Conversations with People Inspired by the Golden Rule: Anne Braak Katz

Read Anne's story of how her life's journey took her from Utah to California to Greece - volunteering to helping refugees from Syria. Read how she went from sewing things to selling solar panels to helping refugee children create art. Included are photos of their beautiful art work that Anne is now showing to raise money for the camps. Read Felipe's transcribed interview with Anne below or listen to Anne's story HERE. Anne inspires us to live the Golden Rule - at home and abroad.

I was raised in Salt Lake City as a Catholic in St. Ambrose church, where I met you, and right out of High School on 1979 I left and went up to Idaho to the wilderness area, where I lived in a very rural spot on the Salmon river for the next 4 years of my life, and I had an opportunity to get very close to nature. It became my very best friend. I now get to carry that with me wherever I go, whatever struggles I might be dealing with I can always find peace in nature.

I moved around quite a bit. After Idaho I lived in Montana for a little bit, then Tucson, Arizona; and Eugene, OR. In 1987 I found myself in Northern California, in Humboldt County, where I live today, in the northern part of the county in Arcata. The nature there is quite lovely, we have Humboldt State University, nice progressive thinking, and people are very casual, kind, and nature loving.

We are on a huge bay with lots of redwoods and the beach is endless, you can walk for miles and there’s nothing but dunes and beach. I’m a gardener. I learned how to grow my own food since I was in Idaho at the age of 17, and I get to garden where I live year round.

I became involved with the Solar Industry in 1998. I lived off the grid for many years because I lived in many rural settings, so it was a natural fit for me. Initially I used to live off of propane for lighting and refrigeration before Solar was very popular, but it was a natural progression into the solar industry. I never went to college; I mostly enjoyed the school of life. I was self-taught on what I did. I’m a seamstress, as well. I was making artist portfolio cases in the mid 90s and selling them and I was asked to make a case holding a solar panel and wires through these pockets to charge a laptop.

That was my first intro to the alternative energy engineering. I produced a bunch of those bags for a company, which had a sales opening. That’s when I realized that I was a great salesperson and made a career out of it. After selling renewable energy for 3 years I was single and my boss was single and I ended up marrying my best friend and boss! We worked together for 10 years and then we ultimately sold the company and I was able to retire at 47, so I’ve lived a very privileged life, and I can now serve humanity, I have the resources and time to do so.

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Felipe: What is it that motivated you to do those things?

Anne: I’m a nature bunny. I find God in nature, and harmony with nature. Living in harmony with nature and humanity is something beautiful. I was inspired by my parents as artists and humanitarians. This harmony has always been natural to me because I was raised with it.

My mother was always kind to everyone. They got involved with the Vietnamese refugees in the 70s in Salt Lake City. We sponsored a family. They were 16 and 18 years old. My parents found them a home, my mother would paint and exchange art with our dentist to work on their teeth, she helped them find jobs, and then the next generations of families came in and my parents continued to served this growing Vietnamese community in Salt Lake City so I was raised with the notion that that’s just what you do. You serve others.

For me serving others is like serving myself, I don’t differentiate. And I’m really lucky I have this inside of me. I’m very tender, love very deeply and openly, and I’m very trusting with the universe so I just feel it’s easy to give to people.

My motto is ‘If you can hold me you can have me.’

Felipe: You mentioned that when serving others you are serving yourself, which is very Golden Rule in itself, and its so rewarding to have that mentality. It’s very beautiful. So, I met you at St. Ambrose because you were presenting about your trips in Greece helping the refugees there. I was deeply touched by your experiences shared, especially because we, as human beings, tend to forget or simply ignore the pain in other parts of the world, because of the normality of our lives, and because we are so focused on ourselves. But with the refugee crisis all over the world it’s hard to turn away from that. I want to know what motivated you to do this.

