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You’ve Seen This Woman A Thousand Times But Had No Idea She Was A Refugee

If you watch TV with any consistency, you’ve probably seen actress and comedian Milana Vayntrub more times than you can count. She plays the quirky and affable Lily Adams character in a series of AT&T commercials.

But you probably didn’t know Vayntrub was born in the Soviet Union (Uzbekistan)– or that she’s a refugee.

Today, she’s utilizing her star power and social media influence to help address a pressing issue that really hits home with her: the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.

Vayntrub recently started an organization, #CantDoNothing, to provide a simple yet meaningful avenue for people to help with the refugee crisis and spread the word in the process.

On Monday, she took the time to speak with Elite Daily about her family’s experience and what inspired her to get involved with assisting refugees.

In the late 1980s, Vayntrub’s family fled the Soviet Union due to widespread animosity toward Jews. They wanted to go to America, but the process wasn’t exactly easy for them, and they spent some time in Austria and Italy.

Eventually, her family found a way into the US, and while they continued to struggle, it’s apparent her parents did everything they could to give her a better life.

Once here, my parents worked their butts off to give me a good education and upbringing… They did a great job.

Vayntrub’s father now lives in Moscow, and they recently took a trip together to Greece. In Athens, she encountered the refugee crisis firsthand.

She felt ridiculous she was there on vacation while people were suffering, and she decided she couldn’t sit back and do nothing. It was Vayntrub’s time in Greece that inspired her to establish #CantDoNothing.

Vayntrub admits she wasn’t very familiar with the Syrian refuge crisis prior to her visit to Greece, but being there really put things into perspective.

I had an embarrassingly little amount [of knowledge of the Syrian refugee crisis before going to Greece]. It's not something that came up in a lot of my social media, and the American news covers it an embarrassingly small amount.

When I was in Greece I would flip through the channels in my hotel room and see the Russian news talking about it all day, and BBC and other international news channels, and then you would go to CNN and it was talking about Donald Trump and the Emmys. And it was embarrassing, it was embarrassing to be American, but it also helped me understand why I didn't know more.

It’s evident how much it bothered Vayntrub that this crisis is seemingly being ignored in the US.

One of the questions I'd really like to ask people is, ‘Are you cool with [what's going on], is it a blissful kind of ignorance, or would you rather be aware of what's happening and try to be a global citizen and make the world a better place?’

She understands we can’t pay attention to everything all the time, and that people have their reasons for focusing on one issue or another. But, for her, standing idly by just wasn’t an option.

There are some things you can't do nothing about and this was one of those for me.

Ultimately, she decided to head to the island of Lesbos, where many refugees are arriving after making the dangerous and often fatal journey from Turkey — often on flimsy rafts.

Once in Lesbos, Vayntrub did whatever she could to help newly arrived refugees.

I just felt like I couldn't not do something – ‘can't do nothing’ so summarizes how it felt for me. I felt like there are people that need help, and I have things that I could contribute. Even if it’s just me being there, just me hugging people or changing diapers – I could do that and maybe it would make a difference in the world.

This is what #CantDoNothing is all about: making whatever effort we can to have a positive impact on a negative situation.

As Vayntrub put it,

#CantDoNothing is the compassion aspect, it's the humanitarian aspect of the crisis — it's not political. There's no other motivation here. These are people going through a hard time and there are millions of them – we must be able to do something.

She believes social media can be an extremely useful tool for instituting change.

Spreading awareness is one of the goals of #CantDoNothing, and that's what the social movement is about, too. That's why the hashtag ‘CantDoNothing’ is really a way for us to get the word out…

Some people would say we live in a much more complacent generation, even though we have more information than we've ever had. In the ’60s there were revolts and revolution — and now there are hashtags. How do we use that to create a revolution online?

Vayntrub is tired of people saying we shouldn’t use social media to expand social causes, and she’s urging people to be unabashed about any efforts they’re making to improve the world.

There's this outdated bullsh*t notion that it's OK to talk about your car and your vacation and your hamburger on social media, but it's not OK to talk about the good you do… But I feel like that's antiquated, and doesn't really apply to our generation. When people talk about the good they do, how can you hate on that?

#CantDoNothing gives people permission to talk about the good they do and the things that matter to them, and to challenge other people to do the same.

A great way to get started with #CantDoNothing is talk about something you've done to make a difference — even if it's donating $5 or sharing a video about the refugee crisis. Talk about something that you've done. [Use] #CantDoNothing and challenge three people to do the same.

Vayntrub understands this is a controversial issue, but she implored Americans to keep an open mind about refugees.

The thing to remember is that these people are fleeing the people that Americans are afraid of. Americans have this idea that refugees are ISIS or Al Qaeda, and these people were actually victims of the attacks of these groups – and we're all on the same team.

America is a wealthy country with a lot of resources – that are allocated in some ways that are appropriate or not appropriate – but there's this quote I once read that’s stuck with me: ‘When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.’

Vayntrub’s family history definitely influenced her decision to turn her vacation in Greece into a humanitarian mission. She said knowing what it’s like to “be an outsider, or being in a new place, or being uprooted” definitely motivated her to help.

But she also said it was much more than that.

I do think, and I can't say with 100 percent certainty, that I believe even if I didn't have this background, I think living in America where everyone is from somewhere else – unless they're Native American – I have an inherent understanding of what it means to go off in search of a better life. And in this case it's just safety, it's not monetary, it's just, ‘how do we go on surviving?’ That was not difficult for me to get on board with.

When you stop to think about it, helping people in that situation really shouldn’t be difficult for anyone to get on board with.

We’re all human, and helping one another is imperative to our survival.

If you want to learn more about #CantDoNothing, visit CantDoNothing.org.

Also make sure to watch Vayntrub’s powerful mini-documentary on her experience in Greece, which can be viewed below.

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John Haltiwanger

Editor

John Haltiwanger is the Senior Politics Writer at Elite Daily. He was born and raised in DC. John earned an MSc in International Relations from the Univ. Of Glasgow and a BA in History from St. Mary's College of MD. He loves life, and burritos.
John Haltiwanger is the Senior Politics Writer at Elite Daily. He was born and raised in DC. John earned an MSc in International Relations from the Univ. Of Glasgow and a BA in History from St. Mary's College of MD. He loves life, and burritos.

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