At six, Usaama Kaweesa moved with his family to the UK from Uganda. As an immigrant leaving a country of extreme poverty, the refugee cause is one that’s always been close to his heart. Now 27, he tells us why he’s moving to Greece to spend a year volunteering with the British Red Cross.
It’s 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.
My Restless Development ICS experience was an incredible few months that made me the global citizen I am today. Now I am to help elsewhere - supporting the many young and unaccompanied refugees living in refugee shelters across Athens.
Changing public opinion on immigration and refugees
I’m going to be spending a year volunteering with the British Red Cross and the national Scouting Association of Greece.
I’ll be helping the team there supporting the welcoming of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and helping with their integration through the use of non-formal education and youth work – skills I learnt during my ICS placements in South Africa and Uganda.
But there’s a second purpose of the project – to encourage public opinion in Europe to be more tolerant and open towards the plight of refugees and migrants.
It’s an aim we hope to meet by facilitating interaction between refugees and local communities in order to build that strong foundation for their future cooperation and mutual understanding.
It won’t be easy. But that’s why we’re working on this project with nine other Scouting and youth organisations from all across Europe. It’s something we can only do together.
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.
While I’ve never been a refugee, 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.
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.
But this isn’t the case for many young refugees today. Shamefully they’re having to fight for these basic human rights every step of the way.
We have 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 hasn’t gone as smoothly as many of us would have hoped, with xenophobia and intolerance on the rise across the continent.
Taking action in the UK
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.
In the UK, we can do this by putting public pressure on the government to reinstate programmes like the refugee resettlement scheme for unaccompanied minors that was championed by Lord Dubs.
This pioneering piece of humanitarian work made way for the government to offer resettlement to the UK for around 3,000 children who had arrived in Europe unaccompanied as refugees. But in February, the government shelved the plan, announcing just 480 children would be housed here.
How do I volunteer with refugees abroad?
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.
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.”