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Anne: Well, I listen to NPR all the time. I’d been listening for the past 5 years about the Syrian war and the story kept coming up, and it was just breaking my heart. I traveled a lot around the world through the Solar Energy to European solar conferences, and I’ve been in Tanzania in Africa because my husband does a lot of work with renewable energy there, so the world is my playground, borders don’t get in my way. So when I hear about this story going for so long I just couldn’t just listen to the story anymore and I didn’t just want to write a check or share a story on Facebook, I wanted to give myself and I just felt like I wanted to reach my hand out and touch them and share my love and concern with them to let them know that I hear their stories, that I’m here to help.

I’ve never volunteer before beside my kids’ school and the local theater, so it was a big step for me. For 6 months I would lay in bed thinking if I really wanted to do this because I didn’t want to say I was going to do it if I didn’t know if I wanted to do it.

I developed in my mind the courage and then I mentioned to a friend that I was interested and she said that some of my friends were in Athens right now working with the refugees, and it my mind I was like “Wow, of course, this totally makes sense”, so from then on I saw that I had time in my calendar, and I knew I had the month of October free, so I started looking for an organization that I could volunteer with. That’s when I found Refugee Support Europe. It was a good fit because they were rather a small organization that didn’t require a lot of previous experience or a huge commitment of time, I could volunteer for 3 weeks to a month, and all volunteers were self funded and I had the resources, so I contacted those guys in May. Paul Hutchins from Refugee Support Europe said these are war times, so when the time was closer they could discuss more of my time as a volunteer, because they could be moving to another refugee camp where the needs were greater.

So in September, I was assigned to go help in October. Refugee Support has a lot of University students that have the summer off or get credit for a specific class and those kids contact well ahead of time and the organization knows that that’s a limited slot so during summer time more people wanted to go to Greece, but for a lot of us non-students our schedules are more flexible so we were able to go with the flow. It was 2016 when I met John and Paul, and that was the year they started Refugee Support Europe in April, and I contacted them in May. I found them on the Internet. Paul is a web guy and he built a beautiful website. These guys at this point had met serving the migrants in Italy and they wanted to go on a more official capacity because they knew they had the ability, resources and enthusiasm, so when I met them they were fresh in a refugee camp in Greece.

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They had just started remodeling the shop where they provide food and the boutique where refugees could get clothes and then started filling up a warehouse with donations that came from all over Europe.

In 2 years Refugee Support Europe has now been to 6 refugee camps and has had over 600 volunteers. The organization is so grassroots because it’s all volunteers. We move through in these waves of volunteers. We pass on instructions to the next group. Each group has different characteristics or talents, so then the coordinators could get better ideas from new volunteers that had more experience in some of those fields. It was and is, an ever-growing organization. Each group of volunteers improves the system. So in 2 years, from the first time to the third time I went there I saw such progression.

Felipe: How long did you go every time you went?

Anne: The first time I wanted to give the month of October but Paul said to come for 2 weeks. He is cautious initially, because what if someone is not a good fit and you are stuck for a month? So while I was there I told him I could have been there for a month, and right there and then Paul asked if I could change my ticket and I ended up staying for 5 weeks. The second and third time I was there for 3 weeks.

Felipe: So in a span of 2 years you gave 3 months of service approximately. Are you planning on going back? Or are you doing more work in the US now?

Anne: I really want to do more work in the US, with my project “Hope is on The Way”.

I’m moving it around the country. I’ll take it anywhere anyone will listen to me because I want to educate my country about this humanitarian crisis. And I want to encourage volunteers and raise these critical funds. My work in America is critical right now. I have 6 volunteers right now and we’ve raised over $20,000 in 2 years which just feels like the beginning, so I think my work is here, but if they really need me in Greece, I’ll go. ‘If you can hold me, you can have me!’

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I didn’t even plan on going this last time, but in communication with volunteers there I saw there was a need so I went right after a solar conference I was participating in Europe, it fit perfectly.

