Can Food Change People’s Opinion of the Refugee Crisis?

Disappointed by the selection of hummus sold in supermarkets, Manal Kahi, a native of Lebanon, started making her own, using her grandmother’s recipe. Then, during the height of the 2015 refugee crisis, a light bulb went off in Kahi’s head: What if refugees could share their local cuisines and earn a living by doing so?
Last November, Kahi and her brother launched Eat Offbeat. Watch the video above to see how this ethnic food delivery company hires refugees from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and Nepal who are talented home cooks and trains them to be professional chefs. 
MORE: Would Your Opinions of Criminals Change If One Cooked and Served You Dinner?

This Veteran Refuses To Leave His Unemployed and Debt-Ridden Comrades Behind

When Eli Williamson returned from two deployments to the Middle East, his hometown of Chicago felt at times like a foreign battleground, the memory of desert roads more familiar than Windy City central thoroughfares. As he relearned the city, Williamson noticed a strange similarity between veterans like himself and the young people growing up in tough parts of Chicago. Too many had witnessed violence, and they had little support to cope with the trauma.
Applying the timeworn principle of leaving no soldier, sailor, airman or marine behind, Williamson co-founded Leave No Veteran Behind (LNVB), a national nonprofit focused on securing education and employment for our warriors. Williamson formed the organization based on “just real stupid” and “crazy” idealism: “You know what?” he says. “I can make a difference.” Since work began in 2008, with a measly operating budget of $4,674 to help pay off student loans, LNVB has eliminated around $150,000 of school debt and provided 750 transitional jobs, Williamson says.
“Coming out of the military, every individual is going to have his or her challenges,” says Williamson, who served as a psychological operations specialist and an Arabic linguist in Iraq in 2004 and in Afghanistan in 2007. “We’ve seen veterans with substance abuse issues, homelessness issues.” Additionally, at least one in five veterans suffer from PTSD, and almost 50,000 are homeless and 573,000 are unemployed.
Williamson started the group with his childhood friend Roy Sartin. They first met in high school, when they joined choir and band together. “I think we’ve been arguing like old women every since,” Williamson says. Both joined the U.S. Army Reserves while at Iowa’s Luther College and were mobilized to active duty during their senior year after the Twin Towers fell. Williamson finished his education at the Special Warfare Training Center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, while Sartin put his learning on hold.
Upon return, both struggled with crippling interest rates on their student loans. Sartin received a call from the loan company saying that he needed to make a $20,000 payment. “Although I had the funds, it was just enough to get myself back together. So, for me, the transition wasn’t as tough, but I was one of the lucky ones.” Williamson got a bill for $2,200 only 22 days before the balance was due. Desperate, he took to the streets playing music to cover the costs.
After talking with other vets, the two realized that many didn’t qualify for the military’s debt repayment programs. That’s when they started going out to financial sources for “retroactive scholarships” for our country’s defenders. And they sought employment opportunities for former military members to help cover the rest.
Jobs and debt relief for our nation’s warriors are the main focus of LNVB, but the group oversees several initiatives, including S.T.E.A.M. Corps, which pairs vets with science, technology, engineering, arts, and math experience with at-risk youth. More than 200 students have graduated from S.T.E.A.M., but Williamson, director of veteran affairs at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, points to a more intangible benefit of his non-profit’s work: the ability for veterans “to articulate a larger vision of themselves … is our advocacy mission,” he says.
“Veterans can paint a vision for where our country needs to be, and the only reason we can do that is because you realize that you are part of something larger than yourself,” Williamson adds. “That’s a fundamental value that veterans can share, as they leave military, with the communities that they come back to.” For those who’ve just returned home from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, in other words, service is just beginning.

