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In this interview, we meet Kayra Martinez, the founder of Love Without Borders For Refugees In Need. You’ll hear how ONE woman harnessed her desire to help refugees in need to form a not-for-profit that has since helped thousands of refugees living in camps in Greece.
Kayra learned by apparent accident when she supplied crayons and paper to kids living in the refugee camps. She discovered that kids who had stopped speaking were able to connect once again — and that adults were able to move through some of their grief and start to heal. She formed this non-governmental, volunteer-based 501(c)(3) organization so she could fund their creations, support their livelihood, and help them get a fresh start.
Each person she serves receives art supplies and training with artist-led workshops so they can learn to express themselves through art. You can browse her Etsy shop (link below) and choose a piece of their art for yourself or as a gift! 100% of the proceeds go back to the artist to help them get on their feet again.
Thus far, her work has positively impacted thousands of displaced refugees. She has even begun to help find housing for them while fundraising to support their education so they can gain new skills and build a brighter future in a new land. Her organization has also launched a fundraiser via GoFundMe: The Wahid Wahid project, which provides long-term accommodations and retraining support to help refugees build a brighter future.
About Kayra Martinez and Love Without Borders For Refugees In Need:
Kayra Martinez is the founder of Love Without Borders for Refugees in Need. She began volunteering at a refugee camp in Greece alongside her day job as a flight attendant for United Airlines in 2015. While raising funds to help meet basic needs, Love Without Borders also provides refugees with art supplies. The resulting works are exhibited and sold, serving as a source of economic empowerment and offering an opportunity to show the challenges and tough conditions faced by refugees.
0:00 – Introduction
1:47 – The start of a life-changing experience
2:39 – How the program started with a box of crayons and some paper
16:18 – Where the NGOs were failing
22:57 – How to measure success, especially when things are dire, and Kayra’s advice to people taking on similar projects
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The Power of One, With Kayra Martinez, Founder of Love Without Borders for Refugees in Need
Welcome fellow do-gooders and friends. Have you ever thought, “I’m just one person? I can’t make a difference.” This episode will prove that single dealt full thought is simply untrue. Through the story of Kayra Martinez and her not-for-profit Love Without Borders For Refugees in Need, you’ll see how one person can make a difference in thousands of lives, just by seeing a problem and trying to help in some small way.
You’ll see how the simple act of bringing crayons and paper into refugee camps of Greece gave rise to an artistic movement that both brings awareness to the problems that refugees face, problems that don’t simply disappear when they escape their home country and provides refugees with hope for a better tomorrow. I invite you to care a little more about refugees and needs as we meet Kayra Martinez.
This is Care More Be Better. I’m pleased to be joined with Kayra Martinez. She founded this incredible, not-for-profit a few years back. We’re going to talk about what she’s doing and how you can actually get involved and help. The not-for-profit is called Love Without Borders For Refugees in Need. Kayra, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome.
Corinna, thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
As we get started, I just love you to talk about what drove you to start this effort, and then we can just dig in.
I have been traveling my whole life and traveling to all of these countries, it made me aware of other countries and how much we have in our lives growing up in America and the Western world. I realized that I wanted to do something but I wasn’t quite sure what I could do, and how I could get involved. Throughout the years, I’ve lived in a lot of different countries. When I arrived in Frankfurt, Germany, I was living there in Berlin for about fifteen years and Frankfurt for about three. In 2015, there was an influx of refugees that were coming in from Syria, Iraq and other countries. That’s when I got involved and my life made a huge change for the better.
Can you talk about what the program looked like when you first started it?
I was volunteering for some other nonprofits in Greece and other countries in the EU. I wasn’t also quite sure how I was going to be involved. One day I took a box of crayons and some paper into a refugee camp, and there were many children around me, probably about 15 to 20 kids. I had no idea how the art would impact their lives.
