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Learning on the Fly: Liza Chartampila and Maren Lundgren

“When the rest of the world is putting up walls and closing borders, they are breaking those boundaries down with their courage, kindness and incredible spirit.”

— Liza Chartampila

Eight Washington and Lee University students spent a portion of summer 2016 overseas in a collaboration that pairs American and international students for projects and service work in the international students’ home countries.

The program, which is funded by part of a $219,000 grant from the Endeavor Foundation (formerly known as the Christian A. Johnson Foundation) is in its second year. This year found students working with refugees in Greece and Germany, and studying the culture of food and film in China.

Liza Chartampila and Maren Lundgren traveled to Liza’s home country, Greece, to work with Syrian refugees.

What inspired you to focus on the refugee crisis?

Liza: I think the choice of topic for the project was one of the easiest choices we had to make, considering the circumstances. We started thinking about the project during one of the big waves of incoming people. We read the stories, we saw the pictures.

Maren: Two main things inspired us. First of all, the refugee crisis is a major issue in Greece right now, thus focusing on that was a good way to better understand life in Greece now. Secondly, I did research on the refugee crisis last summer, and I remain interested.

How did you go about conducting the project when you got there?

Liza: Before arriving in Greece, we had already done our research on the organizations that were active in Thessaloniki (my city) and knew their actions. Therefore, we had an idea of which organizations we would like to work with. When I went back to Greece in the beginning of summer, I contacted the organizations and got a clearer idea of which would be the best fit for our purposes. We decided to work with Antigone, and when Maren arrived in Greece in July, we sent our proposal to the organization and asked them to give us permission to do our project. We also contacted the refugee camp manager and asked permission for the project from her, too. After we got permissions from both the organization and the camp manager, we started the project.

Maren: We connected with two local organizations that brought us to a camp and an urban site, where we participated in the organizations’ activities and did our project.

How would you summarize your findings?

Liza: Our project wasn’t research-oriented, but service-oriented. We collected pictures from our activities at the refugee camp and also interviewed refugees about their experiences.

Maren: We will be putting on a fundraiser this Winter Term to show all of the findings, so stay tuned!

Did anything about the experience surprise you?

Liza: People’s attitude toward the situation surprised me the most. I was blown away by many of the refugees’ attitudes to the situation. They have been through so much. The things that they have seen and experienced are unimaginable. However, they still keep their heads high. They still have the courage to continue living and overcome any hurdles in their way.

I admire how grateful and kind they are, when the rest of the world is so ungrateful and unkind, a world that turned their backs on them. I admire how happy and hopeful they remain despite all the sorrow and despair that surrounds them. I admire how generous and loving they are towards us, people who are different from them on so many levels!

When the rest of the world is putting up walls and closing borders, they are breaking those boundaries down with their courage, kindness and incredible spirit.

Maren: The contrast between the city where we stayed and the refugee camp, just 20 minutes out of the city, was extreme. Even though Greece is experiencing a financial crisis, the different standards of living are unbelievable.

What is the next stage for your project?

Liza: There are a couple of things that we are planning for the future. First there is a report that is due, at the end of the month, to our supervisors. Furthermore, we are planning to give a presentation to the Washington and Lee community about the project. However, our ultimate goal is to organize one or more fundraisers to gather money that will most likely be sent back to the organization we worked with.

There are no words to describe how tragic the situation is, and it is extremely important that we do anything that can be done to ensure a future for those people. That is why we want to share our experiences, spread awareness and encourage people to get involved, to help in any way they can.

Maren: We are working on a report now, and, most importantly, we will be conducting a fundraiser in the winter to showcase our work and give back to the organizations we worked with.

Liza, what was it like sharing your homeland with a fellow student?

It was awesome because I got to experience my country through someone else’s eyes. I noticed things about myself and Greece that I would never notice under different circumstances. It really gave me a different perspective and understanding of many aspects of the culture and my life in Greece.

Maren, was this your first time in Greece? What were your impressions?

Yes, it was my first time in Greece. I found the people incredibly welcoming, the food delicious, and the countryside beautiful.

Favorite experience of the trip?

Liza: Getting to know the kids at the camp and interacting with them was by far the best.

Maren: We had been interviewing refugees, and one night, our translator had us over for dinner and cooked Syrian food for us and several urban refugees around our age. That was a fun night.

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