I sat on the roof of the volunteer house at 11:00pm, in Camini, Italy. The bats fluttered around me, but nothing else stirred. This was the place where I felt I could breathe and remove myself from everything that had gone on at my volunteer placement; alone and surrounded by the Italian night sky.
Holding my phone, I dialled over FaceTime. Hearing a familiar voice, I relaxed. Hopefully this would help me gain some new perspective.
“Emma, have you heard the Starfish Story?” asked my good friend over the phone. I had reached out to him in hopes of gaining some perspective. He is a social worker here in Edmonton, and I knew he, if anyone, would be the best person to go to for guidance in regards to my placement.
I had not yet heard the story, so he explained, “an old man is walking down the beach, he is surrounded by thousands of dying starfish. They are beached, and will soon perish without water. Instead of walking by them all, he places some, one at a time, back into the ocean. He does this methodically, and in the distance a young boy approaches. The boy asks, ‘why are you putting them back? It is impossible to save them all’. The old man wisely replied, ‘I cannot save them all, but I can help just one’.” The point being here, sometimes small changes are the things that make the biggest differences. This came to be the biggest lesson I learned while abroad: although we cannot change all the things we want to, and help everyone who needs it, we can help create small sanctuaries for some.
As mentioned earlier, I was in Camini Italy. Camini directly translates to “fireplace”. It is a small town in the South of Italy where around five-hundred families live. The majority of which are refugee families from around the globe. Within this tiny town reside some of the most genuine, kind, and resilient people I have ever had the honour to
meet. It also contained a huge eye-opening experience for me in regards to the volunteering I took part in.
One main thing to remember about Camini, is that this town nearly withered away due to Italian economic hardships. Without the refugee crisis, Camini would literally be abandoned. Upon the Italian Government realizing the crisis was about to immensely impact the country, they created Refugee Projects across Italy. One of which being here, in Regio Di Calabria (the Region of Calabria),Camini. This specific project is called Jungu Mundi, or “”. With the allocation of funding from the government, Jungi Mundi was able to come into being. There is a main building which houses the offices of supervisors and a psychologist, and the project funds the restoration of abandoned homes in Camini for incoming refugee families who have not yet arrived.
Below is the story of Camini, through the perspective of those who are restoring homes for newcomers. Cosmano’s family became dear friends to myself and the other volunteers while we were in the tiny town. They possessed wisdom around this crisis of knowing slow work accomplishes great things. Unfortunately, I had only two months, which changed to only one, and felt unprepared and unable to assist in ways I knew would leave lasting changes. Take a moment to watch the video below, meet Cosmano and Assan, see Camini. These were the streets I walked and fell in love with, and left as well.
For the first two weeks of my time in Camini, I worked alongside the other volunteers (only 4 of us maximum at one time) primarily in childcare. The Centre has the main office, as well as a daycare (called I Colori Del Mondo, or “Colors of the World”) for children ages two through ten to come and play during the weekday mornings. This alleviated the parents from having to watch their children and gave the community an opportunity to grow and connect with one another. Nearly all of the families dominantly spoke Arabic or Italian, the children learning English, Italian, and Arabic all at once. The very first day I was at the daycare, one of the children had a bruise covering almost half their face. I thought nothing of it, as I trusted the Centre to be aware of the child’s home life and wellness.
A week or so passes by to the middle of May. A few volunteers had arrived or departed, and I was beginning to notice the projects or small goals the remaining volunteers proposed were impossible. A lack of funding, no available translator, no access to a woodworking-shop were all hurdles that we had learned about slowly. As an example, I had proposed slight changes to the childcare approaches being delivered, but was shrugged off as being too entitled, coming from a “well-off country”. This accusation was not wrong, Canada is a very privileged country I am proud to be from, but this seemed to be an issue whenever I suggested an idea for the community.
Eventually, I had then been assigned to work with the children who needed extra support from their homes. Either in-home care, or care where I would pick them up from their homes and bring them to daycare. This is typically my comfort zone so I eagerly accepted the challenge, unaware of the scale of support these children needed.
The first family I met were a family of eight. Six children and two parents from Syria who’s toddler was paralyzed from the waist down. His name is Omar and he absolutely stole my heart. Omar has the brightest smile I have ever seen on a child. He is only a year and a half old, so he is still learning how to speak, has some vision problems, and a huge scar up his back from a surgery that had assumedly taken place in Syria. Omar’s family greeted me with the offerings of Cola and the Canadian national anthem played over Youtube on the family’s iPad. They hugged, kissed, and held my hands when they met me and heard I was from Canada. With scattered Italian and English, the family got to know me to a point where they trusted me with Omar, and from there I was able to bring him to daycare once a week.
