Melissa Seeger - Refugee Project in Italy
My name is Melissa and I’m a pre-med student. I chose to volunteer internationally for a variety of reasons, such as wanting to experience something that I felt would be life-changing and beneficial. However, the main reason I decided to join this project was my personal feelings and my family’s feelings towards the Syrian Refugee crisis.
My family is Jewish, and while there is a lot of media that plays Jews against Arabs, my family feels for those having to be relocated from their homes and I wanted to help. On top of that, my boyfriend is Syrian and he helped prepare me for my trip so that I could make the most of my experience with the refugees. While the trip had its ups and downs, I feel that I learned a great deal about the world and myself during this experience.
I went on this trip with my brother. We travelled from California to Italy and although I’ve been to Europe a few times, it was my brother’s first time out of the States. Being in an environment where the main language spoken was one he didn’t know made my brother very shy for the first few days. I relied heavily on my knowledge of French and Spanish to understand a bit of Italian, but for the most part, the Italian conversations flew over my head because they were spoken so fast.
My Refugee placement
I’d be lying if I said that it isn’t unnerving to be in a situation where people speak in a language that you can’t fully understand. To cope in this environment, you can do what my brother did, which was help out in the English teaching classes and through this, he learned a bit of Italian. He also took the Italian classes that were provided by the project. Alternatively, you can work so much in another minority environment that you begin to blend in with it, which is what I did.
I found myself a great deal more comfortable just surrounding myself within the activities that involved the refugees from the Middle East, such as working in a store and meeting them one on one, spending time with them at their house to see how they were doing, or when I was working within the library. While most of the conversations involved awkward laughing and smiling, I felt a great deal more comfortable in these situations as opposed to working in the daycare.
This was a big lesson for me to learn on the first day my brother and I worked with two children by taking them out to the beach. It was a disaster because even when you come in from an angle that shows that you are clearly helping, you are a new person to them, and you are there only temporarily. The children need time to adjust to you and they don’t always behave themselves.
Now later on the children and I became good friends, so I’m grateful for the experience, but it taught me to always remember that I am there temporarily, the children know this, and therefore I should take extra care if building relationships with them. It was because of this that I found myself more comfortable with the adult refugees.
As a woman coming to the refugee project, I found myself with a plethora of opportunities to help out with children and cooking. However, along the way I learned that working with children is something that makes me feel very nervous and frustrated. This was alleviated by me speaking out and finding opportunities within the project that would fit me personally. You can easily go into this experience and be placed wherever they need you, but I knew that if I wanted to live without regrets, I was going to have to speak up about where I wanted to be placed. Miriam, Maryam, and Katya were all very accommodating in helping me find where I would fit within the project and I ended up not wanting to leave when my time was up.
I still want to visit Camini again someday to see what changes those three women have made in that little town. They’re a great resource and are incredibly helpful. Not only do they help to make your experience enjoyable, they are also there for you when difficult circumstances come your way, such as when I got heatstroke. It can be scary being sick in another country, so to have such a wonderful support system while you’re there is priceless. If you don’t use their knowledge to help make the best of your experience, then you’re missing out.
Another great resource is the other volunteers who can help you with navigating a new country. The town is very small so you become close to them quite easily. You may also become close to some of the refugees, but your fellow volunteers will become people you rely on from the very beginning. We stayed in small, cute homes and although who you end up with as a roommate is hit or miss just like anywhere else, it just becomes part of the experience.
My overall experience
There are many cherished memories from my volunteering experience, but one memory in particular stands out for me. We held a cooking day for the women at the project, giving us all the chance to relax and socialise. The most memorable part of this day was when we’d finished cooking and we put some music on and started dancing. I got to dance with women from all over the world, and got to experience a part of their cultures that didn’t require language (thank goodness, because my head sometimes hurts by the end of the day from all the translating and miming). It was amazing and all it required was a little step outside of my comfort zone. My boyfriend was pleased with the dance moves I learned that evening, which was an added plus.
As I said, it was a life-changing experience. Not everything was perfect, but it was certainly memorable. I left with a bunch of memories and a list of new people that amazed me and helped me during my journey. If you join this experience, just don’t forget bug spray!
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.