A few weeks ago I started my first volunteer trip with CGR to help serve refugees in various camps in and around Athens. It was my first time meeting refugees (that I know of), going on a volunteer trip, and being in Greece. I was going in blind.
The first day of the trip we invited refugees to a retreat centre to play with kids and to handout hygiene packages and other gifts. For me this didn’t feel much different than the work I had done at various summer camps. I was playing soccer with kids, the only difference was the language barrier which really didn’t matter. Playing with kids is pretty much the same no matter where you go. However, it was my first conversation with a refugee a few years older than myself that really opened my eyes to what I was taking part in.
Instead of having a normal conversation, I set out with a barrage of questions that felt similar to the kinds of questions I asked people on the first day of university. Where are you from? What do you study? Which prof do you have? Surface level questions that often end in an awkward pause and a goodbye. The difference was this time the questions were not based around university, but based on the personal struggle and loss this man experienced. Where you from? How did you get here? Do you want to go back? Thankfully, he was kind and answered all the questions I had.
He is from Syria and got to Greece through Turkey on a boat half filled with water and life jackets that didn’t work. As for whether he wants to go back or not, that is a question which tragically he does not see as binary. There is no want, it is only whether he is able, and for him that answer was no. He doesn’t believe there can be peace, and he doesn’t see much of a home to go back to. When he was graduating university in Syria, in Economics he had a very different decision to make than most graduates. Upon graduation from university, he would be required to serve in the army and/ or fight in some faction of the ongoing war… so instead of thinking about what he might want to do, he had to figure out how to flee. As an economics student who graduated just a few days before writing this, I can say that the decisions I face are hardly a worry in comparison.
As much as I focused on his status as a ‘refugee’ during that conversation I also learned about him as a person. He is a kind spirited man, with a warm smile, a love for fitness, and a former varsity soccer player.
That is what I slowly learned over this trip. Those I met were not refugees first, they were people first. It wasn’t until the end of the trip that I was truly talking to these people as people. We could talk about food, and cultural differences, jokes, and sports. If my home was destroyed I would still like movies, friends, and ultimate Frisbee. There’s no reason to assume the tragedy is the whole.