By Priscilla Estrada

The children’s laughter filled the basketball court on this unexpectedly sunny evening as we played together under the warm bright sun. It was supposed to rain sometime that day according to the weather forecast I had checked that morning. As I played with the children and my fellow classmates on that evening, I realized that the weather was not the only thing that took an unexpected turn that day.

Garden walkway at the Caritas building.

I had only slept five hours. A terrible mistake when you have a busy day ahead of you. After the lecture ended, we were split into two groups. One group would get to pick one out of four places to visit and write about their experience. The other group (the one I was in) would get to volunteer with the non-governmental organization (NGO) Caritas. However, all I wanted to do that day was go to my room and take a long restful nap. As I lay on my bed half asleep before leaving, all I could anticipate was the moment I would get back to the hotel and sleep. A sense of guilt overcame me and rightly so. After all, the service component was one of the main reasons why I wanted to be a part of this study abroad program. Yet, there I lay on my bed feeling like I was forcing myself to go.

Group of students and staff at Caritas shelter, planning our work for the day.

Once the metro finally had arrived at the Meo Kosmos stop (Meo Kosmos is Greek New World according to Spilios, our on-site program coordinator), the location was only a short fifteen minute walk; nothing compared to what I had walked the previous day through the beautiful Plaka and the lively Monastiraki flea market neighborhoods. I no longer felt the same energy as the day before.

At the shelter, two nice ladies who formed part of the organization, greeted us with warm tea, Sarah and Katia, who both had come to Greece from Italy as a volunteer for three months. The entrance, a concrete wall, had “Welcome” written in six different languages, and inside, the playground walls were filled with familiar paintings of Mickey Mouse and other characters. We all sat down at a bench where they served us delicious tea, which we sipped, eager to learn more about the work that Caritas was doing in Greece. Caritas, which began operations in Athens in 2016, just after the height of the displaced peoples crisis, is located in a variety of countries, Caritas aids refugees by providing families, specifically those with children, shelter and a lot of other services. As I listened to these amazing people share their knowledge with us, their kindness and enthusiasm filled the atmosphere with renewed hope.

Close up of the wall art at the Caritas building, which made the environment happy and welcoming.

After our orientation, we had a break and grabbed a quick meal at a nearby restaurant, and then headed to the children’s center. You see, the children have busy schedules and don’t always have time for play and meeting people outside of the organization.There were six children, four girls and two boys. At first the children were timid, but they quickly began to open up when we offered to teach them some new games. It was hectic to say the least, but joy filled the room. It felt as if we had known these children for a while as we played heads-up-seven-up, a game they had never played before, but were fast to learn.

Time seemed to speed up, and before we knew it, we were supposed to start heading back to the hotel. When they invited us to stay longer, we unanimously decided to stay later and headed out to a basketball court to organize a basketball game. As we played and laughed with the children one thing that Sarah had said earlier resonated with me. She said that when you meet a refugee you are meeting a person; they have a story and a name.

Heading back to the hotel, while still tired, I felt a sense of renewed hope and strength which I could not have acquired if it were not for the time spent with these children; these children had given us their trust despite their experiences. Despite all they and their families have endured, maintain positivity and joy. That day, I realize now, I was not there to teach but to learn from these children.