At age six, Usaama Kaweesa moved with his family to the UK from his native Uganda. As an immigrant leaving a country of extreme poverty, the refugee cause is one that’s always been close to his heart. He tells us why he’s spending a year volunteering in Greece with the British Red Cross and Scouts of Greece.
The refugee crisis is important to me because as an immigrant I feel an affinity with those who have been forced to give up their homes to seek safety and a better life elsewhere in the world.
While I’ve never been a refugee myself, I was born in Uganda, one of the world’s poorest countries. I immigrated to the UK with my parents when I was just six years old.
I’m not going to pretend my experience is the same as that of the vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people fleeing war, persecution and humanitarian disasters.
But as an immigrant myself, I have a huge amount of empathy for anyone who has to make the same journey. Naturally, I wanted to contribute towards a project that welcomes young people in this situation.
I was lucky when I arrived in the UK to be welcomed with the chance at a full education as well as every opportunity to succeed and integrate into European society. Unfortunately this is not the case for many young refugees today, who shamefully have to fight for their basic human rights at almost every stage of their journey.
I joined this project because I wanted to encourage the public and governments in Europe to be more respectful and open towards refugees and migrants. There’s no disguising the fact that the integration of refugees into Europe has not gone as smoothly as many of us would have hoped.
Instead, xenophobia and intolerance are on the rise across the continent.
We’re all familiar with the scare stories about asylum seekers ‘flooding’ the UK. In Greece, resentment has been fuelled by the fact that the country is taking in huge numbers of refugees while simultaneously facing their worst economic crisis in modern times.
But it’s really important that despite all that’s going on around us we show public support for refugees. Hostility or even indifference only exacerbates the problem.
For me, volunteering in Greece is about preparing the young refugees, who choose to settle here, for a smooth integration into our European society, as well as helping to prepare local communities to welcome those refugees and new migrants with positivity rather than with xenophobia.
It’s not an easy task but that’s how you change hearts and minds over time.
Another reason I put myself forward for this project is because the scale of the refugee crisis is far too big for any of us to ignore.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency there are estimated to be over 60 million people throughout the world forced to flee their homes. Among them are more than 21 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
But while developing countries host almost nine in ten refugees, last year more than a million arrived in Europe – mainly through Greece and Italy.
No matter how you see the situation, it is apparent that we cannot look away if we are committed to creating a more equal, just and peaceful world.
That’s why as part of this year-long project we’re committed to supporting the welcoming of unaccompanied migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and helping with their integration through the use of non-formal education on the subjects that are important to them like languages and vital life skills.
These are the reasons that propelled me to volunteer in Greece. But above all, I would not be here without my previous overseas experience on the International Citizen Service (ICS) programme.
Before I volunteered with ICS, I used to think that addressing issues like global poverty, injustice and inequality were all too big for one person to solve. And especially by someone like me.
But through seeing first-hand the impact our work had on the local community, I learned that while an individual might not be able to solve these big issues alone, we can collectively have an impact that can create a ripple effect. The same is true for our response to the refugee crisis.
Sure – it’s no small feat, and there is much work to be done, but my past experiences have shown me that it is doable. There are so many organisations out there that are looking for volunteers.
But just in case you’re still cynical about your capacity to make a difference, take a moment to remember what 1960s American anthropologist Margaret Mead once famously said on change:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world … indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”