I would arrive at the home, pick up Omar and hike back up the steep Camini streets to the top of the town where the daycare stood. We played with instruments, bright toys, and made sure he was comfortable, but I always had the sinking feeling that I wasn’t doing enough. This precious little boy was one of the happiest children I’ve met so far, but I know in my heart me making him laugh and smile was doing a very small thing in terms of his wellness. I couldn’t fundraise for a wheelchair, I couldn’t offer him more nutritious food, I couldn’t stay for longer than a few weeks.
The second child I worked with was a little girl who very clearly needed an interventionist in the home. She had never left home, was clinging to her mother constantly, and was incredibly fearful of strangers (which makes sense given the situation). I tried my best to gain her trust, and eventually got to a point where she came for small walks with me, allowed me to pick her up, and would ring bells/pop bubbles with me just outside her house’s doorway. Small steps eventually empowered, and then faded back to fear for her. Without the knowledge of how to properly support, I was pulling at strings. Running around trying different toys and bubbles and songs only got so far, and I felt frustrated being sent into a situation I did not have proper training for. This darling little girl clearly needed structured support, but I was completely lost on how to provide it. This was one of the turning points in my Stretch, when she sat under a chair screaming in fear as I offered her a crayon and softly sang Wheels on The Bus. I knew me being there was potentially creating more harm than good simply because I had no idea what the hell I was doing.
The weeks continued, and the other volunteers had started to echo some of the emotions I had been silently experiencing. We collectively felt as though there was nothing we could accomplish since a) we had no formal training in interventions or child psychology and b) there was no support for the volunteer team in general. It seemed as though the boss of the Project was unaware of our goals as a volunteer team, and we felt the lack of support daily. It makes sense he was extremely busy, as he had an entire community to attend to, but even our Volunteer Coordinator seemed at a loss. She told us there was no funding, no formal training, no structured approaches for the volunteers to utilize during their time in Camini; especially since many of the volunteers only stayed for two weeks maximum.
Eventually the volunteers and I met a community member who was our age. She was from Syria, spoke English, Arabic, and refused to learn Italian as a way to avoid becoming rooted in the town. Her boyfriend of five years remained in Syria, and her family was divided. We came to know her as a sister, she echoed our frustrations about the Project stating, “they give us our cheque once a month, that’s it. They don’t want to hear our stories”, which broke my heart. With one psychologist for the entire town, there was no way to properly listen to all of the hardships the people had experienced. She went on to say, “I have nightmares, sometime’s I want to die”, a clear sign of PTSD, but nowhere to turn to for help.
By week three, the stories and experiences had started to weigh heavily on me. I have a huge empathetic heart, a feature many have ridiculed me for in the past. Feeling things deeply can be ostracized as a downfall, a weakness, but I believe it helps me relate to others in ways that are not possible for others. Unfortunately, by week three, everything had built up. This was the week the volunteers and I were told the bruise we had seen on the child’s face during week one was from a suspected instance of violence in the home. We were devastated. Having worked closely with the child in question as well as their brother, we had wondered where the severe behavioural issues were coming from. A past volunteer who spoke arabic asked the child why he was so angry and he responded with stories of what he witnessed in Syria, “he remembers everything” said our Volunteer Coordinator. The anger was coming from trauma, and home also wasn’t safe, no wonder he was acting out.
After having the bruise’s suspected source disclosed to us in a meeting, we all broke down. There was no way to intervene due to the lack of resources the Project had. Removing the child would result in more trauma, removing the mother and children would amount to nothing as there was no safe housing nearby (and even if there was, everyone would be aware of it, including the suspected abuser), and removing the perpetrator was impossible as there was no police force in the area and no way to take punitive measures properly. We were assured the Centre had spoken to the family in question, but when the younger brother showed up to daycare with a red spot on his face, the volunteers and I couldn’t stay quiet anymore. We spoke to the boss of the Jungu Mundi, through a translator, demanding an inquiry be undertaken in regards to the children’s safety. They asked the family, the mark turning out to be a bug bite. Although the child was unharmed, the Volunteers and I had seemed to have burned a bridge between the staff team and ourselves. We were ridiculed for reacting so quickly, told we come from privileged countries so had no idea what these people need, we were not listened to when we tried to explain child abuse is a very serious offence in our home countries. Our voices seemed to fall on uncaring ears. So we created a small thing, we created a poster based on The Rights of The Child (created by the UN), printed, and posted it throughout the buildings we worked in (as like below). With this small action, we tried to hold onto what little hope we had that the children would be safer at home.
