Each year the Club awards a travel/research grant of £500 to a junior studying abroad in the UK. Applicants are offered the opportunity to expand their research to another city, enroll in a special class, attend a conference or accept an internship. Our 2016 grant was awarded to Jessica Shin. Here is her essay describing her work with Syrian refugees.
"My journey to Oinofyta’s refugee camp started back in the summer of 2016, or more specifically, on my flight back home to California. I had recently become an avid podcast connoisseur, and so, just like on any other flight, I settled into my seat with my downloaded podcasts, getting ready to fall asleep to the sound of soothing voices and deep conversations. However, one podcast had the complete opposite effect. This American Life’s “Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee” podcast series jolted me straight awake for the full five-hour flight.
Perhaps it was from my discussions in class or common rooms about the Syrian Civil War, Aleppo, Iraq, etc. or my background as a Political Science major that made me feel as if I were pretty well aware with the state of the refugee crisis. However, after listening to the podcast, and the story of George’s refugee camp in Greece, my perspective on the issue grew from an academic one, to an emotional one.
Therefore, when I had first seen the UK Wellesley Alum’s club grant proposal, there was no question in my mind what I hoped to do with the grant. I had a free week after my term at Oxford came to a close; I was in the right continent; and I now had the opportunity to fund one of my wildest dreams.
Whilst drafting my grant proposal and researching ways I could best be of help, I became so impassioned and overcome with a feeling of empowerment. Therefore, when I discovered that my proposal was selected, words could not express the gratitude and happiness I felt.
Having little prior experience in volunteering in foreign lands or working with refugees, I quickly began my search in the dark for flights, locations, and advice on how to best be of help. With the help of several Facebook informational groups and speaking to alums who had volunteered with refugees in the past, I came across a camp in Oinofyta, (an hour north of Athens) run by a non-profit called Do Your Part. Upon finding and setting up arrangements with the camp, everything else fell into place.
The Oinofyta Camp housed around 650+ refugees and was settled in the grounds of an old cosmetics factory. Their main philosophy at the camp was to provide the means for the residents to run their community, until they were able to find their next step.
As a volunteer, my main responsibilities were centered in the warehouse, which was a separate area/room within the factory. The warehouse stored all the items such as clothes, toiletries, food, and all recently-donated items. It was our responsibility to sort and prepare these items to be distributed out to the residents. Because our work revolved around what item or items we were organizing that day, each new day came with a new set of challenges and learning opportunities. For example, one day we had to ration out 100 grams of sugar per person in a family (which involved a lot of scales and zip-lock bags); another day we had to take the security tags off of donated winter boots. However, one thing which stayed consistent throughout was a pile of donated clothes that we called ‘the pool’. As a quick aside, if you are thinking of donating clothes, it makes a world of a difference if you put them in a sealed bag so that they are not dirtied throughout the shipment process. Seeing the massive pile of clothes and sheer amount of labor that had to go into sorting through it all was a huge wake-up call to me when I next donate.
My most cherished moments from Oinofyta (perhaps not surprisingly) came from when I chatted, laughed, and ate with the residents. While the language barrier limited some conversations, ultimately it was humbling to learn the stories of these residents. For years I had been hearing about the refugee crisis and the horrifying circumstances they flee from, and so it was such a powerful experience to finally put names, faces, and personalities to these statistics.
Perhaps it was by meeting refugees who reminded me of my friends from back home or thinking of my immigrant parents, but one feeling that resonated with me was the idea of how easily the circumstances could have been reversed. Their search for a better life was the same as my parents and their sense of humor was the same as mine; but here they were, struggling to gain acceptance in a foreign land and secure the basic needs of food, shelter, and safety. I could have easily been in their shoes, had I just been born into a different set of circumstances. Undergoing this realization was both frustrating and motivating. Frustrating in the sense that these refugees were just like my parents in doing all that they could to find a better life, but due to uncontrollable circumstances, finding difficulty in doing so; motivating in the sense that I realized that I need to do all that I could to help and do my part.
A huge thank you to the Wellesley Club UK for giving me this truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. None of this would have been possible without your support.
To those that are looking to help, but unable to volunteer physically, I would highly recommend donating to the organization Do Your Part or other non-profit organizations such as White Helmets or Save the Children. Monetary donations truly do make the world of a difference.