Get Off Your Couch: Students Helping Refugees

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AWE
LONG-READ

by Anton Moggré

"It is here where I think my help is needed."

A drop in the ocean. That is often the response I get when I tell people I do volunteering work for Sciences Po Refugee Help (SPRH). Would it truly make a difference? Am I really helping? My colleagues and I believe so, and we will tell you why.

For the past years we have constantly been confronted with the refugee crisis that the world - not only Europe - is currently experiencing. We have all seen the images of relentless crimes against humanity, masses trying to find a safe haven, and families being torn apart.

In Europe, these images understandably led to fear and hesitance. Still recovering from the economic crisis that hit us a few years ago, why would we cheer at the prospect of a massive influx of ‘different’ people coming to our countries? The fear of the unknown remains prevalent, and with populism on the rise, distrust and bigotry become more commonplace.

What concerns me the most, however, is the fact that many people remain relatively passive and cynical about the refugee crisis. Of course, they know very well how to articulate their opinion online (sometimes with rather limited and denigrating vocabulary), but most have a rather constrained and futile view of what the refugee crisis is actually about. More than not, the complaints talk about the clash with ‘our’ norms and values of those ‘fortune seekers’, about ‘their’ unwillingness to integrate and their ‘stubborn faith’ to their backward traditions.

But, how many of those ‘angry citizens’ also feel the necessity to actually bring about change? To set the right example? To show and explain what our ‘norms and values’ are? The truth is that most of them do not get any further than the comfort of their own couch.

What concerns me the most, however, is the fact that many people remain passive and cynical about the refugee crisis.

It is here where I think my help is needed. Despite having two cultural backgrounds, a Dutch and a Colombian one, I have never found it difficult integrate into Dutch society because my living circumstances were overwhelmingly Dutch. I went to ‘white’ schools, I mostly had Dutch friends, I spoke only Dutch at home; essentially everything in my childhood was fully Dutch. This enabled me to actually feel Dutch.

Unfortunately, it is precisely this type of privilege that many newly arrived migrants do not enjoy. In order to change this, I decided to start with my direct surroundings - I decided to join the Sciences Po Refugee Help in Paris, being part of the organization team of SPRH’s Buddy Program.

SPRH is a non-political association that focuses on refugee aid and integration, primarily acting in a positive spirit with a deeply human approach. With the buddy program, we seek to connect around forty official asylum status holders with students of SciencesPo, one of France’s most well-known higher educational institutions, assisting them with their new life in France. This ranges from visiting museums to helping them out with their administrative affairs. It is our intention to bring two worlds together, in which both sides benefit of the connection that is created - uniting into one.

With the buddy program, we seek to connect around forty official asylum status holders with students at SciencesPo, assisting them with their new life in France.

The team has five members, Alice Duquesnoy being ultimately in control of the overall program. We strongly believe that students can support the integration of these new citizens, to show what the way of life is in France, and what they should take into account once living here. By doing this, students do not only contribute to the integration of these asylum status holders, but they will also learn new cultures, languages, and lifestyles. A win-win scenario.

Alice’s main motivation stems from the winter of 2015, when she lent a hand at the makeshift refugee camp of Place de la République in Paris for one month. She said that she:

"... came to the simple realization that everyone is capable of helping, and that even the smallest help is impactful: cooking a warm meal for a new friend, discussing common interests in literature or cinema, or waiting in long queues for asylum papers."

By the same token, she also reminded us that:

“... we study in a university where politics are omnipresent, and where many students are eager to move from mere talk to action. Maybe our next project can offer a buddy program in the French government or parliament?”

Another team member is Christine Wang, an Australian citizen who has worked with refugees in Australia as well. Taking her past experiences into account, as well as the fact that she is an exchange student "at the height of the politics surrounding the Calais Jungle", she says that it only felt “natural to partake in SPRH”. She said:

“all they need is a human connection, and I really look forward to facilitating other students’ experience to simultaneously learn and assist others in need."

In other words, the team is made up of dedicated and experienced students who are convinced that this program can turn out to be highly successful. We recently had our first training session and the enthusiasm we saw among the participants only reinforces our determination to propel this initiative forward and set an example that can be followed by others.

Ultimately, for impact you need action, so if you feel that the situation needs to change, why not look at your own surroundings first and see what can be improved? Nothing comes for free. Over forty students have shown their support through participating in the project. Now all we need for you to do is get off your couch, get involved and spread the word. 

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Anton studies International Security at Sciences Po Paris and is committed to refugee-work