All It Took Was One Judge and Two Veterans to Provide Another Chance to Countless Soldiers

In 1986, one in every five inmates in state prison was a former member of the military.
Today, many post-9/11 veterans are still running into trouble with the law. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects at least 167,500 veterans (that’s just the number diagnosed by VA doctors) who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan — and it could afflict as many as 620,000. The disorder has given soldiers their toughest mission yet: successfully reintegrating into civilian life. The nightmares and flashbacks, anxiety, hyper-vigilance and other unresolved mental health issues caused by PTSD often translate into drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, domestic violence and lawbreaking.
In a society that’s appears increasingly disconnected from the experience of war, there’s one civic institution that’s taking strides to accommodate veterans’ unique situation. Courtrooms across the country are now adopting veterans treatment courts — at least 180 established locations and many more are in development, according to the nonprofit Justice for Vets. It’s a model that tailors the criminal justice system’s response to the circumstances: Similar to drug and mental health treatment courts, judges are less inclined to mete out punishment to troubled vets, connecting them with help, particularly from the VA and local military members. If a former warrior successfully completes the program (which can include counseling, substance abuse treatment and job training), all the charges against him are dropped; if he fails to finish, the original jail sentence goes into effect.
“Many veterans will say, ‘I’m okay, I don’t need any help,’ but sometimes it takes another veteran to say, ‘You know, things are starting to spiral out of control,’” says Judge Robert Russell, who convened the first court in Buffalo in early 2008. “It could be traumatic brain injury. It could be PTSD. It could be any number of things that are left untreated. They’re not only debilitating, they’re what’s placing the person in the criminal court system and will continue to keep them in the criminal justice system.”
Russell says the “impetus of the court” began with a single case that came before him in 2006. A former Vietnam vet who’d appeared in his drug treatment court didn’t seem to be responding to the program. Group sessions didn’t work; neither did one-on-ones. “He wasn’t really engaged,” Russell recalls. “When he appeared in court, his posture was slumped. When I asked him what was going on with counseling, I didn’t get much of a response, just sort of like, ‘Huh?’” Russell pointed to two men in the room — Hank Pirowski, a former Marine, and Jack O’Connor, an Army vet — and asked them to talk to the downcast man out in the hallway.
Twenty minutes later, the three reentered. The defendant strutted to the front of the room and stretched to his full height, a tall 6’4”. He stood with his legs slightly apart and held his hands clasped behind his back — a military posture known as “parade rest.”
“He looked directly at me and said, ‘Judge, I’m going to try harder,’” Russell says. Afterwards, Russell met with Pirowski and O’Connor to find out what they said to the guy and how they got a response from him.
The two veterans had discussed their service, and after they’d established a common background, they told the man they cared about him and explained how important counseling would be for him to move forward. As simple as it sounds, the man needed to hear it from someone who’d struggled like he had, someone who could reassure him a future existed.
From that day forward, the trio collaborated on setting up a treatment court for veterans. Their goal? To “afford the best opportunities for the men and women who have served,” Russell says, setting aside one day each week to dedicate entirely to members of the military. The time was used to assemble a team of outside services, so referrals could begin immediately. If a vet hadn’t signed up for VA care, for example, a health official could immediately engage him that day, scheduling appointments and enrolling him for benefits right there in court.
An essential aspect of the treatment court is the volunteer veteran mentors, who function as a coach, sponsor and supporter, providing help with bus passes, rent, furniture or just talking through any crisis. “If they need something, Marines talk to Marines more than they do their own lawyer,” O’Connor says. Many are Vietnam vets who want soldiers just returning home from the Middle East to receive a different welcome than they did. “We never tell anyone about stuff we dealt with because no one liked us. People really hated our guts. Now a lot of Vietnam vets are in positions of authority. They’re in their 60s, they’re on boards of corporations, they own their own companies,” O’Connor adds.
As so many restorative justice programs have shown, rehabilitation like veteran courts reduces crime over the long haul by addressing the problems that initially led to criminal behavior. As O’Connor, who now coordinates the volunteer mentors, says, “You treat the illness, you stop the addiction.”
There’s stories like Gary Pettengill, a 23-year-old Buffalo resident arrested in a drug sweep. In 2006, while serving in the Army in Iraq, he injured his back and was forced to take a medical discharge. Nights were intolerable, alternating between sleepless pain and nightmares, so Pettengill began smoking marijuana to cope. Unemployed (in part because of his injury), he began selling weed to make ends meet and was eventually diagnosed with PTSD. Pettengill never did any jail time, and he credits the program with saving him from suicide, an option that had once looked inevitable.
Pettengill’s just one of the program’s 150 graduates in Buffalo. Another is the man whose appearance before Russell sparked the court’s conception. The man’s case manager at the local VA hospital said he had never seen the man smile before, but after the court was established, he became one of the cheeriest men at the facility.
O’Connor gives each of these men a special coin at graduation. It harkens back to “challenge coins,” small medallions that are unique to each unit of the military, only these have the scales of justice on one side and the phrase “Leave no veteran behind” on the other. He tells the grads to carry it with them, so if they ever run into trouble, they’ll remember how far they’ve come.
Data coming in from across the country backs up these stories. A three-year pilot in San Diego (home to multiple Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard facilities) found that recidivism dropped for those in the program, most of whom had been booked on DUIs or domestic violence charges. Of the 74 enrolled, only three reoffended — a rate of 4.1 percent, far below the 65 percent figure for state prisons. Even better, among the 27 who graduated the program, not a single person committed another crime. The county estimated the program’s savings at $3.985 million in jail and treatment costs.
“Once you’re seen the success rate, you can’t hide it,” O’Connor says. “Something’s working, and it’s working all over the country.”
That’s not to say there’s not criticisms of the concept. Although most are quick to thank veterans for their service, some wonder if the military is receiving special treatment that should be more widely available. After all, why do former service members receive a get-out-of-jail-free card while others are locked up? Russell says this is partly a matter of logistics. Veterans need specialized care, so scheduling their cases on the same day creates an easy one-stop shop for both client and service provider. The alternative sentencing is not a free pass, either. Former soldiers are expected to make regular court appearances and are subject to randomized drug testing.
Russell says he can’t believe how quickly the courts have taken off. “When we started it, we thought it was the right thing to do for the community in which we were serving,” he says. “But it was something that touched the heart and spirit of many around the country. They’ve embraced the concept. They’re affording veterans some of opportunities inside their justice system to help them get back on track in their own community.”

