Uzbek-American actress, an ex-refugee, sets out to help Syrian migrants

AP , Tuesday 10 May 2016

Milana Vayntrub
Milana Vayntrub (Photo: AP)

Milana Vayntrub plays giddy and goofy roles, but she was fidgety and troubled as she tried to relax on a recent vacation in Greece.

The actress best known for her role as the chirpy, blue-shirted "Lily" in a popular series of AT&T commercials was a toddler when her parents fled Uzbekistan as refugees in 1989. How was she supposed to just sit on the beach, she wondered, when migrants fleeing Syria were coming ashore a few miles away?

"It felt a little ridiculous that I could do something but would choose not to," she said.

Vayntrub, 29, deliberately missed her flight home so she could wrap refugee babies in blankets and make sandwiches for the new arrivals. Later, back in Los Angeles, she founded, a nonprofit with a simple mission: Encourage people around the planet to do something — anything — to help.

"I'm asking everyone to find simple ways to share your time, your money, your voice to make a difference. Helping can be a lot of things," Vayntrub told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Her initiative, shared under the hashtag #CantDoNothing, has unleashed a buzz on social media, with people from around the planet sharing photos and videos of their acts of kindness and solidarity.

It's also highlighted Vayntrub's own harrowing journey from oppression to opportunity nearly three decades ago, and her emergence as a sort of accidental activist.

Although she's most recognizable for her advertising work as a quirky AT&T salesperson, she's gained a following for comedy films including "Junk" and "L!fe Happens," as well as Netflix's "Love," HBO's "Silicon Valley," Yahoo's "Other Space," and her YouTube channel, "LivePrudeGirls."

She's had to adapt her stand-up routine, though, since returning from Greece.

"All my life kvetches sounded so petty," she said. "Here, what's going on with the refugees doesn't really pop up in my feed. It's not in my daily life. But when you travel, you see it."

Using her iPhone, Vayntrub made a short video about her vacation-turned-mission. It shows dozens of bright orange life jackets littering the beaches of the Greek island of Lesbos, where refugees from Syria continue to make the perilous sea crossing to reach Europe.

From a distance, the jackets "look like a field of poppies — a beautiful nature scene. Then you get closer and realize the humanity," she said. "That was the first real shock."

The video also shows Vayntrub greeting boats carrying refugees from Turkey as they come ashore. The U.N. refugee agency says more than 1 million people crossed the Mediterranean in 2015, most in unseaworthy boats, and nearly 200,000 have made the crossing so far this year.

Vayntrub was only 2 when her parents left their home in the former Soviet Union, so she has no memories of her own flight to an eventual new life in southern California.
"But I do remember feeling like an outsider — that everyone's from here, and I'm not," she said.

Providing the refugees with food, shelter and medical attention is critical. But Vayntrub — who's planning to visit a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan next month — also worries about the lack of educational and cultural opportunities for young migrants.

"I'm haunted by who these kids will be in 20 years with no exposure to literature or musical instruments. What kind of adult does that breed?" she said.

Responses to the #CantDoNothing movement have been varied and spirited. A YMCA in Richmond, Virginia, collected new and used baby carriers to send overseas. A school in Santa Monica, California, held a stuffed animal drive. A poet in Ontario, Canada, wrote free verse about the refugees' plight.

"I'm a much more grateful person now," Vayntrub said. "We're so lucky to take being alive for granted."

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