Tea with Refugees in Belgium

Today’s guest post is by Kate Connelly.

My junior year of college, I had the privilege of studying abroad in Brussels, Belgium. I had so many amazing experiences, from attending a film festival at the European Parliament to seeing the largest collection of dinosaur bones in Europe. I traveled to the Netherlands to see The Hague and to Germany to meet one of my dad’s childhood friends. However, of everything I got to see and do, there is one experience that stands out.

I studied abroad through the ISA program and the directors, Matilda and Paula, or as we called them Ma and Pa, would sometimes set up activities for us around the city. One day they sent out an email inviting us to meet them at St. Catherine’s Cathedral for a service opportunity working with refugees. We arrived at St. Catherine’s and were greeted outside the doors by Ma holding a basket filled with oranges and cups of tea. She handed out the goods and told us to go pass them around and chat with those inside. She explained that the refugees were mostly from Afghanistan. The majority of them were young men who were waiting to see if they would be granted asylum. They did not have papers, so they could not work; they were completely dependent on the charity of others for food and shelter.

St. Catherine’s is no longer an active church but another one of the beautiful cathedrals of Europe that are preserved for tourists. However, no tourists would be visiting St. Catherine’s. The pews had been removed and had been replaced by rows of tents. We awkwardly began to walk around, passing out tea. Those that knew English greeted us warmly. Eventually a group of the refugees invited us into their tent. We were out of tea, but they insisted that we drink some that they had. They also offered us sugar-covered dates. As I took a date out of the box, I noticed that it was covered in Arabic writing and I wondered if they had brought these dates all the way from their home country.

One of the volunteers asked them their story. They told us about living in fear as a war that did not concern them was raged all around them. They told us about the journey from their homeland to Brussels, about watching their friends die as they tried to flee. They told us about the hope they had for a better life and the disappointment they faced at being seen as a burden. They explained how the authorities had taken their papers and how they wished they could work. Surprisingly, though, they were not bitter. When we were finished, we went outside to play soccer. Even though I missed almost every kick, they continued to pass me the ball. They clearly knew how to work as a team. After all, they only had each other.

That was the only day I saw the St. Catherine’s Refugees. I asked Pa what happened to them, but she never wrote me back. I think and pray for them often and thank God for the opportunity to meet them. They touched my life more then I possibly could have touched theirs. They taught me that no matter how difficult life circumstances may be, it is possible to hold onto hope. They taught me that even when everything seems to be against you, if you hold on to relationships, you can make it through. They taught me that even though the news portrays the Middle East in such a dark light, many people there are just like I am. They want to live a prosperous life and are not entangled with their governments.

I also learned to see the world in a more positive light. The St. Catherine’s refugees and the volunteers that work with them are not reported about in the news. They are not talked about in government circles (mind you this was before the Syrian refugee crisis). All over the world people are reaching out to each other. You don’t have to travel all the way to Belgium. Sometimes all it takes is offering someone a cup of tea and a smile.

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Being a Foreigner Abroad

Today’s guest blogger is Mike Smith. Check out his travel blog here.

“If you’re a giant freak monster here in the U.S., then it HAS to be even harder for you there in Albania!”

Truer words never spoken, friend.

Sometimes it is tough to be me in general. I have, unfortunately, never been able to fit in or go unnoticed anywhere in my life just because of my physical appearance alone. When traveling abroad, that feeling is amplified exponentially. Sometimes it is hard dealing with all of the attention I get, positive or negative, and it can be a bit tiring when everyone stares at/wants to take pictures with you when all you want to do is go to the store to buy a loaf of bread. To add to the whole sideshow attraction feeling, I make up about 25% of Albania’s current black population (maybe a little more since I’m bigger than the rest of them) so you can get an idea of how life is for me at present. If you’re just going on vacation somewhere, then it’s not that big a deal, but if you plan on living somewhere for an extended period of time, it can eventually become overwhelming and incredibly stressful.

That’s why I wanted to share with you Big Mike’s Top 5 Ways to Not Feel Like the Unwanted Foreigner in a Different Country (or “Coping Mechanisms” for short).

1. Walk with confidence! – Stand up straight. Shoulders back. Head up. If you walk with confidence you will FEEL confident, and that feeling will carry you through a lot. It seems like a small tip or common knowledge, but you’d be surprised how many times I see other visitors/my fellow volunteers hunched over slinking through their towns staring at the ground because they are afraid to make eye contact with the locals. That demeanor can actually ADD to your fears or unhappiness and give you that nagging, “I can’t wait to go home” thought in the back of your head. Get yourself together, fix that posture, and strut!

2. Learn the language! – Again, one would think that this is common sense if you are living in a country that doesn’t speak your L1 for an extended period of time, but I wouldn’t be bringing it up if I didn’t see people ignoring it everyday. You need to know at least enough for things like everyday conversations, work, travel, buying things, etc. When I see people just slamming English into everything and refusing to learn the language of the place that they live in it irks me. You don’t have to be perfect, but showing the locals that you’re trying does wonders for your approval rating and they will really appreciate the effort.

3. Make local friends – You need friends no matter where you go. Either someone that you can visit or can visit you. These friends can help you get adjusted or introduce you to other people or things that you may have never known about otherwise, and they are invaluable when settling in at a new place. And that doesn’t mean you have to make friends with EVERYONE. One or two really good friends will do just fine. It’s always better to have 4 quarters than 100 pennies.

4. Make American friends – We are quite literally everywhere…like a virus or a plague. Americans are absolutely all over the world, and chances are high that you will run into a few wherever it is that you are traveling to. You may even know some before you go. Some people will tell you that if you want to really be successful, you have to spend as little time with people that are like you as possible. I call b.s. You need as many connections as you can get in your strange new land, so don’t shun anyone! Odds are that they have gone through the things that you will go through as well and can help you to adjust more quickly. ‘MURICA /salute

E. Accept invitations – Inevitably you will be invited out to do things with local people, whether it be to get coffee or lunch or what have you. Make some time to go and hang out with your new peers and neighbors. Everyone will want to know about you, why you are there, for how long, what toothpaste you use, etc. Go out and get to know about them, too! Being open to little social meetings will do wonders for your integration and you could even find some new friends from there as well. Of course, use your judgement when accepting invites to things. Don’t go to someone’s house for “Netflix and chill” if you just met them, obviously…

If you find things getting a bit rough for you, these things will definitely help you get through most of it. You will find that most things that you are stressing about are all in your head and the more you integrate the faster they will go away. It will not be instantaneous, and it will feel like ice skating uphill for a little while, but eventually you will find your groove and start to love your new place.