Usaama Kaweesa has completed ICS as a general participant and team leader with Restless Development in South Africa and Uganda. He is now taking the skills he learned on placement to Greece, where he will help refugees.
In the UK it is refugee week, an annual commemoration of the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees as they escape conflict and natural disaster across the world.
It’s important to me because as an immigrant I feel an affinity with those who have been forced to give up their homes to seek safety and a better life elsewhere in the world.
My Restless Development ICS experience was an incredible few months that made me the global citizen I am today. But in six days I’ll begin another journey of active citizenship – this time to help the many young and unaccompanied refugees living in sheltered communities across Athens.
I’m going to be spending a year volunteering with the British Red Cross and the national Scouting Association of Greece in refugee shelters across Athens.
I’ll be helping the team there supporting the welcoming of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and helping with their integration through the use of non-formal education and youth work – skills I learnt during my ICS placements in South Africa and Uganda.
But there’s a second purpose of the project – to encourage public opinion in Europe to be more tolerant and open towards the plight of refugees and migrants.
It’s an aim we hope to meet by facilitating interaction between refugees and local communities in order to build that strong foundation for their future cooperation and mutual understanding. It won’t be easy.
But that’s why we’re working on this project with nine other organisations – the World Organisation of Scout Movements, Greek Scouting Movement, Scouting Ireland, Scouts of France, SINGA, the Icelandic Scouts Association, Chapelle aux Champs, Youth for Exchange and Understanding, and the European Federation for Intercultural Learning.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency there are estimated to be over 60 million people throughout the world forced to flee their homes. Among them are more than 21 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
But while developing countries host almost nine in ten refugees, last year more than a million arrived in Europe – mainly through Greece and Italy.
No matter how you see the situation, it is apparent that we cannot look away if we are committed to creating a more equal, just and peaceful world.
While I’ve never been a refugee, I was born in Uganda, one of the world’s poorest countries. I immigrated to the UK with my parents when I was just six years old.
I’m not going to pretend my experience is the same as that of the vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people fleeing war, persecution and humanitarian disasters.
But as an immigrant myself, I have a huge amount of empathy for anyone who has to make the same journey. Naturally, I wanted to contribute towards a project that welcomes them in Europe.
I was lucky when I arrived in the UK to be welcomed with the chance at a full education as well as every opportunity to succeed and integrate into European society. However unfortunately this is not the case for many young refugees today who shamefully have to fight for these basic human rights every step of the way.
We have to encourage the public and governments in Europe to be more respectful and open towards refugees and migrants. There’s no disguising the fact that the integration of refugees into Europe has not gone as smoothly as many of us would have hoped.
Instead, xenophobia and intolerance are on the rise across the continent.
We’re all familiar with the scare stories about asylum seekers ‘flooding’ the UK. In Greece, resentment has been fuelled by the fact that the country is taking in huge numbers of refugees while simultaneously facing their worst economic crisis in modern times.
But it’s really important that despite all that’s going on around us we show public support for refugees. Hostility or even indifference only exacerbates the problem.
In the UK, we can do this by putting public pressure on the government to reinstate programmes like the refugee resettlement scheme for unaccompanied minors that was championed by Lord Dubs.
Dubs was one of 669 mainly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia who were helped to escape to the UK thanks to Nicholas Winton, often described as Britain’s Oskar Schindler.
Now a Labour peer, Dubs championed an amendment to the UK’s Immigration Act last year which required the government to relocate a number of unaccompanied refugee children from Europe.
MPs voted thinking that around 3,000 children would be resettled here in the UK. But in February, the government shelved the plan, announcing just 350 children would be brought to Britain.
For me in Greece it’ll be about preparing the young newly arrived refugees for a smooth integration into European society, as well as helping to prepare local communities to welcome the refugees and new migrants with positivity rather than xenophobia.
It’s not an easy task but that’s how you change hearts and minds over time.
Before I volunteered with ICS, I used to think that addressing issues like global poverty, injustice and inequality were all too big for one person to solve. And especially by someone like me.
But through seeing first-hand the impact our work had on the local community, I learned that while an individual might not be able to solve these big issues alone, we can collectively have an impact that can create a ripple effect. The same is true for our response to the refugee crisis.
Sure – it’s no small feat, and there is much work to be done, but my past experiences have shown me that it is doable.
But just in case you’re still cynical about your capacity to make a difference, take a moment to remember what 1960s American anthropologist Margaret Mead once famously said on change: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world … indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”