How can you make studying abroad an even more meaningful and complete experience? For many CYAers, the answer is clear: volunteering with refugee children. Over the Fall ’18 semester, Nadia Meliniotis, our Executive Director of Student Affairs, helped CYA students find the volunteer organization with the right fit for them. We asked a handful of them to share their stories to get a sense of what this experience meant to them.
Jordan Ertl, Megan Jiang, Alex Marsh and Grace Smith volunteered at MOSAICO House, which provides a safe space for refugees to live, learn, grow and be empowered.
At the Mosaico shelter for vulnerable single women and families, Alex Marsh acted as a math tutor for children aged 6 to 13 years old. She told us: “They go to the Greek school and they’ll come back and ask me for help with their homework. It works pretty well. Every week I work with 6 children that have made big progress!”
Alex first became interested in the refugee crisis and immigration in general when she was interning for a US senator last summer and acquired hands-on experience with immigration cases. Once Alex decided to study abroad in Athens with CYA, she knew this was the type of volunteering she wanted to be involved with.
She was surprised to see that even though the children at Mosaico House have been through a lot of difficulties, they still reminded her of any other child or teenager around the world: “I remember after a week of volunteering I was saying to my parents that these kids, their personalities, are very similar to my cousins. It’s just amazing how easy it is to interact with them. These kids are fantastic and they are hilarious!”
Gabby Amorelli, Alex Poston, Maggie Rothberg and Claire Ruhlman volunteered over the fall semester at FAROS, teaching English to unaccompanied refugee boys aged 12 to 17 years old. FAROS is a Christian non-profit organization that provides care and humanitarian support to unaccompanied refugee children and youths, as well as refugee families with children in Athens, Greece.
Maggie Rothberg had volunteered back home with theater and arts organizations but never before as an English teacher. This is why at the beginning she was very concerned about planning out every moment of the class in advance.
She soon came to realize that it is simply not feasible to plan for every situation that might come up at a place like FAROS: “The nature of the organization, in working with migrants who have very little stability in their lives, is one of constant change and adjustment to the changing needs of the students. The students are great and they want to learn, but figuring out how to make that happen for them requires thinking outside the box of the traditional classroom structure.”
Over time Maggie managed to be present in the moment and to be ready to respond to the needs of the class on any given day, whether this meant doing a more structured lesson or just playing a game: “Once I started doing this, the way the students responded to me totally changed. Realizing that I had the ability to succeed in the face of an unpredictable situation has given me much more trust in myself and confidence in my problem-solving skills. Additionally, it has been wonderful getting to know them to the extent that I have, hearing their stories and seeing their eagerness to learn”.
She told us that she would definitely recommend this volunteering opportunity to all future CYAers who are looking for a challenging experience that is different to the normal activities they do during their time abroad.
Claire Ruhlman had done extensive volunteer work in the past, including work for recycling initiatives, food kitchens, ESL, mentoring, library organization and rehabilitation efforts. At FAROS, though, she was amazed by the eagerness of her students: “The boys are very enthusiastic about learning English, which given their backstories is really positive and inspiring. They are extremely earnest students. They readily participate in all the classes, ask a lot of questions, and are very respectful towards me. It might be a little cliché to say this has been the most rewarding part, but it is totally true!”
Claire told us that one thing that all CYA volunteers notice is that the students have a lot of questions of their own: “Sometimes these questions are not too pertinent to the material taught in class that day. Still, I think above all, this is just a good time for the students to be exposed to English. So carving some time out of the day to answer their questions is a good idea.”
When asked about the biggest challenge she had faced, Claire explained to us that because the school is new, the logistics of the program have not been fully worked out. Scheduling, estimating the exact number of students and other logistics are unpredictable: “You just have to understand and take into consideration the nature of the situation of these boys”.
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