Study Abroad Students in Europe Learn from Encounters with Refugees

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Studying abroad, as many know and most can safely assume, can be an eye-opening occasion. This past fall semester, Northeastern students studying abroad in Europe got to experience firsthand an issue that has gripped news cycles all over the world: the European refugee crisis.

Studying abroad huskies’ experiences with refugees and their stories ranged from casual encounters to regular volunteering commitments. Acquiring a new, more empathetic perspective,  was a common theme among the students concerned.

Berenice Yañez, a third year Archeology major, spent the fall semester studying abroad in Berlin. Although Germany has led the European Union with its refugee resettlement efforts, it wasn’t until Yañez arrived to the Vienna train station during a trip that she came in contact with the refugee crisis firsthand.

“It was about 7 a.m. and [a group of refugees was] sleeping on the ground in sleeping bags or with jackets and whatever clothing items they had. At first I thought they were homeless people until I noticed that it was a whole area of the train station and near the entrance there were tables set up with small sandwiches and coffee. It didn’t look delicious but something is better than nothing.”

Although she didn’t get to have a conversation with any of the refugees, Yañez believes what she witnessed in Austria still qualifies as a learning experience. “It wasn’t until then that I realized the realness of the problem,” she said. “Literally there are people sleeping on the ground eating charity food. What is their plan? Where do they hope to go or what do they hope to do?”

Mike Kalmeta, a second year political science major, studied abroad in Rome last semester. On Fridays, he would spend three hours volunteering at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center where he led English classes and played games with refugees from Africa and the Middle East.

Although the refugees had painful stories to tell (including a man from Liberia who suspected, due to repeated missed phone calls, that his family had succumbed to the Ebola outbreak and an Iranian cab driver remembering instances of violence he witnessed while doing his routes in Tehran), Kalmeta is thankful for the experience.  IMG_9467-1

“I had never really met refugees personally and I’ve learned that they are some of the kindest people and they are extremely intelligent. Most of them speak at least three languages to begin with and they have a lot of experience and determination to offer,” he said. “[Volunteering] helped me gain more insight into the refugee crisis, as Boston doesn’t really confront these sorts of phenomena. Some of the pictures that American and foreign politicians paint of refugees are just plainly untrue.”

Newly anointed Huskies in Greece also played a role making the refugee experience better as approximately 30 students from the N.U.in program went to the Idomeni refugee campsite near the Macedonian border to volunteer their time.  The campsite, recently built by the French nonprofit Medecins Sans Frontieres, accommodates over 1,000 refugees a day and allowed students to volunteer in three different ways.  

Some worked sorting donated clothes, trying to find winter clothing the refugees could use. Others worked distributing that clothing, including sweaters, jackets, socks and walking shoes, to refugees in need. A last group worked in the food distribution area, where food was given to individuals coming off the bus from Athens.

Giving out food was the task that Stacey Anderson, a fourth year Political Science major (and International Student Advisor at the N.U.in program), found herself doing while at Idomeni.

“Every person was provided one serving of whatever we had,” she said. “The resources were low and constantly fluctuating at times we had chicken and rice and other times we only had bread – this would happen over the span of a couple of hours in the same day. I was there for about seven hours and there were multiple times when I thought we were going to run out of food.”

Because only one serving could be handed out per person, Anderson occasionally found herself in the difficult position of denying refugees who asked for more.

“Some men would flirt with me or tell me they had a wife or a child who was sick and needed food,” she said. “It was my job to make sure we saved what we could for new arrivals but it was also very difficult to tell some people, especially young children, ‘no.’”

Still, that uncomfortable dynamic didn’t prevent Anderson from making friends.

I remember there was one little boy in particular, the camp had mostly men and boys, who had the brightest smile. He was probably seven or eight, with these sweet big brown eyes, and he would run up in line hide behind someone and reach his hand out for food. I kept telling him, ‘no, you stop doing that!’ He would smile at me, giggle and run away. He was pretty smart though – each time he came back he would either have a new friend with him to make is seem like he was just arriving or he would wear a different jacket or coat and put up a hood if possible to make it difficult to recognize him. Before I left the camp I found him and told him goodbye – I know he didn’t speak English but he gave me a hug and waved.”

Looking back, Anderson couldn’t help but reflect on the wide socioeconomic diversity she witnessed at the camp. Some refugees came from poor backgrounds, but most seemed to belong to the middle class back home.

“Some people came and they were well dressed, others were not. Some looked very clean with make-up, others looked tired cold and dirty,” she said. “I remembered seeing these two girls, teenagers, in full make-up, their hair looked freshly pressed and they smelled like expensive perfume. Right next to these girls was a young man who had a trash bag filled with his belongings, he had broken sandals on his feet and his eyes were red like he had been awake for two days. The disparities are immense. These people are suffering and sacrificing and they are no different than you or me. Some people think these refugees are the poorest of the poor in Syria but they are just people, from all walks of life, fleeing from harm.”