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Friends and equals: how volunteering changed my view of refugees

Virginia Colungo, a Spanish EVS volunteer at Wonder Foundation

I have been involved in a European Volunteering Service (EVS) project with Wonder Foundation for 2 months. The project tries to improve the integration of refugees and immigrants who arrive in London, but – to my surprise - I am the first beneficiary.

As part of my volunteering, I took part in the “A Refugee Like Me” project and attended the project workshop in October, alongside many other young people. We learned a lot, I was most impressed by the testimony of three young refugees, because I had never met a refugee in person before.

After the workshop I realised that my knowledge about the refugee crisis was very restricted to public safety and how hosting refugees affects countries, and that my vision was very limited by media. Now I see the refugee crisis with new eyes.

Young people at the "A Refugee Like Me" conference.  

My first change of opinion is about the problem. I saw the refugee crisis as an international problem that governments must resolve, and I thought that citizens could only send food and clothes to refugee camps. But now, after I meeting young refugees and hearing their stories, I understand that we all are part of the solution. We can promote integration ourselves in the communities where refugees are live. We can remember that we don’t help “refugees” in general, but people: Ayla who comes from Syria, Foday who escaped from Sierra Leone or Sook who sought asylum when she left North Korea. The government must support their immediate needs, but real integration in our communities requires all of our help, to help refugees re-establish their lives in new countries and cultures.

I have also changed my perception of refugee rights. We all understand that everyone has right to live in safety, which is why many countries support refugees. But being alive is not just food, shelter and clothing. People also need support for their higher needs, to be free and happy. What are the governments doing about these rights?

English is not my first language, so I know how it feels to not be able to express myself properly. If I feel bad about that and I don’t face the problems that refugees must tackle. How much more must these people need help to improve their language skills, in order to be able to communicate their worries, needs and aspirations? To establish a new life refugees need to be able to communicate and meet local people, because otherwise they won’t make friends.

It’s not just language. We need to give refugees the opportunity to learn about the culture, history, and even public services in their new towns and cities, and we also need to help young people to get ready for restarting school. Refugee children may have fallen behind or never even had the opportunity to start school.

It’s necessary to help them to access work as well. Refugees can receive public help, but everyone needs work to feel that they are useful to others in addition to covering their financial needs. This is a difficult point because there are many local people also looking for work, but in any case, I think that employment is necessary to help refugees to truly integrate.

I now realise that, as a citizen it is my responsibility to treat the people who walk alongside me as my neighbour, to break down walls and build bridges, to make friends with refugees and see them as my equals. I hope you will too.

This blog is part of the EU-funded "A Refugee Like Me" project, and you can read more about it here.