Four things I’ve learnt while working with refugees

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, he’s been helping support them with their integration into their new lives in Europe.

When I first arrived here, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew why I wanted to welcome young migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, but I wasn’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 I’ve never been a refugee myself, I was born in Uganda, one of the world’s poorest countries.

I emigrated 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 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, I’m happy to say I haven’t looked back.

Here are four things I’ve learnt:

  • Athens is such an incredible place to live and volunteer

This might not come as a shock to anyone who’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 20s… as in, like, never.

It was unbearable at first, but I got used to it and now I’ve found that it actually makes a lot of the people around me a lot happier, so I’m all for it. And everyone I’ve met has been so friendly and welcoming – 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 that’s enough for now.

  • I’m glad I’m volunteering with an NGO that shares my views

There’s no disguising that the integration of refugees into Europe hasn’t gone smoothly.

But it’s really important that despite all that’s going on around us, we show public support for refugees. I’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.

It’s been through working in their refugee shelters and youth support centre that I’ve felt like I’m fulfilling the mandate that brought me here – 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.

Usaama, second from right on the back row, with his fellow volunteers.
  • Don’t let people talk you into doing the safe thing.   Listen to what’s inside of you and decide what it is that you care about so much that you’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.  

Now this older man didn’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: “Let me tell something.   I like you; you’re a smart and well-spoken young man. I consider you like  a son so let me give you some advice – forget this refugee community work.   You can’t change the world, and people won’t even appreciate you tried.  Instead you should head back to the UK and think about a career in politics or law. I’m telling you, you can do a lot more there.”

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 didn’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 point…

  • 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 hasn’t taken so long.

Every Wednesday we run a Mobile School – 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 we’ve delivered I can already see how powerful it is in helping street children unlock their potential and allowing them to just be kids.

It’s still early days for our project but for the couple of months we have been here, I’m pleased to say so far so good.

If you want to keep up to date with Usaama’s work with young refugees in Athens, follow the Time To Be Welcome project on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


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Four things I’ve learnt while working with refugees

by wearerestless Reading time: 4 min