Felipe: Lets talk about ‘Hope is on The Way’. When I got to the auditorium where you were presenting I saw all these little pieces of art done by refugee kids of different ages, and when you were presenting you mentioned that you asked those kids to think about “hope” when creating these pieces and it was very intense to me, there were so many feelings found by just seeing the different interpretations of Hope. A hand and a kiss, or a ship in the middle of storm, which is all so beautiful. We can all think about something, and it can be shown differently but the feeling is the same, and that’s something I saw so clearly with this project. So tell us more about Hope its on The Way!

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Anne: Well, I’m an artist, and after I returned the first time from working on the camp, I just didn’t know what to do with my energy. I was home and I didn’t know what more to do. My art took me through some deep meditation on the refugee crisis. I understand the healing power of art. Initially I thought I would do some art therapy, even though I had no experience, but when I talked to Paul about it, he told me there wasn’t enough time to process, and I would just be opening up wounds when they couldn’t fully process it, which could hurt more than help, especially not being a therapist and being there for only 3 weeks, so that was a no go.

Later I realized that what I wanted was for them to feel hope, because hope is non-existent to them right now, but hope could be on the way. So Hope is on The Way was a concept that allowed these kids for even just a moment in time when we are together, to create and think of what would hope look like and mean to them. I had an interpreter the first time, this lovely Syrian woman from the International Rescue Committee, who helped for week and a half so even though these kids were ages 3 to 16, I had 2 volunteers from Refugee Support and I had the ability to communicate with these kids, so I started the ball rolling by having some examples of what hope looked like to me. I had an image of a tree with a person with arms reaching up with all different colors of leaves looking up the sky, and that was hope to me. There was another image of a heart with a dove at the top and the water was below and green grass and sky above, and the heart and love was surrounded by this universe we live in. I had these few examples and so these kids were able to grab papers and they had their own interpretations of what I showed them and then they were able to dig deeper and show their own representations of hope.

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When I got the idea of Hope is on The Way, I wrote a proposal to the local art museum in my community and they gave me two months in their youth gallery to mount an exposition with the work the kids were about to make, which was the best. I brought white card stock (which I bought in Germany), color paper for the border behind, and black permanent marker and oil pastels. All these materials were given to me by a local art store that wanted to support the project. I’ve been supported every step of the way with this project. When I showed up with these materials, I didn’t want the kids to just be erasing things with pencil or overthink, I just wanted them to throw it in the paper, so this permanent marker was perfect. It showed what they were feeling and the bold colors with the pastels, was perfect. When they were finished I would have them choose a color for the background and hung them in a clothesline. The kids were so proud, they would say: “Our artwork is going to America, and we’ll be in a gallery, we are going to be famous.”

The first time I took the project to Greece, we were able to serve 75 kids, and the second time was probably 30 kids. And I have an enormous stack of art pieces that never got mounted. Because when I brought them home, I sprayed the work with Fix It, and then I brought them into the local framing art gallery, where I’ve been getting my art framed for years. They decided to do it for free because they loved the cause, so they mounted all the artwork in this black foam core board, with a little z-bracket in the back and they can be mounted anywhere with artist tape. So I can take them anywhere, I can fly with them, they are light, etc. I have 44 pieces, and mounting depends on the space available.

My hope is to share my story, and open people’s minds to the possibility that they can volunteer too! Many of the people I’ve talked to never considered volunteering like that. But the fun thing is that I’m just a girl, I don’t have a particular ability except for a big heart and a willingness to give myself to this unfortunate population. My goal is to show that it’s doable, you can go and volunteer; your service is needed. It is very rewarding because you give of yourself and the gratitude that comes back to you makes you want to do it more.

"My hope is to share my story, and open people’s minds to the possibility that they can volunteer too!"

I’ve done 12 exhibits as of now at universities, churches, art schools, rotary clubs, grade schools, etc. I will show it to anyone that will take me. I would love to get in the tech industry in the Bay area and encourage those people to volunteer. Many of those companies give paid time off to their employees to volunteer for work, so I want to encourage volunteers from there because they also have such diversity, its so beautiful. They are very technical so they need projects like this where they can open their minds, and pockets! Because we need to raise critical funds, it’s all by donation that we exist.

