The air was bitterly cold in the Greek islands before dawn on New Year's Day 2016. The wind whipped off the dark waves as they licked the edges of the cliffs. From where he stood on the coast of Lesvos, 22-year-old Sameer Jagani could have seen the shores of Turkey in the light of day. His heart pounded as the lights of a rubber dinghy appeared in the darkness, desperate shouts arising from the people on board as he pulled out his phone to record. "Over here!" Jagani cried. A soft-spoken, London-born Muslim of Indian descent, Jagani emigrated to Orlando at age 6 and now is pursuing a medical degree at the University of South Florida. He was in Tampa watching news of the Syrian refugee crisis one day when he decided he had to do something. Now, he has found his calling at ground zero of the crisis, volunteering in camps while raising money back home. He chronicles his efforts and shares them on social media, putting human faces to the sea of refugees who embark on the perilous journey across the Mediterranean — bound for places like Lesvos and Turkey then a tenuous shot at safety deeper in Europe. Jagani is familiar with conflict and poverty. He has traveled to Africa, Iraq and Jamaica. He was in Syria before the escalation of civil war there and remembers walking streets lined even then by rubble on one side and untouched buildings on the other. The moment his first boat hit the shore in Greece, Jagani picked up a little girl, trying to comfort her while yelling for blankets and dry clothes. English is the only language he speaks fluently. "I said hello in Arabic, and she smiled and waved, said, 'Hi' back. Her father got off the boat and was so gracious when he came for her. That's when I realized why I was doing this." Jagani remembers asking one woman who had arrived in terrible weather why she had chosen to make the voyage right away, rather than wait for calmer seas. The woman explained that she had been waiting in a musty cave under the watchful eye of smugglers when another refugee voiced concern about the danger of traveling in a storm. The smuggler shot him and asked if anyone else had questions. Nobody did. "Some make it across; many don't," Jagani said. "The boats have half-working engines and watered-down gas. If you miss Lesvos, you're done." Anyone can volunteer to drive the boat in exchange for free passage, saving the equivalent of about $1,600. Inexperienced drivers often answer the call, pushing the vessels to full throttle and running out of gas at sea. Jagani stood in line with one family for hours at the camp. Refugees had to wait days or weeks to gain passage on a 13-hour ferry ride to Athens. As Jagani tried to explain to a volunteer what the family needed, he overhead another American volunteer refer to him as "the one that speaks good English." Without his volunteer jacket, Jagani blends in with the refugees. "The only difference between me and these people is the passport in my pocket," he said. When Jagani reached out to the Humanitarian Aid Foundation in the United Kingdom, asking if he could join its February trip to Syria, the group turned him down immediately. Who would bring a 22-year-old volunteer to a war zone? But Jagani, a British citizen who later obtained dual U.S. citizenship, wouldn't give up. Through grassroots fundraising and daily Facebook updates, he raised $38,500 for the Lesvos refugees. The Syrian trip organizers realized he wasn't just a college kid out for a lark. They asked for his passport and put him on the team. "He's always had a drive to help people," aid Ali Fazel, 21, of Orlando, who has worked with refugees alongside Jagani. "He makes me work harder, doing things even when I don't want to do them. We grew up together and I'm thankful for that." Jagani credits his parents with encouraging him to make the trip. "I wouldn't have let my kid go," he said with a laugh. By the end of February, his fundraising — through the website youcaring.com/SOAW — had generated $55,000 for Syrian orphans and widows. Jagani's team brought bags of candy to Syrian schools but found the children more interested in getting hugs. Once persuaded to take the goodies, they shared with one other. One child tried to give candy back to Jagani as a gift. "These kids have never known life without war," he said. "You wonder how they became so kind and loving." People back home often asked Jagani why the Syrian refugees didn't stay in their homes and fight. "If you're here when bombs are dropping from planes, which way do you run?" he replies. "How do you fight a bomb?" With his medical degree, Jagani plans to travel overseas once every three months, working with the international volunteer group Doctors Without Borders and eventually starting an emergency medical service of his own in the sparsely served Middle East. He's also hoping to change what he sees as a feeling among Americans that Muslims are a threat, by continuing to document his trips with videos on social media. "That ideology is what stops people from getting the help they need," he said. "These people bleed like us; they live like us. Without a common factor, we kind of forget that they're people, too." Toggle screen reader support
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