After months on end of working remotely, the thought of heading outside the confines of my room-turned-office was highly appealing. When my fellowship ended and I was looking for in-person volunteering opportunities, I stumbled upon Refugee Support Europe.
Refugee rights have always been an interest of mine. My mother’s family came to the U.S. as refugees after the dictator Idi Amin took control over Uganda and her Iranian family was forced to leave. The fear and uncertainty that defined their experiences fostered my initial desire to support refugee and asylum-seeking communities. Having worked with other nonprofits focused on improving conditions for refugees and asylum seekers, Refugee Support seemed like the perfect alignment to what I was looking for: an organization substantially making a difference while maintaining the dignity of vulnerable populations.
The emphasis of our work at the Dignity Centre in Chisinau, Moldova, is on food distribution. Our “market” operates on a point-based system dependent upon the number of family members in a household and their ages; people are then able to choose items that fit their needs and preferences. The Dignity Centre helps over a thousand people every week, providing locally-purchased food, hygiene products, baby supplies, and pet food in the center. This service also reduces the burden on the local families graciously hosting Ukrainians and helps the local economy in Moldova that is generously receiving incoming people. This was different from the center in Cyprus, where we also assisted with labour cards, COVID-19 SafePasses, and provided other services such as the ever-popular “Barber Fridays.”
The language barrier in Moldova proved to be difficult at times. Many of those coming into the center did not speak English, so translation apps — paired with animated hand gestures — quickly became a volunteer’s best friend in the absence of our translators. Additionally, the center assists a number of elderly patrons who may need support with technology. Luckily, we are often able to discern what is needed and can help navigate these difficulties.
In addition to meeting incredible volunteers from all walks of life, volunteers gain insight into the host countries’ cultures, as well as the cultures of those coming into the Centre. Some of my fondest memories include sharing music and recipes with West African members in Cyprus, practicing Russian and Ukrainian with our wonderful volunteer translators in Moldova, and learning about buckwheat’s (surprisingly impressive) versatility. Volunteers also have the opportunity to explore both after the work day and on the weekends — after an enjoyable and productive albeit tiring work week, recharging is necessary!
As can be imagined, hearing the stories of those coming to receive aid was heart-wrenching. People were eager to share their backgrounds and what they had to leave behind — their homes, schools, and often grandparents who did not want to join them. They expressed their desire for peace, and many of the children who enter our “children’s area” leave us with drawings of the Ukrainian flag adorned with hearts, often accompanied by written pleas for the war to end. In Nicosia, many of the asylum seekers and refugees spoke of the racism they encountered upon arrival, the difficult camp conditions, and how they are often denied work and places to stay once their immigration status is known. Many of them have higher education degrees and technical training yet cannot find low-level jobs, all while carrying the burden of their families’ hopes and the need to provide for those back home. To see people so young who have left everything and everyone they know in the hopes of bettering their lives, and to be met with such hardships was a poignant reality check that further highlighted the faults of many Western immigration systems.
It is impressive to see the scale of people that Refugee Support helps, as well as the impact that RSE has on the refugee and asylum-seeking communities they assist. Additionally, I cannot speak highly enough of every member of the RSE leadership team that I have encountered. The coordinators I worked under, Paula and Summer, are not only capable leaders but all-around wonderful people whose complete dedication to the mission of the organization and the communities we work with is nothing short of admirable.
For those of us from privileged parts of the world, it is easy to ignore conflicts thousands of miles away, but those living through it have no choice but to confront reality and endure. In these uncertain times, and in those inevitable to follow, we must look out for one another — borders and nationalities aside. I will undoubtedly be carrying forth the exemplary values reinforced through my time with Refugee Support Europe, and I cannot recommend volunteering with them enough.