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I don’t sell the artwork; I didn’t want to dilute the integrity of the show. The pieces are so precious so I don’t sell them. Recently I did an art fair and I scanned, printed and laminated pieces, because it was an outside fair and I didn’t want to get those piece damaged, and I have to say they scan beautifully. I have a card that I use for my fundraising and 100% of those profits go to Refugee Support Europe. In the card the globe is in the shape of the heart, with the sun shining equally all over the world and the stars representing that we all need to take care of our people.

I had the kids outline their hands in color card stock and signed their names, and I put those all over to get those little hands to reach out to your heart.

This is a real tragedy; these are real people, in real crisis that need the help from us, privileged Americans. This is my goal.

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Felipe: So how can we help you?

Anne: I highly recommend to go to website they are based out of England. The website tells a lot of volunteer stories, talks about all the refugee camps that we work in, logistics, etc. So if someone is interested in volunteer, I would recommend to visit the site because it’s very informative and the intention of Refugee Support is to “Aid with Dignity” and in everything we do, that is passed on.

We have a donate button on the website. Donations are on British pounds, so you got to calculate what you want to give. The only money that goes for processing is the cc processing fee. 100% of donations go to serve refugees.

It is better to give a monetary contribution than physical things because it’s expensive to ship things. It’s easier and cheaper to give a monetary contribution.

If I lived in an area where refugees are being relocated I would get involved locally with the IRC or through a church or local organization so that you can serve the local population, especially if you don’t have the resources or time. In most large cities there are refugee populations in need. So sometimes a smile, or a helping hand, and an embracing attitude to integrate them, as neighbors is needed.

We are all sharing this planet together and the more peaceful we are together and the less fear we have of each other, the better. A smile dissipates fear. A smile goes a long way, just recognizing that everyone has value and that they are home and welcome!

I had no experience with the Muslim population before this experience. And I have come to learn that the Muslim faith is all about peace and beauty with humanity. And any fear I may have had, it came from ignorance.

Felipe: Exactly, once we get to know different people and we familiarize ourselves with their culture, values, or religion or whatever is it, we realize that a lot of things in which we might have had preconceived notions like “they are aggressive, or this or that” its not that way and the fear dissipates.

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Anne: ¾ of the population of a refugee camp are children. They are all wounded from war. They’ve lost their homes, their country, family members; they have been physically wounded themselves. So when working with these kids, you realize they all have PTSD, everyone is wounded. This one particular day it had been raining a lot and the grass was tall and the kids were having a grass fight, which was such a relief to see that instead of a rock fight because they would throw rocks at each other (ha-ha). So these little kids were having this grass fight and I was just standing there rejoicing in this safe activity, such a simple act, and this boy came to me, put his arms around my legs, and hugged me, and I just put my arms in his back and he just held me for like 15 seconds, and then went on and threw grass again and then he came back and just held onto me and my energy, and he was feeling my love. Just to reach out with someone that is wounded, and touch them, and share your love with them is very healing, just a small touch is so healing. That little boy came back to me 10 times and he just held on to me, and I felt like that was the most important work I had done in the refugee camp, it was to just hold this child, to provide a safe place, to show them that I cared, that I love them.

These cards are available in our office for $5.00 each. All proceeds go to Refugee Resource Europe.

These cards are available in our office for $5.00 each. All proceeds go to Refugee Resource Europe.

We want to thank Anne for her incredible example of living the Golden Rule and putting it to action. If you would like to help Anne with fundraising you can purchase her cards available at our office located inside of Phillips Gallery in Salt Lake City, UT. You may also donate at Refugee Resource Europe.

If you would like to be involved with refugee service opportunities check your local IRC or community churches working with the refugee population. There’s always a way we can help with this tragic situation all over the world.

Anne has two smart, beautiful, loving daughters,  Amber 34 and Shanti 26 and an amazing and loving husband and his daughter Clover who comes with a bonus, grandchild. “The love I have given and received from my family and my extended family, gives me great strength and abundance of love to share.”