When I saw what they were drawing, I realized that the children were very traumatized and that art would be our main focus because it was a wonderful way for them to heal. The drawings that they were drawing were so powerful and inspirational also because these children were 5 and 7 years old. That’s how it started paper and crayons, just like that.
I’ve had the pleasure of personally perusing the Etsy shop that you now have open with all of these wonderful art collaborations. I have to just say there was one in particular. I went into the store. I looked at it and it was titled that they had lost their family. It seemed to be a simple pencil and paper. I’m actually not sure of even what the medium is. I instantly burst into tears and had to buy it. It was one of those moments, looking at that simple piece of art that made me realize at the same time that we deal with our challenges here in the West from day-to-day pales in comparison to some of these things that these people are going through.
Art is a wonderful way to heal.
I love that what you’re doing is bringing arts and art supplies to them to help them work through some of this expression and try to heal a little bit. I was just personally so impressed with the effort thus far. I’d love for you to talk a little bit about how many people you’ve been able to impact positively. What the current state is for people that are living in Greece and dealing with these challenges there? What’s your snapshot look like, at this point?
I started the project in approximately 2016 and it was literally just one person at a time. Some of the people in the camps they had a prior art background. What I did was I tried to allow and give these materials to as many people as I could. At one point, we were offering the materials to people in Athens, in Northern Greece, where I was working in Nea Kavala Camp.
Also, long the islands through different volunteers. We’ve probably helped thousands of people at this point through our little organization. We’ve been able to take paper art as well as photos and mostly acrylic on canvas is usually the medium that we use. We have a really nice gift bag that we came up with the idea and we’ve purchased everything in Greece so that we can support the Greek economy.
The gift bag comes with two pieces of canvases, 30 x 40 centimeters, two paintbrushes, and a set of acrylic colors. Believe it or not, that costs us €25. It can really change somebody’s life because if they have the background, they can paint at their own leisure. If they don’t, we connect them with a teacher. It’s inspired hundreds of people to paint. We have paintings of people from all different nationalities, which is really amazing because it brings out their culture, homelands, and memories of what they left behind.
The paintings are full of passion, full of love for their cultures, and also some of the sorrows that they’ve encountered throughout their travels along to Greece. We’ve continued to do this. We have had other projects alongside the art but we decided as a group that we would continue to keep art as our main focus because we saw the power of art, and how it has really helped to heal, inspire and empower people.
During these last several years that we’ve been on the ground in Greece, our main focus has been to empower the people. Some of the people that we help are women. Many of the women have never been able to paint before because they were not allowed to in their country. For us to be able to bring in canvases, color, and paintbrushes into a refugee camp are very empowering and wonderful gifts for all of us. I’m honored to be able to lead something like this because I had not a lot of background in art and it’s just something that happened. It’s pretty amazing. It goes to show you that the power of one is very impactful in the world.
How many people are supporting you with this effort now? When you travel to Greece and you leave these projects, you buy these art supplies, what kind of support do you have?
We’re very fortunate because we are a volunteer-based organization. We have a very small overhead cost. We have volunteers in all different countries around the world. Sometimes they’re helping with the animals. Sometimes they’re helping to write the bios because we have a one-page bio for every artist, whether they painted before or they just started. We really love to add the bios. It’s like a piece of the art that goes along with the art to talk a little bit about their lives, not to give out too much information, only what they’re happy with sharing and to make it a complete piece of art by having that bio as well.
We have our volunteer base. It’s very mixed. We have writers, lawyers, teachers and nurses, everybody that’s helping us. Sometimes they can only help a few times here and there or sometimes they’re really active in helping to set up art shows online and everything. We’re very fortunate in that sense because we have a lot of wonderful people that have been able to support us. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. It’s really important.
How many pieces of art are you presently showing in your Etsy shop online?
