“Overnight, anyone can become a person seeking refuge”
TEXT: CRISTINA BISBAL PHOTO: ALBERTO CARRASCO
She was always interested in international affairs. So, after completing her International Relations studies, this 25-year-old from Madrid did a master’s course in Migration Studies and Cooperation in the Mediterranean. She found her true vocation in this field. She works in Madrid airport and is a UNHCR volunteer, a great way to develop as a person, learn and strive to achieve a more just society.
Were you always interested in volunteering?
Yes, I’ve always been interested in the third sector and one of the pillars on which it ’s built is, without a doubt, volunteering. Since I was 18, I’ve worked as a partner or as a volunteer in a variety of NGOs. I feel it’s a great way to remind us that we have a commitment with society and with its future.
When did you start collaborating with UNHCR?
I spent a spell in Greece, with an NGO of international volunteers, seeking the integration of refugee families. On my return, I kept in touch with the situation of the refugees through the media or those around me. I got really angry seeing how, on many occasions, the image being projected of these people was, in my opinion, totally misleading. I felt it was necessary to raise awareness among the Spanish population and, a year and a half ago, I had the chance to collaborate as a volunteer in UNHCR’s Spanish Committee. I didn’t think twice about it.
What exactly do you do?
I collaborate in the Development Education and Awareness-Raising area, in particular with the project giving educational talks at elementary and high schools in the Community of Madrid. These are interactive chats where we inform the kids of the reality of the refugees, while encouraging the pupils to develop their own analysis and reflections on the situation. It’s a way to raise awareness using other realities that go way beyond what we usually see in the mass media. In addition, since late 2018, I combine this activity with another project that connects the University with the Refugee question and the 2030 Agenda which defines the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We focus on organizing and offering training workshops and university conferences.
Tell me what motivates you about those talks in the schools.
They are truly most interesting. It’s amazing when you arrive at the schools and see the pupils are keen to participate actively. There’s interest in knowing more and learning from an issue like this, which is all over the media these days. It’s strange how we often arrive at the schools with the preconceived notion that they’re going to have virtually no knowledge of the subject, and their reflections leave us speechless. I learn a lot from them, and this makes the work infinitely more constructive and enriching.
I imagine meeting refugees in person makes a big impression on you, causing you to totally rethink what it means to be a refugee in another country…
Indeed so. But you don’t have to be a refugee to realize how difficult it is to have to start a new life in another country, with all the hurdles you are going to have to overcome. For example, someone who once had to leave Spain in search of work and a better life can clearly fathom the predicament of refugees arriving in a country where the language, habits and customs are so very different from their own. Of course the former made a choice, while the latter were forced to flee their country of origin because of conflict, persecution or human rights violations and, in addition, had to assume huge risks during the journey to cross frontiers. On top of all that, once in the host country, they must face complex situations until a lasting solution to their plight is found.
Do you think there is enough sensitivity in our country to the refugee question?
People know about it and, day by day, a broader spectrum of the population is reached. However, I believe that even more work needs to be done to really connect the Spanish population with the reality of refugees in Spain, for them to realize that it’s something that touches us directly, given our past history. Overnight, anyone can become a person seeking refuge.
And you work as well. How do you combine your work and volunteering?
Very easily, by organizing myself! (laughs). You can always find time for volunteering, although it depends a lot on the particular week and the free time I have.
You talk about how much you learn in UNHCR. But I imagine it offers you even more at a personal level.
Of course! It allows me to disconnect and do something I enjoy and find motivating. It’s a way to strengthen my commitment to society so that its degree of justice and solidarity can be augmented. It connects me to a different reality, from which I can learn communication, interpersonal and social skills, as well as bolstering my professional skills. What more can you ask from volunteer work?