A Small Island That Makes a Big Difference for America’s Veterans

Having just returned from leave, Luis Puertas was in the lead of a four-vehicle patrol unit in Iraq on Sept. 20, 2006, when an IED, hidden at the base of a street lamp, suddenly exploded. As a result of the blast, Puertas lost both of his legs and several members of the 4th Infantry Division were injured. Dozens of surgeries and years of rehabilitation put Puertas’ life on hold, and relaxation was the farthest thing from his mind.
But this summer, Puertas received a much-deserved vacation, thanks to Holidays for Heroes.
Founded in 2013 by summer resident Tom McCann, Holidays for Heroes brings Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families to Nantucket, Mass., for all-inclusive retreats. Banners at the nonprofit’s events say “Honoring Their Sacrifice,” which is exactly what the group does. With two to three retreats, dubbed “holidays,” per summer, they organize everything from beach barbecues and dinners to outings and entertainment for wounded warriors. Often, it is just unstructured rest and relaxation, though, which the veterans want most — so the organization’s primary task is simply to enable that by hosting them at no cost on the island. During Fourth of July weekend, the nonprofit hosted two heroes — Puertas, who is from Tampa, Fla., and Joel Dulashanti of Portland, Ore.
Scores of volunteers work tirelessly to make the holiday a perfect experience for visiting veterans like Dulashanti and Puertas. As year-round Nantucketer Donna Hamel says, “It might be a little overwhelming for some of the veterans, especially if they have disabilities.” And it can also be hard for the organizers — feeding, housing, entertaining and transporting the vets takes tremendous effort.
But that’s never been a problem.
“[Holidays for Heroes] gives people an opportunity to do something for a different cause than they might usually,” says Hamel.  And it’s exactly that involvement that has driven a lot of the group’s success. As McCann says, “We’ve been very fortunate that every single club, organization, business and individual on this special island has gotten behind the Holidays for Heroes mission.” From clothing boutiques to inns to restaurants, support has poured in. For instance, the Independence Day Firecracker 5K has existed for years, but it adopted Holidays for Heroes as a benefitting charity.
Even with such great community support, however, the veterans’ holidays would not be possible without McCann and the Holidays for Heroes leadership. For both McCann and the organization’s executive director, Magdalena Padzik, helping our servicemen and women is more than just a way to give back, it’s personal — their individual experiences have informed a deeper love for and commitment to our veterans.
On Memorial Day 2011, McCann was on Nantucket with his family. They fished, went to the beach and rounded out the day with a barbecue. That evening, while watching the celebrations from Washington, D.C., on television with his wife, Mary-Jo, McCann saw Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise perform a veterans’ tribute. It was at that moment McCann realized that the great day and the beautiful place — Nantucket — that he was blessed to experience should be shared with those who sacrificed for America.
Drawn by the idea of helping our veterans, McCann knew that doing so would require starting a nonprofit. To help him get Holidays for Heroes off the ground, he enlisted the help of his longtime friend Cheryl Bartlett, a fellow islander. Currently serving as the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Bartlett leads a life of service. When McCann pitched the idea to Bartlett, she loved it, and has been his co-chair ever since.
Padzik, another key leader, joined the group after meeting McCann at Holiday for Heroes’ first event. She and her family lived in Soviet-era Poland, and her father was part of the Solidarity Movement, a non-communist trade union that the U.S.S.R. tried to destroy through martial law. In order to stay safe, the Padziks moved to America when Magdalena was 4 years old. For more than a decade, she’s lived on Nantucket.
“Freedom is not something we had [growing up], which is really why this is so important to me,” says Padzik, whose appreciation for those who defend her liberty runs deep.
While Padzik’s days are already full — she’s a mother and works as the manager of a local bank —  she, like McCann, can’t ignore the plight of veterans.
McCann says that “once you walk into Walter Reed [Medical Center],” where Holidays for Heroes finds most of its veterans (including Jason Redman, an Iraq vet and founder of the nonprofit Wounded Wear) to invite for a weekend on Nantucket, “and meet all these amazing young men and women… it just opens your eyes forever. The cause is big and the need is huge.”
Especially in light of the recent Veterans Affairs hospital scandal, the void in assistance for America’s armed forces is something that is not lost on Holidays for Heroes. While the centerpiece of the organization’s work is its world-class Nantucket getaways, it’s also beginning to reach out to veterans across the country to help them start businesses and fund their children’s education.
While similar programs do exist (such as Landing Zone Grace Veterans Retreat), Holidays for Heroes is unique because of the people of Nantucket that embrace both the organization and the veterans that it hosts. On the island with his fiancé, Amber, and daughter, Emilia, Puertas explains that the weekend arranged for him by the organization was “a lot more than just a vacation…it [was] much deeper than that.”
That kind of experience, though, is sadly not the norm for America’s veterans. But whether it’s the countless hours put in by McCann, Bartlett, Padzik and other volunteers, or simply someone on vacation running with and cheering on heroes and civilians alike in the 5K, Holidays for Heroes and the whole island community shows everyone a unique model of service for those who’ve served.
As Puertas says of McCann, “There’s a lot of things in life we want but can’t have, but he takes that pressure away and treats you like you’re part of his family… we could hang out together and not feel so alone.”

