferits/
*IAMYOU (working with the children and their school education): http://iamyou.se
*FLORISH ART (providing mental health support for with Syrian refugees) http://flourish-foundation.org