Turning the Refuge into a Home: TASIS Service Learning Group Offers Support to Young Refugees in Lugano
Posted 10/21/2017 12:00PM

While TASIS’s pioneering Global Service Program has deservedly received a lot of attention since its inception in 2013, it is important to not overlook the excellent work the School’s Service Learning Program also does in the local community. Elementary School Service Learning groups visit local hospitals, work with the blind and visually impaired, and confront environmental issues; Middle School Service Learning groups work with less fortunate families in Como, provide music therapy to children, and spearhead recycling efforts; and local High School Service Learning groups work with disadvantaged mothers and their families at Casa Elisabetta, spend time with retirement home residents at Al Pagnolo, support people with differing degrees of physical and mental disabilities at OTAF, and help young refugees from Africa and Asia as they start a new life in Switzerland.

Student writer Lilian Angelone recently took a closer look at the latter group, Red Cross Refugees, and shares her reactions in the article below.

Red Cross Refugees Service Learning Group

The 2017–2018 Red Cross Refugees Service Learning group

By Lilian Angelone ’19

Syria. Afghanistan. Central Africa. Myanmar. Much of the news surrounding these, and other regions, tells of the staggering numbers of refugees fleeing conflict, famine, and persecution. If we read enough, we may feel that we have an understanding of the problems faced by those forced from their homes, but one group of TASIS students is getting a deeper understanding of the crisis by building personal connections with a group of young people who have taken refuge in Lugano. When a tragedy is occurring half-way across the world, it can feel not only geographically remote but unconnected with our own lives. These issues quickly move from the abstract to reality, however, when we come face to face with those most deeply affected.

“Before I came to TASIS I never faced the reality of the lives of refugees—I only heard about it in the news,” said senior Lisa Tregubova, who has worked with the Red Cross Refugees for the last two years and is now serving as the group’s student leader. “But when the refugees opened up and told us their stories, I gained a completely different perspective and started to put myself in their shoes. This allowed me to empathize deeply with what they are going through and made me truly realize how strong they all are to have endured these experiences.”

After speaking with Lisa, I decided to take a closer look for myself and attended one of the Red Cross Refugees meetings in early October. This group of approximately a dozen TASIS students in grades 10–12 organizes after-school activities twice a month for the refugees. On average, the students work with a group of 8–12 young men and women aged 15–17. The refugees primarily come from Africa (Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Somalia) and from Asia (Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria).

Before I came to TASIS I never faced the reality of the lives of refugees—I only heard about it in the news.

– Lisa Tregubova ’18

The TASIS students meet weekly to plan activities and discuss issues that affect the refugees to better understand the conditions they had to endure. As one of their first assignments, the students watched a video called the European Refugee Crisis Explained and wrote reflections on their reactions to the harsh realities of the issue. The discussions that develop in these sessions are much more valuable than simply reading news headlines because they encourage the students to dig deeper, ask themselves hard questions, and bring a mindful approach to their own lives.

When I sat in on one of the group's most recent meetings, we discussed the importance of nonverbal communication. Not surprisingly, communication between the TASIS students and the young refugees can pose a challenge, as language barriers can be slow to dissolve. We identified all the ways in which people convey their thoughts and feelings other than through words. Being sensitive to facial expressions and body language helps the TASIS students to better understand the refugees, and vice-versa, making relationships possible.

Later that day, I joined the group to meet the refugees at school. I was nervous because I knew that Italian was the primary means of communication, and my Italian was limited to “grazie” and “ciao.” Although I was anxious about reaching outside my comfort zone in trying to communicate with people who I knew would not speak my language and who may sense my discomfort, I quickly reminded myself that they were stretching much further by coming to TASIS: an unfamiliar environment surrounded by swarms of students clothed in perfectly pressed uniforms. The mutual understanding that each of the parties felt slight discomfort, displayed by our darting eyes and timid smiles, made for a genuine, shared experience.

Mr. Mario D'Azzo, one of the faculty advisors for the group, spoke fondly of the program and its benefits for the refugees. “This program helps them to integrate into society by giving them an opportunity to practice Italian and interact with new people,” he said. “They also gain experience with sports and other activities that are not a part of their own societies and cultures.”

By having this relationship with them, it gives us a lot and it gives them a lot.

– Nicole Scentoni ’18

With students coming from 60 different countries, TASIS is truly a global community. Reflecting its international character, TASIS emphasizes the importance of cross-cultural experiences and fostering an outward-looking world view. These objectives are demonstrated through international academic travel and global service learning, but equally important are the person-to-person experiences that we, as TASIS students, are able to have with local organizations in our own backyard. The connections that are made through experiences like the Red Cross Refugee group are ones that will carry on into other aspects of our lives and help us become fully engaged global citizens.

“Before starting my work with Red Cross Refugees at TASIS, I did not have a full understanding of what it really meant to be a refugee,” stated Nicole Scentoni, a devoted TASIS senior who is working with the refugees for a third straight year. “After my first meeting with them, however, when they opened up to us about their lives, I started to understand the extent of what they went through—something I will never experience. It changed my way of thinking. By having this relationship with them, it gives us a lot and it gives them a lot. We can teach each other and share our cultures. This experience is much different than a one- or two-week volunteer program, like going to Nepal or India, because we build a relationship with them over the year, instead of having to say goodbye after two weeks.”

Federico Bettini, who works with young and unaccompanied refugees for Red Cross, further explained why his group’s partnership with TASIS is so meaningful. “This collaboration is important for the reciprocal enrichment of young people on both sides,” he said. “They are able to share stimulating activities, find joy in being together, and learn to know and recognize themselves in their own cultures and origins.”


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