This semester, Innovate@BCSW is following the experiences of four BC Social Work students who have embarked on international field education placements in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. This video diary and blog post comes from Skylar Chew, who is working in Mytilini on the island of Lesvos, Greece.
I knew I was in for an adventure from the moment I stepped off the plane in Mytilini on the island of Lesvos, Greece and was informed that my baggage did not make it with me. After 20 hours of sleepless travel already spent in the same pair of yoga pants and Under Armor running shirt, I could do nothing but smile, shrug, and say to myself, “Come what may.” I left the airport to meet my new roommate from Norway at our very dark and cold apartment. Our initial bonding consisted of figuring out the hot water, where best to place our three small space heaters, how to get to the city center for food without getting lost, and how I was going to get news from the airport about my baggage. Luckily, I got my bag the next day and aside from some jet lag and jumping out of bed during two days of consecutive apartment-shaking earthquakes, the familiar cultural sights and sounds from living in Thessaloniki two years ago quickly allowed me to feel right at home.
While local Greek culture dominates through its pounds of Feta cheese, beautiful Orthodox churches, cafes filled with instant coffee and “Frappes,” and rows of olive trees, the island of Lesvos feels like its own mini world as refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa, as well as volunteers from all over Europe, fill the streets. In 2015 alone, over half a million refugees came to this island by sea in small, overcrowded rubber dinghies from neighboring Turkey. Since the borders closed in March, thousands of people are now stuck in three large refugee camps that surround the city, waiting to see where they will be sent. A large number of them are unaccompanied minors (children who have lost or been separated from their parents), so the organization I am here with is trying to support these minors by offering housing, legal support, guardianship, and psychological, educational, recreational, and health services.
All the children we work with are refugee boys, mostly from Muslim nations. While my main project is to help develop a needs assessment to identify gaps in the organization’s programming for the boys, my job these first weeks has simply been to get to know the boys and the daily running of the organization. It was uncomfortable not knowing what the boys thought of me or how I could interact with them, so to try and initiate connections I did what came most naturally to me—buy a soccer ball and start juggling it. I knew this was the right choice when within minutes the boys surrounded me to play. From then on, almost every moment has consisted of boys pulling me by the arm and yelling, “Ella! Ella!” (Come! Come!) “Play! Play!”
While hours of playing “football” on a concrete surface has already given me holes in my boots, cuts in my hands, and the unfortunate nickname “Cristiano Ronaldo,” (couldn’t they have picked “Messi?”) I have felt incredibly blessed for my ability to connect with the boys through the sport I have lived and breathed all of my life. It’s been humbling to watch these boys from unspeakable traumas forget their troubles for at least a few small moments of recreational fun. I often feel guilty standing next to them knowing our realities are worlds apart, but on the football field we are, at least for that instant, equal. I desperately wish this could be the case in all other contexts, but for now these small moments of laughter, joy, and release that I can try to foster in these simple moments will have to be enough.