Life After the Military: Helping Veterans With Their Second Act

In June 2012, just a bit over a year since a back injury forced him into retirement from the United States Army, former Staff Sergeant David Carrell found himself in an air-conditioned Yale University seminar room with eight other veterans, discussing Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” under the guidance of Professor Norma Thompson, director of undergraduate studies in the humanities department. It was a long way from the inside of a tank in Iraq.
Carrell, who had served in the Army for 12 years, was among the first veterans to participate in the Warrior-Scholar Project, an intensive summer program that aims to help soldiers transition from the battlefield to the college quad. During the project’s pilot week of 16-hour days on campus, the vets, who hailed from every service branch, attended academic seminars, untangled essay arguments with personal tutors, and participated in mealtime presentations on topics like emotional intelligence and campus leadership.
Carrell, then 30, was taking classes at Central Texas College, near Fort Hood, working toward an associate’s degree. During his four deployments to Iraq, Carrell had served as a tank commander, but back at home he acknowledged that his biggest fear was being outperformed in the classroom by 18-year-old freshmen.
MORE: When Veterans Leave the Service, This College Helps Them Process Their Experiences
The Warrior-Scholar Project seeks to address such challenges in part by helping veterans recognize and harness the qualities they already possess — leadership, dedication and motivation, among others — to succeed as scholars and citizens. Veterans receive substantial financial benefits toward college, including the GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program, but the U.S. military doesn’t have any college planning or counseling services built into its discharge operations. A program like the Warrior-Scholar Project not only encourages veterans to pursue a four-year academic experience, but it also tries to help them do well. There are currently no definitive statistics on veteran graduation rates, but one Department of Education estimate suggests that as few as 10 percent of veterans who entered college in the 2003-04 school year got their bachelor’s degree in six years, compared with 31 percent of nonveteran students. When student-veterans receive support from academic institutions, however, they tend to earn higher GPAs and are less likely to drop out than their traditional student peers.
Today, having obtained his associate’s degree from Central Texas, Carrell is a freshman at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he plans to earn his bachelor’s degree. He is taking a writing-intensive course load, participates in a public speaking forum, and is considering pursuing a career in clinic psychology. He may even run for local political office. “By the end of the Warrior-Scholar Project, I felt like I could take on the world,” he says, with a laugh.
This is exactly the sort of bridge that the Warrior-Scholar Project hopes to build between the military and academia. “Our goal is not only that the veterans are going to go to respected universities, and complete university, but that they’re going to become leaders on campus and represent the veteran voice on campus,” says Jesse Reising, a second-year law student at Harvard University who dreamed up the program during his senior year at Yale.
Reising had planned to serve in the Marines after college, but a devastating tackle in the final quarter of his final game as a linebacker for the Yale football team left his right arm paralyzed. “I was searching for a way to serve those who would be serving in the military in my place,” he says.
ALSO: Writing Helps Veterans Go From Victims to Victors 
When Reising’s friend and the program co-founder, Nick Rugoff, introduced him to Chris Howell, a nine-year veteran of the Australian Army and a student at Yale, an idea jelled.
