Two months ago, former Restless Development ICS volunteer Usaama Kaweesa, 27, left the UK to move to Athens. Volunteering with the British Red Cross and the national Scouting Association of Greece, heâ€™s been helping support them with their integration into their new lives in Europe.
When I first arrived here, I wasnâ€™t sure what to expect. I knew why I wanted to welcome young migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, but I wasnâ€™t totally sure what that would actually look like.
In those first few days, I was guided mainly by my own motivations for getting involved. I was thinking back to my own history as an immigrant and how that experience made me feel a connection with those who have been forced to give up their homes to seek safety and a better life elsewhere.
While Iâ€™ve never been a refugee myself, I was born in Uganda, one of the worldâ€™s poorest countries.
I emigrated to the UK with my parents when I was just six years old.
Iâ€™m not going to pretend my experience is the same as that of the vulnerable and disadvantaged children or young people fleeing war – persecution and humanitarian disasters that I now work with every day. 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 this project that welcomes them in Europe. Two months on, Iâ€™m happy to say I havenâ€™t looked back.
Here are four things Iâ€™ve learnt:
- Athens is such an incredible place to live and volunteer
This might not come as a shock to anyone whoâ€™s lived or worked here before, but to a newbie like me it was. Firstly the city is drenched in sun for the majority of the time and temperatures rarely go below the high 20sâ€¦ as in, like, never.
It was unbearable at first, but I got used to it and now Iâ€™ve found that it actually makes a lot of the people around me a lot happier, so Iâ€™m all for it. And everyone Iâ€™ve met has been so friendly and welcoming â€“ from the refugees we support, to the staff we work with, to the Greek public.
I could also go on to talk about the rich history and culture of this city, but I think thatâ€™s enough for now.
- Iâ€™m glad Iâ€™m volunteering with an NGO that shares my views
Thereâ€™s no disguising that the integration of refugees into Europe hasnâ€™t gone smoothly.
But itâ€™s really important that despite all thatâ€™s going on around us, we show public support for refugees. Iâ€™m pleased to be working in partnership with the Association for the Social Support of Youth (ARSIS), who want to prevent vulnerable young people being marginalised.
Itâ€™s been through working in their refugee shelters and youth support centre that Iâ€™ve felt like Iâ€™m fulfilling the mandate that brought me here â€“ which is preparing young refugees, who choose to settle here, for a smooth integration into our European society, as well as helping to prepare local communities to welcome those refugees and new migrants with positivity rather than xenophobia.
- Donâ€™t let people talk you into doing the safe thing.Â Listen to whatâ€™s inside of you and decide what it is that you care about so much that youâ€™re willing to risk it all.
I learnt this from a very brief conversation I had with an older man who was quite cynical and doubtful about the work we do. The reason it stuck with me is because it forced me to reflect on whether the voluntary work I do is truly worth it. Â
Now this older man didnâ€™t know me very well, but he had worked with refugees in the past in Sweden and it was that experience which contributed to his cynicism about the work we do. He felt that the majority of refugees in Europe were here out of choice rather than necessity, and therefore our efforts were just being wasted.
And on that day as we were about to part ways he looked at me and said: â€œLet me tell something.Â I like you; youâ€™re a smart and well-spoken young man. I consider you likeÂ a son so let me give you some advice â€“ forget this refugee community work.Â You canâ€™t change the world, and people wonâ€™t even appreciate you tried.Â Instead you should head back to the UK and think about a career in politics or law. Iâ€™m telling you, you can do a lot more there.â€
To be honest I did think about whether he was right about the politics or law options, but I definitely knew he was wrong about everything else. For what that older man didnâ€™t know about me was that before I volunteered with ICS, I also used to think that addressing issues like global poverty, injustice and inequality were all too big and complicated 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 here which brings me onto my last pointâ€¦
- Our work is already making a difference on the streets of Athens
At first I thought it would take a while before we saw the fruits of our labour, but because of the brilliance of one of the weekly activities we run, it hasnâ€™t taken so long.
Every Wednesday we run a Mobile School â€“ essentially an extendable blackboard with wheels fitted with several educational panels. We take this contraption to a public square and give free lessons to children living or working on the streets.
Covering everything from literacy and numeracy to health and hygiene, this has been one of my biggest highlights so far because even with the few that weâ€™ve delivered I can already see how powerful it is in helping street children unlock their potential and allowing them to just be kids.
Itâ€™s still early days for our project but for the couple of months we have been here, Iâ€™m pleased to say so far so good.