At the beginning you don’t know anything. You only know what you’ve heard from the news, from the radio, newspapers, articles on trendy websites, maybe also what some friends told you. But quickly when you go out there you realize you didn’t know anything about anything.
I tried to be ready, I expected things to be one way or another, and very soon I realized that nothing was like I expected it to be.
So I became a chameleon, I adapted.
Oh of course it’s not easy when just starting and everything is new: the people, the culture, the language, the comfort, the food, the rhythm, but I adapted, and opened myself as much as possible.
And slowly I saw how my opinions changed on things. I started to understand better, I met and talked with many people that are aware of the situation and that were here way before I arrived, in fact they were here from the start.
When in 2015 the refugee crisis started to blow up, it’s when many camps in Greece opened and when many refugees were relocated there. They knew more than me. They were the one that explained me how the camp ran, what were the rules, what were the weekly meetings and important distributions. In fact, they could be better guides in the camp than volunteers, of course: they were living there. It was their house for an indefinite period of their life. Families with various children; mother alone with kids; father alone with kids; women; men; minors; every age.
By the way, I went to Greece thinking: “I’m going to help Syrian refugees fleeing the war in their country”, hold on, now that I am there I see many people that are not from Syria. They are from Afghanistan, from Iran, from Pakistan, from Iraq, and I think: “why are they here? What exactly happened to them that they had to leave everything behind?”.
I started asking other volunteers, maybe they would try to answer my questions, if they had time, if they knew themselves. Otherwise, I just had to wait, to open myself up, and to listen. We all have our own story, so do they. It’s never easy, it’s never simple but I just had to be patient, to not ask questions which could be very disturbing and intrusive. When people wanted me to know their story, they would tell me. And then, I was just ready to listen.
Of course, first I felt like “why shouldn’t I ask them directly, it shows that I’m interested in them, right?”. Yes and no. It’s really when I started to spend time with them, to tell them about myself, to open, that I showed a sign that I was interested in connecting. Then, if they wanted to tell me more about themselves, they would. Many stories are heavy to tell and even more to repeat. You don’t want to tell your story to someone who doesn’t know you. You don’t want to tell your story to someone who is not interested in you for who you are but for your situation only.
Another thing, I’ve been advised by my volunteer coordinator one important thing “don’t become friend with a refugee, don’t build relationships here because you will leave.” I first thought, “OK, I’m here to help, work and do what needs to be done.”, let me tell you right now: there is no way you’re not going to feel connected, attached or build friendship with anyone — or I’m a very naïve person.
Other volunteers became my friends, of course: I already shared the same kind of culture, the same education basis, the same way to handle relationships.
But “refugees”, “migrants” as our media like to call them, well some of them also became my friends. We both know, they are humans, just like you, just like me. I found another way to connect with these amazing people; a different way than what I already knew. And I saw a different generosity, a different lifestyle, a different way to see and build relationships, a different opinion about many different topics that I was so sure I’d mastered— the refugee crisis for example or the action of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
I learnt. So much. Differently.
They learnt as well, just as I was able to teach them a few basics words in my own language. As I was able to explain how relationships work in Europe. As I could tell more about my own culture, traditions, passions even.
Also by making them move. — What?!
Ok, let me explain.
Most of refugees are waiting, waiting and waiting. All day. All week. All month. All year, several years sometimes. They have to wait.
They have to wait for their asylum request to be accepted. Then, they have to wait to receive their Identity card. Then they have to wait for their passport (if they ask for one).
And what can they do while they are waiting for so long? Well, that’s up to them of course, but also to you and me. We all have the power, the energy, the motivation to take the lead and start something new.
Now, I am step by step building my own project, not so much to bring assistance but more to empower, to bring confidence and strength. I’m launching Sport For Refugees, to develop access to sport and to connect people together.
So yes, I was new there, never been a volunteer before. But trust me, no one knows at the beginning, you just need to be confident enough to speak up, bring your idea to the table and show that you can make it happen.
Now, it’s your turn.
And don’t forget to spread the word.