It was Howell’s younger brother, David, who had spurred his transition from the Army to university. Once Chris had set his sights on college, David, who was attending the University of Sydney at the time, sent him study advice and books packaged with brotherly tough love. Reising, Rugoff and Howell adapted the curriculum that David created and made it work for any U.S. military veteran hoping to embark on a college career. “There are so many challenges for veterans — academic, social, cultural, emotional challenges — in the transition from the military to college,” says Reising. “We launched the Warrior-Scholar Project with the idea that we were going to formalize the things that Chris did in order to successfully transition.”
The program, which has been expanded to two weeks, emphasizes reading and writing fundamentals, critical thinking and study techniques. Chris Howell, the executive director of the project, likens it to boot camp for its intensity — with five-page papers instead of push-ups. “When I rolled in there, I thought the professors were going to take it easy on us — but no, they were relentless!” says Jean Pierre Gordillo, a former Army convoy driver who attended the Warrior-Scholar Project in the summer of 2013.
The program also seeks to create an environment in which veterans feel understood, respected and empowered. Both Gordillo and Carrell emphasize the importance of the presence and perspective of fellow veterans like Howell, who have already made the transition to university and succeeded. In what Howell refers to as a “degreening seminar,” he and other veteran volunteers offer practical tips to help new students adapt to college life. You can’t swear in a seminar, for example. You can’t tell the same jokes you told in the military either. And you have to remember that you’ll be interacting mostly with 18-to-22-year-olds who, in all likelihood, have never witnessed combat and don’t know how to ask you about what you’ve seen.
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Before he arrived on campus for the program, Gordillo says he was most intimidated by the potential divide between the civilian student volunteers and the veterans. But built into the intensive academic work of the program was the occasional break — an afternoon on the beach, a backyard barbecue, a night on the porch of a Yale fraternity — that allowed his group to swap stories and ideas with current Yale students. “I left feeling I could share something of my military story, rather than being judged for it — and that that story gives me a unique perspective,” he says. Gordillo, who aspires to a career in U.S. foreign affairs, is now finishing his bachelor’s degree at Miami Dade College and recently submitted applications to master’s programs at eight selective universities.
Since 2012, every veteran who has completed the Warrior-Scholar Project and started college has stayed in college. Twenty-four Warrior-Scholars from the 2013 class are also currently in school or have plans to be enrolled by the fall of 2014. Last December, three more program graduates were accepted to Wesleyan University with financial help from the New York-based nonprofit Posse Foundation’s Veterans Program, which also provides Carrell with a scholarship to Vassar.
The Warrior-Scholar Project is now looking to scale up — but carefully. Its founders want to reach as many veterans as possible, while maintaining the support networks and one-on-one attention that have made the program so transformational. “There’s a saying in the special forces,” Howell says. “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
MORE: How This Navy SEAL Uses His War Wounds to Help Other Soliders
With that in mind, this summer the Warrior-Scholar Project team will work with veteran students at Harvard and the University of Michigan to run two additional weeklong pilot programs on those campuses. With every university that hosts the project, more veterans will be able to experience its empowering effect, says Jeffrey Brenzel, former dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, who teaches philosophy seminars to Warrior-Scholar participants.
“Their sense of themselves changed over the course of the [program],” says Brenzel of the veterans he taught at Yale. “They could see themselves as active participants in their own education.”
This week, Carrell is in the midst of midterm exams, but he’s keeping his head high above water, thanks to Chris Howell’s late-night motivational phone calls and Dave Howell’s reminders that writing is a process, not an event. “Having the knowledge from the Warrior-Scholar Project is like having a reserve parachute,” he says.

