In the summer of 2012, I worked as a volunteer for 12 weeks at the IBM BAH Reception Centre in Hungary, a refugee camp for people who tried to immigrate illegally into Europe. The experience was nothing but extraordinary. I have always been interested in working with refugees and immigrants, and this internship was a rewarding and enriching experience.
Prior to my arrival, I already had a basic idea of what to expect from this job, as well as what was expected of me at the camp. Despite all this, I was still overwhelmed when I arrived. The camp is the asylum of around 250 refugees from all over the world, the majority of the which were Afghani — they fled out of their home countries for various reasons, and they came to the reception centre in Hungary willingly or unwillingly to seek protection.
Ali, a volunteer from AIESEC Toronto who arrived two weeks before me, started a few projects for the refugees, including English lessons, and he kindly invited me to join in. Even though I had a rough idea of my duties, I had no clue where or how to start these projects. My biggest problem was the language barrier. Most refugees in the camp could speak two or three languages, but only a few of them could actually speak English, and my Chinese was definitely no use when communicating with them. Thankfully, Ali was able to speak Urdu and thus communicate with the refugees. His language skills definitely allowed us to be more approachable and trustworthy, and were one of the key factors in successfully executing our projects.
We had different teaching schedules for men and women, and each class lasted around two hours. This schedule lasted for 3 three weeks until an American-based English-teaching group arrived in the camp. After several negotiations and compromises, Ali and I switched our morning classes to the afternoon. Instead I helped the American teachers with their intermediate classes during the mornings, and in the afternoons, I assisted them in programs that were designed for kids in the camp. We were able to have a greater number of classes when Carlos (from Portugal) and Julia (from Brazil) arrived. I was responsible to design new teaching material and class schedules. Besides English classes, other programs were also initiated and carefully supervised, such as the “Women Conversation Time” program to promote the empowerment of women. Upon the request of the refugees, we also organized a movie night every Friday, as well as computer lessons for people who were eager to learn the basics. I also scheduled Chinese lessons on Friday morning; I really appreciated the passion and effort that my students had put to into learn my mother tongue.
Among all the programs that we launched, teaching English, for me, was the most rewarding and satisfying activity. I had the chance to witness the steady progress from all of my students. I can still recall my first day as a teacher- some of my students who could barely speak were able to carry out simple conversations and gave out their own opinions on different topics by the end of internship.
To me, refugees in the camp were not just my students, or people that I was trying to help; rather, they were and still are my friends. During my spare time, I usually sat outside on the grass and struck up a conversation with anyone that approached me. They told me stories about their countries, which were somewhat different from I’d learnt through the media back home. They told me about their perilous journeys to Europe, which were painful and heartbreaking. During those twelve weeks, I realized that the most important part of my job was to simply be there for the refugees when they need someone to talk to, and to come up with programs to keep their minds busy. Our classes, therefore, were a means to make their time in the camp more meaningful and productive than just sitting around waiting for their immigration papers. By learning new things every day, they can hope and to dream and to plan their new lives in Europe or beyond.
I certainly experienced frustration and disappointment during my internship, especially when I tried to work with some of the refugees who had different views on about women rights. But it was because of those hardships that I learned things that I would not have learned otherwise. Now I look back at my time in the camp, I know that there is so much more I could have done to better the lives of those people, but I’m glad I helped them for as long as I did. Those 84 were truly the greatest experience of my life.