May 7, 2018
By Kana Prasertchoang
Colby Germann is a sophomore majoring in neuroscience and participating in the Binghamton University Scholars Program. He recently traveled to Leros, Greece, for two weeks to help Syrian refugees as part of a semester-long service-learning course centered on the refugee crisis in the Middle East.
Along with loving the idea of going abroad, Germann initially wanted to take the course because it was different from anything he had done before, and he thought the integration of the service component would make it an interesting experience.
Germann's class partnered with the Leros Solidarity Network, a shelter that provides a safe haven for refugees, particularly those who are most at risk, such as families with small children, pregnant women, religious minorities, unaccompanied minors and members of the LGBTQ community. The shelter ensures they receive access to necessities such as healthcare.
Germann and his 17 classmates planned service projects as part of the class. Each group proposed something to give to or do with the refugees while they were there. Germann's group decided to donate Lego sets to the children and planned to integrate them into a lesson plan about building things. Other groups did arts and crafts projects, held movie nights and even launched a feminine hygiene initiative. While they accomplished these service projects, the class also listened and adapted to the wants and needs voiced by those running the shelter.
"Some of our time went to cleaning and organizing their donations," says Germann. "They had a fire in the upper part of the building, so we got to clean that up a bit. [The refugees] really wanted to learn, English so we gave them very basic English lessons."
Kent Schull, associate professor of history at Binghamton University, led the course and oversaw the students' activities while in Leros. "[The students] came up with such cool things to engage people," says Schull. "Parents were happy their kids were having a good time, plus most of the students spent a good amount of time being human jungle gyms for the kids, running around [providing] just a little bit of normalcy, and [treating them] like human beings."
Schull and his co-director on the trip, Şule Can, facilitated initial conversations with the class and shelter residents with their combined language abilities in Arabic and Turkish. However, the two groups bonded quickly, as the class was invited to a big celebration on the first day. It gave the students an opportunity to interact with the refugees in a fun, family-style setting to break the ice.
"All the kids were getting on all of our backs, and we were just running around the Greek countryside," Germann remembers. "And we were doing that for hours, so every time we would go back [to the shelter] they would just get on our backs and pretend we were horses, so that's kind of how it started."
The biggest lesson Schull wanted his students to take away from the trip was, "Maybe we can't solve the whole thing, but how can we leverage our privilege and find ways to do some good; to get out of the classroom, to get out of the books and apply that learning in some way. Each of us has skills, has talents, has abilities that can do something to help the situation. There's 65 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide; the Middle East is just one area."
The refugees entering the shelter mainly emigrated from Turkey after being forcibly moved from Syria and the surrounding regions. According to the UN Refugee Agency, as of December 2015, there were an estimated 65.3 million displaced people who are dispersed across the globe.
Germann says he was surprised by the shared sense of human connection he discovered on the trip. He did not imagine he and his classmates would develop such close relationships with people at the shelter and that they would find it so hard to say goodbye.
"You don't expect to get close to them, especially because we were anticipating that language barrier," explains Germann. "I expected it to just be an experience where we were kind of detached in the end, but we spent a lot of time [with the refugees], even more than we needed to for the minimum requirement. We wanted to stay there and really get to know these people however much we could. So by the end there were a lot of deep connections that were formed."
Leaving Greece did not mean the end of Germann's drive to help the refugees. Given the opportunity, he says he would definitely go back to Greece and help Syrian refugees again. The trip has also compelled Germann and some of his classmates to take their experiences and the lessons they learned to educate others and continue providing relief. They are working on chartering an organization on campus to raise awareness of the refugee crisis, work with local civic associations and raise funds for the shelter.
"In a political aspect, refugees are villainized, and when we talk about them here [in the United States], you never think about the person behind it," says Germann. "But once you get to hear them, and spend time with them, and learn about their stories, you learn they value a lot of the things we value. It definitely changes your perspective on them and what we should maybe do as a country. I definitely think there needs to be more awareness around that — the people and [their history] and what we can do to help them — because they're in a lot of tough situations."
Photos: Top- Germann (back row, fifth from left) and Schull (front row, far left) with the rest of the class during their service-learning trip to Leros, Greece. Middle- Colby Germann. Bottom-Kent Schull.