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Step 1: Flee Anti-Semitism. Step 2: Get Famous. Step 3: Change the World.

May 10, 2016

Blog Post

Rachel Nusbaum, HIAS.org

Milana Vayntrub stars as 'Lily' in a series of AT&T commercials.

"I came to Greece to vacation with my dad, and very quickly I realized how ridiculous that is," Milana Vayntrub tells the camera in this short documentary. "I don't know what I'm going to do, but I can't do nothing."

(youtube/cantdonothing.org)

Milana Vayntrub, executive producer Paul Feig and actors Trace Beaulieu, Eugene Cordero, Neil Casey and Conor Leslie take a selfie at Yahoo Screen Launch Party For Paul Feig's 'Other Space' at The London West Hollywood on April 14, 2015 in West Hollywood, California.

(Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Yahoo)

Milana Vayntrub at a launch party on April 14, 2015 in West Hollywood, California.

(Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Yahoo)

You’ve seen her face, even if you can’t quite place it. Maybe you’ve read about her efforts on behalf of refugees.

Born in Uzbekistan, Milana Vayntrub’s family fled in 1989 to escape religious persecution and discrimination. “I was three years old, so I actually don’t remember much of the refugee process,” admits Vayntrub.

They arrived in the U.S. and, with help from HIAS, ended up in Los Angeles. “We settled in a tiny apartment in West Hollywood, thanks to you guys,” Vayntrub told HIAS.org.

“Being an immigrant myself, but feeling very American, and also being the child of immigrants, I understand the feeling of wanting a home,” said Vayntrub. “I remember what it was like when my parents couldn’t help me with my homework because they couldn’t speak the language, or being a translator for my parents. I did that a LOT.”

She stumbled onto the current refugee crisis while on a vacation in Greece, which she quickly abandoned in favor of volunteer work. “The most motivational thing was seeing the people that were doing something, and then also seeing all the people who needed help,” she says.

She came home and started an organization, Can’t Do Nothing, to encourage people to use the means at their disposal–whether time, money or simply their voice—to take on the refugee crisis themselves.

“What I’m most excited about is giving people a chance to do something hands on, because I think there’s something contagious about that. You’re like the pebble in the pond, and it creates a ripple effect.” By working with refugees in their local community, Vayntrub hopes people who give time through cantdonothing.org will become “influencers in their communities, who inspire more change wherever they go.”

One thing that has been crucial to Vayntrub’s success in inspiring people to take action is her positive perspective. Her unshakable faith that individual efforts can be a catalyst for change is infectious. She describes her approach as telling people, “this is the situation, but...BUT…before you get too down about it, here are all the things that we’re doing to try to make it better.”

"You don’t have to sit idly by. We live in an age where we are all influencers. We all have Facebook friends or an Instagram following that will listen, or at least arouse conversation,” said Vayntrub. “Nobody is powerless."

To illustrate the point, she offers the following story, an old Jewish folktale:

“There was a wedding, and everyone was asked to bring a glass of wine and pour it into a barrel. Then, when it was time to drink, everyone would fill their wine glass from the barrel. So everyone would have some wine, if everyone brought some wine.”

“One person thought, well, if everyone brings wine and I bring water, what’s the difference? I’ll just be one glass of water in this big barrel. It will get diluted and no one will notice.”

“Then another person had that same idea. And another person had that same idea. And at the end of the wedding, there was a kind of wine-flavored water that everyone was drinking.”

“The idea is, that if enough people think that ‘I don’t matter’, then nothing gets done. And we end up drinking this wine flavored water.”

“If we all understand our power, and the power of our contribution, we can make the change we want,” said Vayntrub.

To find out more about more about Milana’s project, visit cantdonothing.org. If you haven’t seen her captivating mini-doc on her time volunteering with refugees in Greece, do yourself a favor and watch it below.