ATHENS— I recently returned from my second volunteer trip with Canadian Global Response (CGR) serving refugees in Athens. For this trip our team worked with one of CGR’s partners on the ground, Syrian Breeze of Hope. Currently the organization is completely run by refugees helping others in their community with the help of outside volunteers and ongoing donations through CGR.
The starkest contrast between this trip and my trip last year was my personal sense of presence in the community. Last year was an incredible volunteer experience, but the structure was very different. We worked out of a place separate from the refugees and either invited them in or went out to various camps in and around Athens. This year with Syrian Breeze of Hope we worked out of their office for the entire week.
We helped them with assembling and handing out care packages, but for the most part we taught English, music classes, and played with the kids. In essence, we built friendships. It wasn’t long before I felt like I knew the refugees around me and that they knew me. I was often referred to as “Teacher Red” , my name is Reed and it was a little difficult for them to say. Regardless, it was a good feeling to be welcomed in.
As I began to teach, I also began to learn. I got to know my students and hear about their lives. Quickly I realized how similar their lives had been to mine. Like me, most of them were university-educated or were cut off part-way or before they could go. I taught English to a Professor of Law, I talked to Architects, and saw jobless Surgeons. At one point a woman asked me to read some vocab words she was learning so she knew how to pronounce them. It did not take long before I realized I could not pronounce some of the words, because I had never seen them. She had practiced medicine and was trying to learn terms like sciatica and sputum!
We are currently experiencing one of the largest refugee crises in history and, as a backlash, many countries around the world are seeing xenophobic responses. I hope anecdotes like these can help to bridge some of the question marks people have. None of the people I talked to want to be where they are and none of them can go back. They are individuals, families, and communities uprooted and just looking for a place to be safe and prosperous. They are smart talented people working tirelessly to offer the best lives they can for themselves and their families.
In similar ways we judge our own poor, “it’s their fault”, “they’re just lazy”, “if they worked harder maybe they’d get somewhere”. Refugees have a clear cause for why they are where they are, some of the poverty I see on the streets of Vancouver is harder to pin point. Regardless, I hope we can accept, whether we are certain or not, that people want to work, people want to be safe, and people want to have a place they call home. It’s their circumstances that have forced them otherwise, not their choice.
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