Woman with ties to Nevada County aiding refugee relief abroad | TheUnion.com

Woman with ties to Nevada County aiding refugee relief abroad

Michelle Bennett and fellow volunteers have been distributing food and other supplies to refugees gathering at areas along the Serbian border.
Submitted Photo |

Michelle Bennett was fulfilling her ambition to see other parts of the world. After taking leave from her job in San Francisco recruiting software engineers for Microsoft, she spent the last 15 months traveling the globe.

She landed in the Balkans in July. She had heard about the influx of millions of refugees fleeing Syria in the midst of years of civil unrest, but witnessed the situation firsthand during a couple of stops in Belgrade, the capital city of Serbia. Both times she stopped there, she saw “refugees everywhere”; but those first encounters left her uneasy.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Bennett said. “It kind of scared me.”

It wasn’t until September, when she had about two weeks left in her travels, that the magnitude of the refugee crisis really hit home for her. She was riding a bus in Croatia, considering news reports that detailed the increasing numbers of refugees fleeing not only from Syria, but from other places in the Middle East and Africa.

“I was thinking, why doesn’t anybody do anything to help?” Bennett said. “It kind of dawned on me. I’m in Europe. I can help.”

Within a couple days, the 31-year-old was back in Belgrade. Now, Bennett, who has ties to Nevada County — she attended Nevada Union High School, has family in the area and currently owns a house in Smartsville — is in the midst of her second stint in Serbia, where she is part of an informal group of travelers who are working to deliver supplies to those lining up to enter the country at its borders.

When she first returned to Belgrade during the last couple weeks of her 15-month travels, her original plan was to spend her remaining travel money to buy and distribute supplies at a local park. But she was immediately overwhelmed by the number of people who were in need.

“There’s like 10 times more refugees than the first two times I was here,” she remembered thinking.

A friend directed her toward a makeshift donation center set up by other concerned individuals like Bennett. They started working together to figure out what was needed, from food to clothes to toothbrushes and other toiletries. Bennett began posting about what she was doing on her blog, and on Facebook and Twitter. Though her goal was just to share some information about the situation, she began to receive donations through an online donation page, http://www.youcaring.com/syrian-refugees-445355, and a PayPal account she posted. She was able to raise $5,000 during those two weeks from others who wanted to help.

“That was amazing,” Bennett said. “It turned from filling my backpack to, ‘Who has a truck that we can fill up?’”

Bennett had previously booked her ticket home, so when those two weeks were up, she reluctantly returned to the United States. Though she was preparing to settle back into her job at Microsoft, her thoughts were still with the relief efforts overseas.

She asked her bosses for six more weeks off to return to Belgrade — and her request was granted.

“I got a ticket that same day,” Bennett said.

She’s currently a little more than halfway through those six weeks.

She and her fellow volunteers, many of whom are from Sweden, are staying at an apartment in Belgrade, and have now focused their relief operations at the country’s borders. She’s continues to receive donations, including a $500 grant from online travel agency Travelocity’s Travel for Good program.

And the funds have been much-needed. On her first trip to administer aide to refugees waiting along border, her group intended to be there for three days, passing out 4,000 bags of food and other supplies — and what they brought wasn’t enough to last through the first night. The group had to improvise, scraping together whatever remaining money they could come up with and driving a couple of hours to the nearest grocery store to restock.

The “chaotic” scene of those waiting at the Serbian border can be hard to describe, Bennett said — a line of refugees several people wide and several hundred people long waiting on streets littered with garbage. Children rest on cardboard boxes to give them some cushioning from the ground while their parents search for whatever basic supplies they can find for their families.

“It’s just a really desperate situation,” Bennett said. “I can’t use the word ‘heartbreaking’ enough.”

There are brief moments when the gravity of what she’s doing hits her, like when she’s passing out teddy bears to children who smile when they receive the stuffed animal, or when she’s able to provide a family a meal and she can tell it brings them some comfort.

“They’ve had an incredibly long journey and yet they’re just happy and grateful to receive what they’re receiving,” Bennett said. “It’s not nearly enough by any means, but it’s moments like that when you realize what you’re doing. We made their day and we made a lot of other peoples’ days.”

She expects the next few weeks of volunteer work to be “nonstop.” And though she knows she will eventually return to California, she’s already thinking about ways she can continue to enact change — including possibly starting her own nonprofit, Backpacking for Good, to recruit other travelers to do what she’s doing.

She’s not quite sure what clicked that day when she was on the bus in Croatia and felt compelled to help. Part of it, she said, is that she grew up on welfare, and knows what it’s like to want, through not nearly on the scale she’s currently witnessing. And part of it is the more holistic world view she’s gained through her travels.

“These are people. No different from us,” Bennett said. “Just born on the wrong side of the imaginary line that is a border.”

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email elavin@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.

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