We have approximately 43 pieces. We are going to be adding more. All of the art was spread across the world. I had twelve art shows set up before COVID hit. I was speaking about 3 to 4 events per month. All of the art was ready strategically set up for those events. I’ve just gone, picked up and collected all of the art to bring back here to Phoenix. The majority of our art is in 2 or 3 different places now but we do have a tremendous amount of art still. We will be adding that a little bit at a time.
Let’s talk about the proceeds from the art. On your Etsy page, when I was browsing, and I found this one piece that I just had to have had and shared that all of the proceeds literally go right to the artist that made it. I can’t imagine a more beautiful way to serve them. They’re actually getting the resources that they might need to help support their lives and vitality through this expression and art. How did you ultimately get this whole idea together and essentially start running this gallery style in-person, shows and also, now the online derivative?
At the time I was working in Nea Kavala Camp, the people were waiting two hours in line for a box of orange juice and a croissant. At the same time, I was running these art workshops in my apartment, near the camp. When I saw that, I just wanted to find a way to be able to help them but I wasn’t sure exactly how.
When I posted a couple of these paintings online, not because I have a pretty big following on social media, everybody wanted to buy them. I said, “This is perfect. We can go and buy these electric camping ovens for the people in the camp and they can make their own food.” With the money that they earned from the art, they can buy staples and food supplies. They can cook on their own and they don’t have to stand in line.
That’s exactly what we did. I remember one mother. She came up to me and said, “I really just want to thank you so much because I haven’t been able to cook for my child for years.” She was making them like eggs and something simple but it was the most joy that she had had to cook for her children. I knew that this would be the best way to help the people directly and also to give something tangible to the donors. At that point, there were so many different situations going around the world. I decided that’s what we would do.
We can be advocates on behalf of those who lost their voice.
I was interviewed by NBC shortly thereafter and they wanted to do an interview with us in Greece. They came out to interview the kids and me while we painted during one of our workshops. At the same time, this wonderful friend of mine asked me if I would like to do an art show and she would curate it for me in Boston.
A friend of mine happened to have a wonderful place in his office to have the event. NBC was there to record that as well. That two-part report was so impactful for us. It was seen around the world. I started to get messages from people all around the world from Des Moines and Lincoln, Nebraska, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Germany, all around the world. To everybody that asked me, I said, “I’m a flight attendant as well.”
I have great support from my company. I traveled, four years straight after working in Greece, after flying my trips. I was going to speak at schools at universities and different communities all around the world and tell them that about the people in Greece because they lost their voice. I felt that I had to advocate on their behalf. I had to be their voice and just to let the people know, and whether they helped us or not, it didn’t matter. It was so important to me that I got the word out about this situation because, at the time, there were 120,000 people displaced in Greece.
When I think about that, I remember seeing your posts on social media, when you were collecting all the supplies to bring with you on your next trip to Greece. It was art supplies but a lot of other staples and things that they might need as well. People were just so willing to try and give, and support in some way. You are one person traveling from here to Greece and back again, is there a particular connection that you had to Greece initially that started this whole thing? Did this just come from being exposed to it and feeling the need to get involved?
I did not have any connection to anybody that was displaced. I had never even been to those countries. I just went there as a human being and seeing that there was a lot of need. Sometimes we have to keep it simple and not think things out too much. It was more of a matter of being informed, finding out all of the places around Europe that needed help. I went to many.
When I got to Greece, I thought, “Where is humanity? What did these people do to deserve this?” I decided that I would just stay in this one area and go work in this one camp. That’s how it all started. When you’re working in the humanitarian field, this was obviously my first time but when you’re there on the ground and you see the situation, the people, what they’re going through, you live it. You are a part of it.
I sat down with people. I spent hours sometimes we worked eighteen hours a day and I would sit down and just listen to them. After listening to them, then I was able to start to make some action and resolving these problems. It was literally one family at a time, one person at a time, whether it was taking them to the hospital, buying them medicine, we didn’t have any limitations. They did.