Editors’ note: Since the original publication of this story, Jesse Reising, founder of the Warrior-Scholar Project, has become a NationSwell Council member.

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Bravery After Battle: How This Navy SEAL Uses His War Wounds to Help Fellow Soldiers

A year after he was ambushed by machine-gun fire in Fallujah, Iraq, Lt. Jason Redman was still missing his nose. The bullets that showered his body also hit his cheekbone, leaving the right side of his face caved in. And he was wearing an eye patch to conceal a crusty and mangled sight. Returning to his life in Virginia, Redman says it was as if he had become a target all over again — this time to questions and stares from strangers.
The questions themselves — were you in a car accident? a motorcycle crash? — didn’t bother Redman. The fact that no one ever asked whether he’d been hurt in combat did. “It really started to make me bitter,” Redman, 38, says. “We’d been at war in Iraq for six years at that point and I thought, ‘Wow does the average American that I fought for recognize the sacrifice that I’ve made and that others have made?’”
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Redman’s irritation began to fester, and after a particularly bothersome gawking session at the airport (“It’d been culminating, and I’d just reached my breaking point”), he took to the Internet to vent. Instead of angry Tweets or passive aggressive Facebook messages, Redman decided to wear his defense. He began designing T-shirts featuring slogans like, “Stop staring. I got shot by a machine gun. It would have killed you.” An American flag adorned the back of each one. As he started wearing his designs, strangers began to nod in appreciation, even thanking him at times. Redman knew he was onto something — that there were countless other wounded warriors who felt the same way.
So in 2009 he created Wounded Wear, a nonprofit that donates clothing kits to warriors hurt in combat and their loved ones, as well as to the families of fallen soldiers. The kits contain jackets, workout gear and T-shirts that read “Scarred so that others may live free,” a toned-down version of the original slogans Redman used to print. His organization also accepts existing clothing from service members, which the nonprofit modifies to accommodate short-term rehabilitation needs or permanent bodily damage: One of the most requested alterations comes from amputees, whose prosthetic limbs make it difficult to put on regular pants. Wounded Wear provides everything to service members free of charge, raising money from donations as well as apparel sales on its website. So far, they’ve donated nearly 2,000 kits.
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