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Evander Holyfield joins fight for Syria's refugees

By Atika Shubert CNN | 12/16/2013, 2:31 p.m.
Evander Holyfield has faced many difficult opponents in the ring -- but nothing quite like this. The former heavyweight world champion has teamed up with colorful Canadian businessman and philanthropist Yank Barry to help Syrian refugees in Bulgaria. Photo by CNN.

Evander Holyfield has faced many difficult opponents in the ring -- but nothing quite like this.

The former heavyweight world champion has teamed up with colorful Canadian businessman and philanthropist Yank Barry to help Syrian refugees in Bulgaria.

Barry, once the lead singer of The Kingsmen, shot to fame briefly in 1963 with the single "Louie Louie." He went on to become a music producer before turning his focus to international aid and diplomacy.

The U.N. estimates about 5,000 Syrians have asked for asylum in Bulgaria. About 1,200 mostly Syrians live cramped inside containers and tents at the Harmanli camp near Bulgaria's border with Turkey.

On a foggy Sunday morning, I accompanied the pair on a drive from the capital, Sofia, to the camp, about 170 miles away.

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Evander Holyfield has faced many difficult opponents in the ring -- but nothing quite like this. The former heavyweight world champion has teamed up with colorful Canadian businessman and philanthropist Yank Barry to help Syrian refugees in Bulgaria. Photo by CNN.

As soon as we arrived, Holyfield and Barry were surrounded by hundreds of refugees angry at camp conditions in Bulgaria. The pair planned to deliver food aid and to help resettle some families in a home supplied by Barry's charity, Global Village.

One refugee woman asked: "Why don't you do more to help us?"

Barry replied: "Since last year I've delivered 5,000 tons of food to camps. I'm a private individual. We now have a hotel and we are bringing families."

The woman persisted: "What about the rest of us?"

Holyfield and Barry's recent aid mission was not supposed to be like this. In midst of the chaos, Barry said to Holyfield: "We can't blame them for being angry. But they have to understand. We are a private foundation."

The refugees questioned why more was not being done to help them.

Visibly annoyed, Barry said: "Wait a minute! Time out! We got here 15 minutes ago. Now have a little bit of patience before I lose my patience. And we take our food and don't take anybody!"

That did not appease the refugees. Instead, they held up their thumbs, chanting "fingerprint" -- their way of demanding to be documented as refugees and then released from the camp.

"I wouldn't refuse food if I was hungry. If they can't handle it, let's go," Barry said as he got back into the car.

They managed to sneak two families out and meet them at a nearby gas station. Barry offered to place them in a converted hotel with other Syrian refugees for up to a year. But Barry has more ambitious plans. He told us he would be meeting President Bashar al-Assad within a few weeks.

"We know he's killed some of his own people. But then so did Mubarak. So did Gaddafi. So did Saddam," Barry explained.

When asked why he would have more success than others in reaching out to Assad, Barry said: "I know he loves Louie Louie. It's my song. I sang it and I'll sing it to him. I'm going with Evander and possibly Mike, Mike Tyson. He, Assad, is a big boxing fan. And we're not politically involved."

It's dark by the time we reach our next destination -- the hotel that Barry is using to rehouse refugees. There is already one family inside.