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Studying Abroad: Understanding A Unique Aspect of Your Local Community

Studying abroad provides endless opportunities to learn about the fascinating and dynamic history and culture of your host country. While it is easy to spend all of your time traveling to nearby places, going to museums, and eating local cuisine (all wonderful experiences!), I urge you to get involved in your local communities abroad in a unique way based on your interests.

A fellow classmate in Rome loved music, so she set out to discover the local music scene, befriending an Italian band and becoming one of their most loyal fans, never missing a show. A friend that studied abroad in Bologna plans to be a teacher someday, largely due to her experience teaching high school students in Italy.

One of the best decisions I made during my time in Rome was to volunteer weekly at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center. The Center offers breakfast, toiletries, showers and restrooms, clothing, language classes, and a place to stay (and play games, watch the news, make friends, etc.) from 8:30 am to 2 pm every weekday to political refugees, who are primarily men from various countries in the Middle East and Africa. Along with two other students, I lead a class to help some of these men learn English and improve their reading, writing, and speaking capabilities. My time at the Center was the one of the most humbling and eye-opening experiences I have ever had. I was able to listen to the most incredible stories and saw first-hand the amazing power of human resilience.

I was both surprised and touched by how welcomed I felt at the Center, and so quickly. Through my conversations with many of the men and the paragraphs they wrote to practice their English, I heard and read the most heart-wrenching stories, which, for them, are reality. See below for some paraphrased examples (I have omitted names to protect their privacy):

I am from Pakistan. When my dad died, he left half of the land to me, and half to my brother. However, my brother threatened me at gunpoint and took all of the land, so I was left with nothing. My mom gave me money and told me to leave the country, so that my brother would not kill me, and said that God would help me survive. I went to Libya and then Sudan and I prayed to God to help me. Then I came to Italy, but it is not a good life here. I have nothing.

I do not like the life in Italy. I have no house, no food, nothing. I sleep on the street. There are no jobs.

I am 16. I am from Afghanistan. I had to leave my homeland because it was not safe. Bombs would kill hundreds of people every day. I went to Turkey with my friend, and then we took a boat to Italy. It was very scary because we had to deal with illegal people. We were illegal. Our boat broke down so we had to call for emergency help. When the police came, they did not believe that I was 16, so they documented me as being 18. But I am 16.

When people think of Pakistan, they think of terrorists. But that’s only some people doing that. Pakistan is beautiful. I miss the nature, the mountains, and the water. Most people are good.

I had to leave Iran because of the terrorists. I came to Italy for 8 months, then I worked in Norway for many years making pizza. But now I had to come back to Italy. I am trying to get my documents but I do not have the money.

You go home in two weeks? You are lucky that you can go home, because I want to but I can’t.

How long has it been since you’ve seen your family? I haven’t seen mine in six years.

In some ways, I felt helpless when I heard these stories. On the other hand, I felt privileged to have the opportunity to spend time with all of the people I met at the Center.

I learned so much about Rome, the world, and myself as a result of my experiences at the Center. I hope that you seek opportunities to volunteer or get involved in some other way in your local communities while abroad to gain a different experience, perspective, and understanding of the city in which you are living.

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