They were the ones that were supposed to be being supported by these big NGOs in the camp but they weren’t getting the help that they needed, so I literally did this one at a time. That’s when I started to become very innovative with the art and accommodation projects. We started a lot of different ways to support them.
You mentioned something very interesting that there’s a lot of big NGOs in the camp that are supposed to be giving these people aid. Yet some of the things that they’re or intending to do weren’t happening. Is it precisely because you were able to be scrappy and be in the trenches with these people that you feel you were able to make an effect? Where were these NGOs failing that we funnel these resources to?
This is a big issue that we’ve had a lot of us grassroots being increased now and seeing the amount of money that’s coming from the EU, going to accommodation plans and projects for the people. We have housed close to 70 families, just my little organization, since 2016. That money should not have been taken from our little organization or from the donors. That money was supposed to be supported by the EU. This is where there is a big major downfall. There’s no accounting.
We do it because we have to, otherwise, there are people sleeping in the parks. I’ve been trying, I’ve gone to Brussels to have meetings with the UN and other people but it doesn’t ever bring anything. We’ve been asking these questions for years but we don’t have any answers. We can’t stop our fight for the people. We have to continue helping them as much as we can and hope that there are other people looking into those questions that we have.
One of the problems that we have here in the West, when you say something as simple as, “If we didn’t do something, these people would be sleeping on a bench in the park or something to that effect.” Here, you tend to hear people criticizing those that are without the means to shelter themselves as if they think it’s a choice. As if they think they end up on the street because they choose to live that way in the freezing cold with only a tent. Sometimes not even that.
We hear about these atrocities in other places, in some way, at least as Americans, we’re like, “That’s a real problem, so I’ll put something into that.” These problems also exist on our turf. This is just putting a wish out there. I wish there was a way for people to care a little bit more particular about that. It’s happening in Greece and in these big developed countries, too. Here in Santa Cruz County, people are sleeping under a bridge or right at the crux of the corner of an on-ramp.
They’re having to live in these ways because we are not giving the right resources to the people that need them the most. It’s really alarming to me to hear about something when you’re dealing with a problem that has funding from the EU, from these particular programs, that money has been funneled in from all of our tax dollars, from all of these countries. Yet, these people don’t even have the ability to get a roof over their head when they’re fleeing these really difficult challenges in their home countries.
They’ve had to displace their entire family to go somewhere else, just to be safe. I applaud the work that you’re doing so much. It touches me on this core level. I just see in this picture that we’re sharing here via Zoom, a piece of art in the background. Does that happen to be one from your project here?
All my art is from refugees that are displaced in Greece, and this was actually a gift from a man named Salam Ahmed. He’s from Syria. This was a gift that he sent me a while back.
The power of one is very impactful in the world.
It’s absolutely beautiful. We walk around your apartment a little bit. I do post this on YouTube, some people can see that but I’ll just have to take a snip somehow to put it in social media, too. I also plan to share the art piece that I bought as soon as it arrives. I would encourage people to just put a little bit forward into this in some way. Can you talk a little bit about your website and the resources that you’ve put there so that people can get involved and learn more about what you’re doing?
We have a wonderful website that has a little bit of information about some of the artists that we’re supporting and also our Etsy shop, which is the best way and the most effective way to help the artists directly. All of the pieces on there are created in Greece from one of the workshops that I’ve run. A hundred percent goes back to the refugee. If people make any donations, the donations go for the accommodation projects that we’re running in Greece, as well as our food voucher program.
Everything that we’re doing is in Greece. We also have a couple of our projects that we just posted. One is called Wahid Wahid. In Arabic, it means one by one. What I am trying to instill is that what we’re going to do is take one person at a time, even if it takes the rest of the time. We were working with one person at a time to find out what they wanted to do, whether it was being a tailor, creating bags or art. We’re going to fundraise to get the tools and then help them connect them with a business mentor and help them to get their feet on the ground so that they can continue their work.
