This semester, Innovate@BCSW is following the experiences of several BC Social Work students who have embarked on international field education placements in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. This is the second post from Skylar Chew, who is working in Mytilini on the island of Lesvos, Greece.
As you may already know, for my field placement, I am working on the Greek island of Lesvos in a shelter for unaccompanied minors who have fled from dangerous situations in their home countries in hopes of finding freedom, asylum, and opportunities for a better life in Europe. While my main responsibility is to help my organization with a needs assessment, most of my time is spent in the shelter assisting the staff with daily activities. My usual day begins by grabbing a “Freddo Espresso” at a nearby coffee shop and arriving at the shelter sometime between 11 AM and 2 PM (things start much later here). My days are never short of activity as staff members, psychologists, interpreters, legal guardians, teachers, and doctors are constantly coming and going. The boys also run around to their various activities according to their own individual schedules. For example, some of them have school, gym, boxing class, art class, English, Greek, German, and French lessons, soccer practice, and yoga.
While I sometimes participate with the boys in their scheduled activities, I mostly spend my time by taking them to local parks to play soccer or basketball, going for walks, going on excursions around the island, playing board games, playing ping-pong, teaching English, and simply eating meals, laughing, and hanging around with them in the house. While I truly feel that both the boys and staff have fully accepted me and enjoy having me, there have been many times I have questioned my worth and my presence here. During days that consist of playing games and sitting around with the boys, I wonder what good I am really doing and if I am fully utilizing my education for their benefit. However, many moments have occurred unexpectedly that have reminded me that a kind smile, patience, empathy, and simply showing them I am interested in their lives are all much more powerful than any “counseling” session, therapeutic modality, or other “hard skills” I have learned in school. We have learned in our courses countless times that a strong relationship is the single most powerful agent of change, and I am now experiencing that first-hand.
One specific moment that brought this truth to light for me occurred the other night when I went to watch two of our boys at their soccer practice. They have been asking me to go since I arrived, but other conflicts kept coming up. Finally I found the opportunity to go, and I will never forget the lesson I learned in what is truly important in caring for these boys. As I was watching the practice, I was taken back by how every time one of the boys did something well, he would look at me on the sideline to check if I saw. When one of them scored a goal, he immediately darted over to me in excitement, gave me a high five, and ran back on the field. At the end of practice, they both overflowed with excitement and would not stop talking to me about everything that happened in practice. This was very emotional for me and when I got to my apartment that night, I burst into tears for how much this moment hit home. How many thousands of practices and games have I had in my life, and how many times have I too known the importance of having someone in the stands cheering me on? For 20+ years of playing, my mom and dad were always in my corner—traveling across the country to thousands of games, sitting with their blankets in the winter snow and their umbrellas in pouring rain, comforting me after bad losses, sharing in my joy after big wins, cleaning my smelly shin guards and grass-stained jerseys, listening to me vent about coaching errors and unfair referees, icing my sprained ankles, and massaging my sore muscles. No matter what, they were there for me. And now, sitting at this practice in Greece, I realized that in this moment I was that person for these boys. Aside from the other staff members, these boys do not have anyone watching them from the stands to cheer them on. Their excitement at having me there not only overwhelmed me, but taught me how crucial it is for them to simply have someone there to support them in their endeavors. No amount of psychotherapy, research, or “evidence-based social work skills” could ever fill that role. And while I am still distressed by the fact that these boys do not have the same stable support that I have treasured all my life, I am humbled that I can give this to them, even if only for a moment.