At this point, it was three and a half weeks into my time in Camini. The women I was volunteering with, two from the US, one from Norway, and a fellow Canadian lawyer from Newfoundland were all scheduled to leave in a few days. I was panicking, they were my complete support system, and had undergone the same emotional journey as myself over the past few weeks. Without them in Camini I knew I would continue to take on all of the heaviness with no outlet to share it with.
Sitting down to a meeting with the staff team at Jungu Mundi, I asked the boss if there were changes being made to how child abuse was handled in the community. His response was very defensive, basically stating “no” after explaining they didn’t see it as abuse, but cultural differences. When I explained to him how I had been feeling about my time there and learning about the child’s bruise, he brushed me off as being too soft. By being a bystander, I was complicit in the harm. I was unable to intervene or properly provide care for those who need it in Camini, so I told him I was going to be leaving with the other volunteers in a few days. Stunned silence filled the room after the Volunteer Coordinator translated my message. I was in tears. He responded with all of these new projects he had “waiting” for me, projects with the children I had never heard of up until that point, as an attempt to ask me to stay. He said, “I have seen the light drain from your eyes while you have been here, where has the light gone?” to which I responded, “home”. My heart was torn up from how much I had grown to love everyone in that tiny town, the last thing I wanted to do was leave them behind, but I felt completely cornered. There was no support in place for volunteer ideas, regardless of the size; we were sent into situations where the children need trained professionals; and children had
stopped coming to daycare due to the fast and constant volunteer turnover and ineffective childcare approaches in place previously. Aside from hosting a Family Planning workshop, Women’s Nights, and Teen Movie Nights, and creating simple English lessons for the kindergarten-aged children, we had made few lasting concrete changes.
I left Camini at the end of May, 2017. My decision has been mocked, challenged, and questioned by many around me, and I carry a great deal of guilt in my heart. This guilt is not from leaving, as I know this was the right decision for my own wellness, but the guilt of knowing everyone I met there still needs support and I could not provide it. I have asked myself if I would have stayed if I had been tougher, less emotional, more informed, and the answer is always no in my mind. Believe it came
down to a lack preparation and support. If I knew what I was getting in to prior to agreeing to two months abroad in a very emotionally taxing situation, I would have been better prepared. If I had volunteered with traumatized children ahead of time, I may have had better tools to support them in Camini.
Of course, going back in time is impossible, but moving forward I intend to continue growing as a psychology student. This upcoming week, I will be attending a volunteer information session with an Edmonton organization called Zebra. Zebra supports children going through abuse cases in court by providing volunteer accompaniment throughout the process. With this opportunity, I plan to support Canadian children’s journeys in escaping and healing from past violence in the home. Although I could not intervene with the family in Camini, I can gain skills and knowledge to properly assist children here at home learn they are valued and safe. Sometimes, “we cannot catch all the pain we want to heal, believe me, I’ve tried” laments Sarah Kay (one of my favourite poets), and while I went into this experience believing I could metaphorically save every starfish I met along this journey, I was proven wrong. At the end of the day all we can each do is try our best, and sometimes our hearts break in the process. Sometimes there are no options left for us to try, and in realizing this, its important to not drown ourselves in an ocean of grief.
My choice to return home was a huge act of privilege. Those in Camini can not leave on two flights across the world. They cannot escape nightmares and an uncertain future. I did. In doing so, I have been called a coward, I have been told my actions were a huge failure, I have wracked my heart and mind for a single reason that would have made this situation any less complicated. Every single time, I come up with gratitude for those I met and extreme heartache for those I couldn’t support enough. I am still processing this experience, three months later, and will most likely continue to do so.
Before concluding, I think it is important to critically question the perspective with which PLLC frames the Stretch Experience. To preface, I am still incredibly grateful for the opportunity, and would recommend a Stretch to the incoming First Year class of PLLC, but with some adjustments. While reflecting on this experience I have come to realize my expectations going into this journey should have been different. As asked on the blog home page, “how will you change the world?” is an unreasonable bar to set for unprepared students. Although the Starfish Story is an optimistic approach to take in regards to this opportunity, I believe future students should be realistically spoken to about how difficult this experience can be for them and be properly supported in whatever volunteering they choose. We cannot change the world without the proper support and tools. This experience was a real-life example of that, and I am deeply grateful for it.
Thank you for reading about my journey. Obviously I have been unable to include every detail of this experience here in this post, so feel free to ask me any questions you may have. Without the financial award from PLLC, this would have not been made possible, so thank you PLLC. Thank you to my mom for listening to many long phone calls, thank you to the “starfish story friend” for gifting me with new perspective, and a huge thank you to my partner for their unconditional support throughout this entire experience.