We’ve had about two already. They’re wonderful positive stories from a man and his four-year-old child that was in the park. We took them off the street and placed them into a small apartment, a studio in Athens. We found out he was a tailor in his home country of Afghanistan. We did a fundraiser for a sewing machine, a material. Now, he’ll be self-reliant and he won’t need us to pay the rent anymore because we’ve had our one-year contract. Usually, after one year, they’re able to sustain themselves on their own. That’s the Wahid Wahid Project, which is on the website as well as our Etsy shop.
If somebody wanted to get involved with a matching fund for you, is that something that you’ve done already in the past? I’m just curious to see if you’ve got anything like that in the coffers at the present time.
At the moment, we don’t have, but we’re open to discussing with anybody that has an interest, for sure.
I was going to ask you a little bit about how you measure success, particularly when things are dire. If you feel like you’re not able to make progress, let’s say, in the time of COVID, where you’re not able to post a lot of the events that you were, you were hosting before, speak at the engagements drive awareness. How do you measure success at this time? If somebody was to take on a similar project like this, what would your advice be to them to help keep them engaged and feeling motivated?
My success is measured by the people that I support. When they are happy, when they are able to continue to paint when they have hope, that to me, is a success. I do spend a lot of time. If you can imagine the thousands of people that I’ve met. I’m always in contact with the kids, even though they’re now in Germany or they’re in other countries, even they send me just some emojis.
I know that they’re happy and that’s success to me because I know the time that they lived in Greece. I know that will probably never leave them and they will probably never talk to anybody about the time that they went through. Our time in painting was their therapy, their healing. Now, these months have been very hard for us as an organization.
I didn’t even know if we would come out of this and be able to still run our project but to be able to have artists painting again, and for us to have our art online and to have some online exhibitions on Zoom, these are the small successes that I find in life. That keeps me inspired and going at the moment. We just want to make sure that people have some hope and that they have somebody there to support them because no matter what, you should always have a friend to go through these difficult challenges with you. That’s what will get us through.
I love that you’ve been able to do as much as you have. Of course, there’s always more. If you were to give somebody one action that they could do, that would help support this effort, what would it be?
You can visit our Etsy online shop, take a look at art, and pick out a lovely piece of art for you or a friend. That would be a wonderful gift to us and inform yourself, always keep informed about the situation. Many people don’t know about what’s going on in Greece and beyond. That’s why I spend so much of my time off on Zoom calls with teachers because we’re trying to create a refugee curriculum for the children in the US so that they can be educated and understand how much they have in this world, about the kids across the country, the world that is really suffering now. It’s important that we are aware and that we share this information and help to educate the children of tomorrow.
I can’t think of a perfect note to end that on. I want to thank you for being here, for being my friend and really for everything you’re doing. Just so everybody’s clear, the website is LoveWithoutBorders4Refugees.com. There’s an Etsy shop. Do you want to give a plug to your social media platforms so people can follow there as well?
We have a Facebook site Love Without Borders, and we post all of our updates there through our social media as well.
Thank you so much, Kayra, for joining us and for all you do. I just want to thank you. Round of applause. I know other people are reading and I hope that together, we have inspired them to take a small action that will also help support your effort.
Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
This has been Care More Be Better. I’m Corinna Bellizzi, your host. Kayra Martinez with Love Without Borders For Refugees in Need.
Thank you for reading to this insightful interview with Kayra Martinez and Love Without Borders For Refugees in Need. I invite you now to visit my website CareMoreBeBetter.com. There, you’ll find an action page that enables you to link directly to her work. You’ll see that each month, this refreshes with new actions that you can take so you can help build a better tomorrow. Thank you for everything you do, for being a part of this show and for helping us to achieve a better future.
- Love Without Borders For Refugees in Need
- Etsy – LWBRefugeeArt
- YouTube – Care More Be Better: A Podcast For Social Good
- Wahid Wahid Project
- Love Without Borders – Facebook