For the past few years, Random Acts has made it an annual tradition to highlight the efforts of a few inspiring individuals changing the world for the better by honoring them with our yearly Caught in the Act award (CITA), and every year, our staff is assigned the arduous task of narrowing the field to one overall winner. This time around, in the final year of the CITA project, that task was more difficult than ever, given all the incredible names submitted to the judging process by the public. In the end, our team settled on one individual whose campaign to ease others’ burdens and tell their stories is impossible to ignore.
Random Acts is excited to announce that the winner of the 2016 CITA award, and recipient of $3,000 USD, is filmmaker and activist Elias Matar.
“Elias Matar is a Syrian-American, a filmmaker, a human rights activist, and my husband,” Ginger Fung wrote to Random Acts last April. “As the news of refugees fleeing from war and violence emerged, he decided that he could not sit idle. In September of 2015, he and a few friends raised over $10,000, and set off to Austria with plans to help transport refugees. But by the time they arrived, Hungary had closed the borders which resulted in his journey that spanned five other countries and 2,000 miles.
“When he returned, he told stories that were perfectly orchestrated by fate and determination, which always resulted in changing someone’s life with a simple act of kindness. He documented his journey and made it into a 40 minute film called ‘Flight of the Refugees’.”
According to Ginger, in the months that followed, Elias’ film was shown in a number of universities, schools, and private screenings, and was watched by scores of people across the globe. One of those people, high school senior Ethan Boccichio, had been planning a second “service trip” to the Greek island of Chios over the upcoming Christmas holiday, and after seeing the film, became inspired to join forces with Elias and lend his support as well. “It was a tough decision for the family both financially and emotionally, having to miss him over the holidays … but the right decision was obvious, so both Elias and Ethan paid for their plane and ferry tickets, hotel stay, and food … [and] left for Greece on Christmas Day to volunteer for two weeks.” Ginger added that Elias also paid all expenses for documentary cameraman Kyle, using part of the $6,000 in funds raised by his family earlier in the year.
As Ginger recounted, on New Year’s Eve, the three came across a group of 35 boats, carrying some 1,500 refugees. Their arrival was met by a small, hardworking troupe of 60 international volunteers, who were responsible for the refugees’ care. “Many landed in bad shape, some with hypothermia,” Ginger wrote. “It was traumatic.”
It was over the subsequent 48 hours that Elias came across a woman who would change his life for the better, in return, by inadvertently teaching him an important lesson. “[Elias met] a woman on his last service trip in the Balkans. He said she looked so tired and helpless. But he couldn’t do anything; he just froze as she passed by and didn’t say a word. He said he felt so bad that he had not helped her,” Ginger recalled. During this particular trip, however, all that changed. As Ginger wrote,
[He met a woman in Greece named] Tofeah. On New Year’s day, as Elias was handing out clothes to children, he saw her standing nearby. He started talking to her. She told him her story; she was from Homs (the devastated Syrian city destroyed in the ongoing civil war), and her husband had been killed. She was traveling with her young son and daughter and was asking about the ferry to Athens. [Elias] felt her pain and desperation. He felt compelled to help her and this time he followed his heart. He gave her money for the rest of her journey and she burst into tears. He said to her, “If I needed your help and you could help me, you would do the same.” Elias taught me that it’s not about beating yourself up for the people you can’t help, but rejoicing in the lives that you do change.
Last summer, Elias and daughter Lyla also traveled to Lebanon where their focus was working with children in music and the arts. “We believe that we cannot lose another generation of kids to violence,” Ginger wrote. “Planting a seed of kindness and giving them hope [was] the goal.”
Elias’ acts of kindness didn’t stop there, reaching back home as well. “He is a courageous man for taking up this path, sometimes it drives me crazy. But I know what he is doing inspires me and my family to be more selfless. In a way, we are all connected as one,” Ginger explained. “I have also started a ‘pay it forward garden’ in front of my office, so neighbors can take what they need and do a good deed. It’s the small acts that count sometimes.”
Elias Matar won over the Random Acts team (and all those who have met him) with his outstanding dedication to those global citizens who have been stranded by war and famine. Perhaps even more importantly, as wife Ginger noted, “He has shown me that walking in the unknown and bearing witness takes enormous amount of courage.”
For this, and the incredible work he will undoubtedly carry out going forward, we’re proud to call Elias Matar our 2016 CITA winner.