She thought she'd seen the worst of the refugee camps. Then she went to Idomeni.

This is Laith. He's 6 years old and currently lives in the Idomeni refugee camp in Greece.

Laith, age 6. Photo via YouTube/Ignite Channel.


Laith was shot by the same bullet that killed his dad and uncle while they were riding on a motorcycle. The bullet ripped through his leg and makes it hard for him to walk.

Although doctors are present at the Idomeni refugee camps, they are stretched so thin that Laith and his family have to wait in line for up to two days just to redress his wound.

And that's where volunteers like Ayesha Sayed come in.

Most people spend their vacation time catching up on sleep and binge-watching crime shows. Not Ayesha Sayed.

Ayesha co-runs three companies in Dubai, one of which sells medical supplies, and she spends what little free time she has volunteering and helping others. Her big warm smile is a brief window into her genuine spirit, and her neon green hair probably makes her fit right in at the Burning Man festival she regularly attends.

Ayesha Sayed (left) with fellow volunteers Duane Heil and Chris Morrow. Photo by Alison Thompson, used with permission.

Last October, Ayesha travelled to Lesbos, Greece, with a suitcase full of supplies from her medical supply store and spent a week helping with medical needs and translation.

"I've wanted to go back [to Greece] since October, but there was just too much to do here [in Dubai]," she told Upworthy.

In March 2016, Ayesha took some time off work and went back to Greece, this time to a tiny village called Idomeni, where she met Laith and his family.

If the Syrian refugee crisis is a hurricane, Idomeni is the levee — barely hanging on and threatening to buckle.

Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images.

Last month, the Balkan route (a passage from Greece north to countries like Macedonia, Serbia, and Germany) was permanently shut down. Macedonia, Slovenia, and Serbia slammed their borders closed, leaving thousands without a place to go and many more on the way.

Currently, there are as many as 14,000 immigrants stuck in Idomeni — many of them children.

"I think that was the most surprising thing," Ayesha recalls. "Children from 0 to 5 are everywhere."


Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images.

Conditions at the border camp in Idomeni are squalid. The constant flow of refugees entering Greece without a place to go has created a humanitarian nightmare that is both festering and steadily growing.

"There's no electricity, there’s not a lot of clean water, and no sanitation whatsoever," Ayesha explains. "Everybody’s sick because of the horrible hygiene and the children not having enough nutrition. They get one meal a day which is not really good."

Though Ayesha had seen the refugee crisis firsthand in Lesbos, she was completely overwhelmed by the conditions in Idomeni.

"People who got to Lesbos were just happy that they made it to Europe after the really really long journey," she says. "[In Idomeni] it was utter and complete despair. People had been stuck at the border for 40 days by the time we arrived. Nobody knew anything about what was going to happen; nobody was saying anything."

It's so bad there, in fact, that Greece recently had to send over 200 migrants back to Turkey as part of a controversial "one in, one out" deal struck between the European Union and Turkey last month. Under the deal, anyone who migrates to Greece illegally from now on will be sent back to Turkey in exchange for a vetted refugee.

A ferry arriving on April 4, 2016. to deport migrants from Greece to Turkey. Photo by Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images.

But the day-to-day workings of that deal remain unclear for those on the ground.

"There's no clarity," says Ayesha. "There would always be these rumors about how — now that the EU has signed a deal with Turkey — everyone is going to be sent back to Turkey. All [the refugees] want is the most basic things, and it's really difficult to hear that from a couple thousand people and then have no answer for them."

Amid the chaos, confusion, and despair, Ayesha worked with kids whose dire situation cemented her resolution to press forward.

Kids like 6-year-old Laith, whose bullet wound needed medical attention faster than doctors at the camp could respond.

"Laith we found through his mom who came to us because he had severe pain," Ayesha says. "She thought that his bullet wound was infected. So we did the redressing."

There are also kids like Noor, age 2, who has an unidentified birth defect, but was turned away from the camp's medical facilities because her paperwork (including MRI scans and basic medical records) were lost at sea.

Noor, age 2. Photo by Ayesha Sayed. Used with permission.

"She’s extremely sick," Ayesha says of Noor, who needs several surgeries on her head and umbilical cord. "They tried to find someone in Syria but all the pediatric brain surgeons have left. There’s none of them left in Syria."

Then, there was Lava, age 16, who Ayesha says has trouble speaking and a lot of anxiety.

"She tried to kill herself a couple times because, just the whole journey was really really stressful for her," Ayesha says.

These are just three of many kids in the camp who need medical care that can't be provided by the few doctors and volunteers present.

"I think all the NGOs are so overwhelmed that they can’t really focus on individual cases," Ayesha says.

Working with the kids in the camp showed Ayesha just how much help and hope one person's efforts can bring.

"There's always hope," Ayesha says, though she quickly points out that hope comes from action.

Photo from Ayesha Sayed, used with permission.

"90% of people who I’ve spoken to either believe that the military is going to do something about it or some NGO is going to do something about it." Ayesha says. "Somebody else, but not them. "

While we can't all get on planes with medical supplies the way Ayesha did, there are still ways to help.

In America, the situation in Greece can seem like a faraway crisis brought up in talking points at political debates. It becomes too easy to forget about the people who wake up every single day in those camps with little to eat and no new information about what lies ahead of them. We all have the ability to help those people.

Ayesha suggests doing a donation drive or sponsoring a refugee child.

Photo by Alison Thompson. Used with permission.

She also started a website called "Refugee Heroes," where anyone can find out about the need for basic supplies in Greece and provide what they can or connect with other NGOs and individuals who are helping on the ground.

"We obviously can't help everybody. But everybody can do a little bit to help."

The airline industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as global and domestic travel came to a screeching halt last spring. When the pandemic was officially declared in March of 2020, no one knew what to expect or how long the timeline of lockdowns and life changes would last.

Two weeks after the declaration, Delta pilot Chris Dennis flew one of the airline's planes to Victorville, CA for storage. He shared photos on Facebook that day of empty planes neatly lined up, saying it was a day he would remember for the rest of his life.

"Chilling, apocalyptic, surreal...all words that still don't fit what is happening in the world," he wrote. "Each one of these aircraft represents hundreds of jobs, if not more."

He added:

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The airline industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as global and domestic travel came to a screeching halt last spring. When the pandemic was officially declared in March of 2020, no one knew what to expect or how long the timeline of lockdowns and life changes would last.

Two weeks after the declaration, Delta pilot Chris Dennis flew one of the airline's planes to Victorville, CA for storage. He shared photos on Facebook that day of empty planes neatly lined up, saying it was a day he would remember for the rest of his life.

"Chilling, apocalyptic, surreal...all words that still don't fit what is happening in the world," he wrote. "Each one of these aircraft represents hundreds of jobs, if not more."

He added:

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."