Wren Fialka

Wren Fialka hugs Salo Marquina-Garcia and thanks him for coming to a rally on Town Square in November.

With the size and scope of the Syrian refugee crisis, it’s easy to feel helpless, distant and removed an ocean away.

But Wren Fialka doesn’t want you to feel that way.

“Even a small effort goes a long way,” she said. “If I can do it, anybody can do it. I’m not rich, I’m not big, I’m not intimidating. But I’m determined.”

You may know Fialka as a guardian angel of sorts, flitting around town. She made news this fall when she joined Mayor-elect Pete Muldoon and Jessica Sell-Chambers to find a home for the Perez family, threatened by the housing crisis. Fialka also founded the nonprofit The Spread the Love Commission.

“I absorb other people’s everything,” Fialka said. “It’s both a blessing and a curse. Getting in there and impacting change is something that is really important to me.”

Fialka broadened her giving to international scope in 2016 with trips to the Ritsona refugee camp in Greece in May and December.

“When I set my mind on something, I find a way to do it,” Fialka said. “I was just tired of crying about it. I felt so connected to them and so terribly sad.”

Fialka knew she had to visit the camps, not just scratch the surface.

“I need to know what they’re really going through,” she said. “I need to give them a hug.”

So, after a year and a half of calling organizations that needed volunteers, Fialka settled on Lighthouse Relief. She packed two huge suitcases of supplies and booked a ticket.

“I dragged two suitcases that were bigger than myself through Italy and Greece,” Fialka said.

Another challenge? Strikes in Athens that forced petite Fialka to walk the streets with all of her donations, alone. Eighteen blocks and lots of sweat later, she was on her way to Ritsona.

Fialka guides her giving by asking people what they really need. She doesn’t assume.

It all started when she asked a homeless friend in San Francisco, What do you really need? He said he’d never been asked.

“I got out my phone and just started typing a list,” Fialka said. “That night was the pivotal night. My brain just started exploding. I just started getting ideas every day. I’d never experienced that kind of passion in my life.”

Following that principle Fialka asked friends who were already on the scene what to bring. The result? Emergency blankets, shoes for kids, coloring books, crayons, hand warmers and diapers.

Fialka is a practicing massage therapist. When workers at the camp figured out her skills they quickly put her, and the lavender essential oil she packed, to use. Besides giving massages to women and children, she whipped up honey masks and foot baths.

“When everybody relaxed and everyone had their hair down — literally — it was crazy how much my new friends reminded me of my friends in Jackson,” Fialka said.

Another lesson Fialka took away from Greece? Blink and this could be us.

“The most beautiful thing that was said to me on that trip was, ‘You’re one of us,’” she said. “And I just lost it, because that’s how I felt. That made my trip.”

That comment made her think about the future.

“There’s always going to be a time when you’re going to have to count on the kindness of strangers,” Fialka said. “And in this lifetime, in this situation with our planet, with our environment, with our governments, who knows if we are going to be the next refugees? And how did we treat the refugees we encountered?”

That’s the message she spreads.

“We need to remember that we are from the same tribe, from the same family,” Fialka said. “We are literally 1 degree away from being dear friends with a stranger, if we allow ourselves. There are always commonalities if you are willing to use your heart.”

Travel is one way to find some of those commonalities.

“Traveling is the best education you can ever have,” Fialka said. “You will realize that you are a human family, and that borders, and religions, and belief systems — they’re man-made. And they’re there to control people.”

She sees divisiveness as the biggest threat to the world right now.

“The only people who promote divisiveness are trying to control people for their own not-good reasons,” Fialka said. “Unity is the only thing that is going to save us. When you perpetuate fear, you bring out the worst in people, period. When you perpetuate love you bring out the best in people.”

Fialka believes the choice to perpetuate love is up to us.

“None of us are perfect,” she said. “And none of us are saints. We have free will that we exercise every day of our lives. You can choose to be the light, or you can choose to go into the darkness.”

But choosing light isn’t always easy.

Fialka’s exposure to what the refugee crisis looked like firsthand took a toll.What broke her heart the most? The kids.

“The kids looked so traumatized the first time I went,” Fialka said. “I literally cried for a month after I got back. The first time, I don’t even know how to explain it without crying — frightened wild animals.”

But she couldn’t stay away.

“I said, ‘If you guys are still here, and I find a way to do it, I’ll come back,’” Fialka said. “And I honored my promise. I had to.”

Although Fialka is hesitant to paint a rosy picture of life in the camps, she did notice improvements between her first and second trips to Greece.

“The kids acted like kids,” she said. “They were laughing, playing.”

Fialka said that most of her friends in the camp are starting the asylum process. Babies are being born. Tents have been upgraded to Isoboxes — more permanent shelters with electricity, heat and running water.

“That was really heartening to see,” she said. Fialka said that fans she brought in May had been used and supplies had been distributed, something very important to her.

Fialka wants people to know that we’re all capable of making a difference.

“We all have this capacity to love and to give and to be brave,” Fialka said. “People tell me, ‘We need more of you in the world.’ But to that, I say, ‘You’re one of me! I am not this thing that you are not.’ We all have this light in us and we can all do this. We are all part of this huge awesome cycle of giving.”

Donations to spreadlovebygiving.org are appreciated. So is the simple act of putting gloves in your purse or your car and handing them out the next time you see someone who looks like they need them. Or giving someone you don’t know a hug.

“I’ve run out of all my life savings doing this,” Fialka said. “But that’s OK. I’m building a vision. I just know it’s going to work out. I want this thing to explode.”

Contact Kylie Mohr at 732-7079, schools@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGschools.

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