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 final post from Skylar Chew, who is working in Mytilini on the island of Lesvos, Greece.
I am currently on my couch in Cincinnati trying to figure out how I will ever write a blog about my takeaways from my time in Greece. Going from the extremely tangible and vivid reality of my Greek apartment, the faces of my friends, the voices and hugs from boys in the shelter, the sunshine, the sea, the familiar streets, buildings, food, and the fulfillment and personal changes I experienced, to my all-too-familiar life in America in less than 24 hours, is a shock to the system. The best way I can explain it is a phenomenon not far from what us social workers know as “derealization,” or the feeling of being in a fog, a dream, or being detached from the world around you.
Because of this weird transitional state, I can’t think of any profound wisdom or new intellectual insights to share. What I can share, however, is the only things that are completely clear in my mind: the actual moments, memories, and conversations I had with the boys in the shelter. Aside from the bits and pieces they shared with me about their lives—like seeing people killed in front of them, having their towns bombed, having their sisters sold, losing family members, being recruited to fight, living in fear of the Taliban and ISIS, and traveling alone on long and dangerous journeys on foot and across the sea—the day-to-day encounters with these boys are what moved and impacted me more than I can ever describe. Although I cannot share the non-verbals that make these moments so powerful (like their laughs, personalities, smiles, hugs, and their eyes), I wish to at least share some of the conversations and moments that truly touched my heart:
One night on the front porch a boy said, “Skylar can I ask you a question? What is your biggest wish?” I said, “Probably for everyone in the world to love each other, and for no fighting and no war.” He said, “This is everyone’s wish, but what is your biggest wish for you?” I thought for a moment and said, “Probably that at the end of my life, God is happy with me and that I made a positive difference and did everything I could with what God gave me.” He said, “This is very good. You are a very good person.” I said thanks and asked him, “What is your biggest wish?” He said, “To be a rich man. Because if you have a lot of money, you can help a lot of people.”
A boy asked me my job and I tried to explain social work. He said, “This is very good. You really need to talk to the boys. You can help them. I try to talk to them but they say I am too young to understand their problems. I know they have dreams but they are losing their dreams. I know because I was like this too for three months. It was really hard but then (name of staff member) helped me. If you talk to them, they will listen. You can help.” I was so moved at how important it was that I help his friends, and how much confidence he had in me.
One quiet boy who dreams of going to America asked me one day, “Do you think there are people, families in America who would want to take boys like me? Do people just not want boys like me?” He told me another time that he just wants “to live the good life. I want to be rich, but I don’t want much. Just some money for a small house, one small car, and then I want to give all the rest to refugees.”
I asked one boy once what his biggest wish is, and he said, “My family.”
When I asked a boy what he dreams about at night, he said, “To see my mother.”
I asked a boy, “What do you boys need the most right now?” (thinking I could raise money or buy them something) and he said, “Hope.”
A boy said to me joking, “I don’t like girls from America.” I said, “Well, I don’t like boys from (name of his country)!” He said, “Okay no problem.” I ran to him, told him I was joking, messed up his hair, and said, “I like all people.” He said, “Yes me too. You have two eyes. I have two eyes. You have two hands, I have two hands. You have two feet, I have two feet. We are the same.”
This isn’t a conversation, but one day we took the boys to a beach about 30 minutes away for swimming. The road was very curvy and I got car sick, so when we arrived, I told everyone to go down to the sea for swimming and I’d catch up with them. I walked into the woods on my own to vomit, but one boy stayed by the car while the others went to the sea. He told me to be “careful” and then proceeded to wait for me to make sure I was okay. It was so sweet that he wouldn’t leave until he knew I was okay and came out and walked down with him.
A boy (who is Muslim) came to me one day with a cross necklace and said, “This is for you because I thought of you when I saw it.”
A few of the boys got in a fight and did not speak to each other for weeks. Another boy had a birthday, and at his party he had each of these boys come to the front of the room and hug because his wish on his birthday was for them to forgive each other.
One boy told me, “when I walk down the street here, people either move to the other side like they are afraid of me, or make their chest big like they are better.” I told him I hope he doesn’t believe they are better and that he is not less than anyone else. He said, “Yes I know. We are all different, but we are all the same.”
When I asked one boy what he wants here in the shelter, he said, “For all the volunteers and people that come here to be like you and have your character.”
On the night before I had to leave, one boy who is usually always joking asked if everyone else could leave him and I (and the interpreter) alone for a few minutes. He proceeded to talk to me seriously for ten minutes about life and leaving. In summary, he said, “Skylar, I do not want you sad. I do not want to see you cry. This is the life, and sometimes you meet good people and have to leave them. You are the only volunteer that came that all of the boys like and you are the best girl. You are so good person and we will miss you very much. But you cannot be sad. I want you to go home and cry all night tonight so you can’t cry anymore tomorrow. We can’t see you cry.”
And finally, the most impactful and moving memories come from one specific boy. One day, he opened up to me for over an hour about his whole life. He said many things that moved me to tears, most of which I can’t repeat. But one thing he said was, “I really want to work. I don’t want to be here and just get food for free. I don’t like that. I want to send money home to my family. I don’t want anything. I would sleep on the cold ground outside if I could just give money to my family… I miss my family.” He also told me, “I think my heart is like stone.” I asked him why and he said, “Because I cannot cry. I have seen people killed in front of me and people drown in the sea in front of me, and I didn’t even cry. I must have a heart of stone.”
This last conversation stayed with me, and became even more impactful the moment that I had to say goodbye to this boy. I had been dreading this goodbye because he especially touched my heart. I know that he connected with and trusted in a special way and was really going to miss me, for he previously told me, “What will I do when you leave?” When that final moment came, he gave me a long hug and had giant tears well up in both of his eyes. Seeing this boy, who never shows weakness or vulnerability, and who he thinks has a “heart of stone” from the things he has been through, cry genuine tears simply because I was leaving is a moment that impacts me more than any other, and one that I will never be able to explain.