Volunteering is not only about supporting a cause, promoting social change or causing a positive impact in a community. It is not only about being the change you want to see in the world. Volunteering is also about transforming yourself: acknowledging and deconstructing our prejudices and biases, recognizing our “place of speech”, and understanding where we stand in the battles for human rights’ defense and protection.
My name is Luiza and I’ve always regarded extracurricular activities, both inside and outside the university, as they differentiate oneself and one’s curriculum from the standard path followed by everyone in the same course. Among those activities, volunteering, for me, is the most enriching experience students can undertake during their university path.
The most recent volunteer work that I was part of was a 3-month internship and volunteer work in Athens. I worked for the NGO Vasilika Moon in their new project in Athens: the Meraki Community Center. Meraki (Μεράκι) means “doing something with soul, creativity, love and passion”, it is about “putting yourself into whatever you are doing”. And that’s what all the volunteers have been doing there since the opening of the project in January 2022: we devote ourselves to do as much as we can to make refugees and asylum seekers’ lives better, providing them with their basic essential needs. Above all, we offer them a safe space to talk and to share their stories and experiences, a safe space where they are truly listened to.
I applied for the internship position through the Unipd Careers website and I was motivated by two main thoughts. First, being able to have a first professional experience in the field of human rights and really set my foot in the career I want to pursue. Second, engaging again in volunteer work, something that has always been part of my life. I had barely any idea of what I was going to find and I could never have dreamt how much I would learn and grow in just 3 months. It was a scary movement: changing country again, leaving behind my friends, the places I know, my comfort zone, facing the unknown, starting a new life, a new job, in a new city, with a language that I don’t speak. But I was proud of myself: I had the courage to move twice in a time span of 8 months and to embrace a new opportunity.
I strongly believe that the beauty and richness of our life experiences are due to the people we met along the way. Volunteering at Meraki I had the chance to live with more than 10 incredible people, putting all of themselves into the work we were doing. More than that, I had the chance to get to know more than 50 refugees and asylum seekers and their families, and to listen to their stories.
I often got frustrated with how difficult it was to offer solutions to their needs. There simply aren’t enough apartments and shelters: not enough organizations providing it, not enough government housing, not enough space in refugee camps. Access to the public health system is possible only with asylum seekers/beneficiaries of international protection documents – meaning that everyone who had their asylum requests rejected is unable to get a medical appointment, a surgery, or essential medication. Access to public education is also possible only with documents – thus all children with no documents are excluded from their basic human right to education.
Despite the frustration, though, the greatest feelings I had while working at the Meraki Center was of gratitude, joy, and somehow a little bit of a “mission accomplished” feeling. Because our work there positively impacted the lives of all people who come to the center: despite the lackings, we managed to provide some food, legal assistance, medical support, English lessons, and clothes. Above all, we offered them active listening, empathy and respect for their human dignity.
Facing human life, suffering and strength first-hand, without filters, was the greatest challenge of volunteering with refugees and asylum seekers. Volunteers gotta be a friendly shoulder without bonding too much with them, especially due to the temporary condition of our permanence there. In the end, we are all leaving and going back to our “normal” and safe lives, while they will remain there. Volunteering is about being a sparkle of life on the day of someone else, who needs a smile, a kind word, a supportive encouragement. And so we gotta be some kind of a fortress while we are there with them.
How did I cope with all of this? By having great people by my side supporting me, by doing what I like, resting and being grateful for that opportunity. By being proud of my choices, of my journey as a human rights defender, as a student, but also as a friend, a daughter and a human person. By acknowledging what brought me there and allowing myself to live through all the challenges and to be transformed by them. Even though I've been back to Padova for almost 2 months now, I’m still including myself among the group of volunteers of Vasilika Moon. And why do I do it? Because I was deeply transformed by this experience, both at a professional and personal level. My objective was never to come back unchanged. In the end, I had not only developed new skills, but I also became more resilient, stronger, more aware and more involved in the refugee human rights’ protection cause. And if there is something that I found out while in Athens is that I wanna do what I can to build a better future with a lot of Μεράκι.
Written by Luiza Sartori Costa Edited by Giulia Rosina
Luiza is currently a second year student at Unipd in the master's program in Human Rights and Multi Level Governance. She spent half of her academic journey online, from home, facing a time zone difference of 5 hours; but she filled the second half with in-presence opportunities to discover what she would like to do and who she wanna be as a human rights defender.