Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

Learning on the Fly: Melina Knabe and Matt Carl American students at Washington and Lee University traveled abroad with international students for summer projects they created together.

“You can read or watch the news, but until you look a 7-year-old girl in the eyes and hear a story about how her home was destroyed, you don’t get it.”

— Matt Carl

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.

“The Endeavor Program has inspired our students to think about their experiences abroad in new and innovative ways,” said Mark Rush, director of international education and Stanley D. and Nikki Waxberg Professor of Politics and Law. “It is inspiring to witness their creativity and energy as they spend their summers engaging in diverse and unique projects abroad. At the same time, this great program provides a wonderful chance for our international students to introduce their countries to American students through the lens of their family and home.”

Matthew Carl ’17 and Melina Knabe ’17 traveled to Knabe’s home city of Berlin, Germany to volunteer at an emergency shelter in the city and bond with its residents over a common love for the sport of soccer. Their project was titled “The Refugees of Germany: Soccer, Service and Stories.”

In fall 2015, Knabe said, “I started talking to my dad about the refugee crisis that was unfolding. My family was concerned about it, so it was very much on my mind.”

She and Carl said their program was an ideal way to combine their various interests. She is majoring in neuroscience with a minor in philosophy; he is an economics and German double major with a minor in mathematics.

When they arrived in Berlin, the study partners hit the streets and found an emergency shelter two subway stops from Knabe’s family home. The shelter, set up in a large, repurposed town hall, was one of many scattered in districts throughout the city. It was filled with mostly Syrians and Iraqis who had fled their countries for a safe haven and better opportunities.

Families can stay in private rooms in these shelters, but Knabe and Carl found that most of the residents were Syrian men in their 20s or 30s who hoped to bring their families to Germany later. That particular shelter was a U-shaped, five-story building surrounding a stone courtyard, and many of the residents gathered in the courtyard, where they passed the time by kicking around a soccer ball.

“Soccer is just a universal language, really, through which the German and refugee cultures can all be on equal footing, so to speak,” Carl said.

They contacted a man, Karlos El-Khatib, who works for a Berlin soccer club in a program that uses soccer to integrate cultures. Through his contacts, El-Khatib connected them with another soccer club in the city, and they began to use those resources to plan a large soccer tournament for the children of the shelter.

Planning the tournament required finding a space (at one of the soccer clubs) and advertising in advance. Knabe and Carl made posters in multiple languages and began to spread the word. They also ordered about 80 participation medals to hand out to everyone involved, including children and volunteers.

But they spent the bulk of their time leading up to the tournament getting to know residents of the shelter and building their trust.

“Something that resonated with me is that there is no substitute for personal interaction. You can read or watch the news, but until you look a 7-year-old girl in the eyes and hear a story about how her home was destroyed, you don’t get it,” Carl said.

In general, he and Knabe found it much easier to draw out the children, who impressed them with their resilience and lightheartedness, than the parents, who were understandably despondent and shy after uprooting their entire lives and moving to a strange city. The W&L students were also interested in the duality of the Germans’ attitude toward the refugees. They seemed to be overwhelmingly upset with their politicians’ decision to open the borders without putting it to a vote or seeking more citizen input, but they were still largely sympathetic toward the refugees and wanted to find ways to integrate them into the country.

“It’s a very pragmatic approach,” Knabe said.

Still, it seemed as if the urgency of the refugee situation had begun to fade for Berliners. The 5,000 volunteers who stepped up to help at the height of the crisis had dwindled in number by the time Carl and Knabe arrived. From a semantics standpoint, it was telling that the term used by Germans for refugees earlier in the crisis translated to “the fleeing,” but that word had been gradually replaced in conversation by a word that means “the fled.” But “the fled” still needed plenty of help as they continued to process the traumas they had experienced, dealt with heartbreaking homesickness, and began the search for jobs.

When the tournament rolled around, it was the perfect culmination of the work Carl and Knabe had done during their visit. It was meant to be for children ages 10 to 19, but the W&L team welcomed children of all ages.

It was “the highlight of the whole trip,” Carl said.

Knabe said the best part was giving the children a chance to let go of their worries and simply play together, if only for a short time. “It was so beautiful because they got to just be kids for a while,” she said, “and they got to leave the emergency shelter behind.”

— Lindsey Nair | lnair@wlu.edu

If you know any W&L students who would be great profile subjects, tell us about them! Nominate them for a web profile.