BYU students find humanity in the midst of the refugee crisis


BYU student Melena Warden moves down the line at a refugee camp in Moria, Greece. She can’t provide the refugees with assurances of asylum, but she can provide them with a sense of humanity.

“They’re treated like less than human,” Warden said. “I think they crave this human connection that makes them feel like they’re normal. They’re just like us. They’re here because they have to be, because war pushed them out; not because they want to be.”

Melena Warden befriended refugees as they waited to officially enter the police camp and get their papers in Moria, Greece. (Melena Warden)

Warden used bits of Farsi and Arabic she had learned while waiting in line with refugees from Afghanistan and Syria in order to learn their stories.

“When they saw I was trying to get to their level and speak to them in their language, they’d light up and respect me,” she said.

Warden spent Christmas break volunteering at the refugee camp. She returned to Provo, only to turn around and get back on a plane.

She bought a one-way ticket, and her mother dropped Warden and her backpack off at the airport.

Rachael Bundy, Warden’s old roommate, was not very surprised by her decision to go back to Greece. According to Bundy, Warden is an energetic and charismatic person who is truly concerned with how the world works.

“She came back and she was signing up for classes,” Bundy said. “Then she was like, ‘You know, I just don’t think I can make a big enough difference here. I feel like I need to go and make a difference.'”

Warden explained when she returned to Provo, she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. The day before winter semester’s Add/Drop Deadline, Warden decided to take a semester off and return to Europe, where she hopes to find her purpose and develop the skills to help others the way she wants to.

“I was at school and realized this is not real, this has no importance — there are people dying,” Warden said. “I know them, and I just couldn’t handle it.”

Back in Greece, she feels like she is making a difference, but the work she does and the heartache she sees is still emotionally and psychologically taxing. Warden notes, however, this is not necessarily bad.

“I spend time crying, and I feel like that helps me grow the capacity I have to love,” Warden said. “I’m not sure if there’s a way you cope with it, because it’s horrible and not something that anyone wants to see other humans going through. The way I keep going is connecting with people.”

Other BYU students, such as Amanda Buessecker, are also feeling the impact of the refugee crisis. Buessecker, an art history major from Calgary, recently met her new neighbors — a Syrian refugee family.

In a Facebook post titled “Why It’s Not ‘Cool’ That My Next-Door Neighbors Are Syrian Refugees” that has been shared almost 10,000 times, Buessecker expressed her frustration with readers’ reactions when she told them of her new neighbors, a family of nine that fled Damascus.

She believes many of these comments seemed to dehumanize refugees and wrote that it is unfair how the public does not take the effort to think about the suffering current refugees are experiencing.

“Frankly it sucks that my new neighbors are Syrian refugees,” Buessecker wrote. “It means I CAN NO LONGER escape the reality of the horrors of the world, because members of my community have experienced it … It means tears roll down my cheeks as I plead with God to bless them in their new land.”

She explained she deeply cares for these new neighbors who have had terrible experiences.

Even though there is a language barrier, Amanda Buessecker's family has become close to their new Syrian neighbors. In Calgary, the mother is relieved as the children play in the neighborhood park without the threat of warfare. (Courtesy of Amanda Buessecker)
Even though there is a language barrier, Amanda Buessecker’s family has become close to their new Syrian neighbors. In Calgary, the mother is relieved that the children can play in the neighborhood park without the threat of warfare. (Amanda Buessecker)

Buessecker’s neighbors left their home, saw people die and fled for their lives as a “last resort.” Now they are safe in Canada, where the mother watches her children play in the park, and the children are quickly learning English.

Buessecker, an international student, has experienced some differences between American and Canadian culture herself. She said moving to Canada must be hard for the family.

Despite these hardships, the family still has a great deal of hope for their future, and Buessecker is hopeful they will find happiness in their new home.

“If these people feel welcomed into our countries, they’re just as valid citizens as me who was born in a country or a French-Canadian who doesn’t speak English. We’re all Canadians, right?” said Buessecker.

The LDS church has also taken a stand to help refugees. In April’s General Conference, Relief Society General President Linda K. Burton introduced an initiative called “I Was a Stranger.” Church leaders urged members to help the refugees and to become informed about world events.

“Being a refugee may be a defining moment in the lives of those who are refugees, but being a refugee does not define them,” said Patrick Kearon, a member of the Quorum of the Seventy and president of the Europe area, in a conference talk. “This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us.”

In November 2015, the LDS Church committed to donate $5 million to help displaced families after M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, visited refugee sites in Germany and Greece.

According to Eurostat, 426,000 individuals applied as first-time applicants for asylum in the European Union from October to December 2015. Of these applicants, 145,000 are from Syria, 79,300 are from Afghanistan and 53,600 are from Iraq.

Applicants are applying for asylum in EU-member nations, including Germany (38 percent of applicants applied for asylum here), Sweden (21 percent), Austria (7 percent), Italy (6 percent) and France (6 percent).

Before they officially apply for asylum, many refugees flee to Greece, often using illegal methods, and are then stranded in border camps, such as the police camp at Idomeni where Warden volunteered, with little more than the wet clothes they are wearing.

Aid organizations strive to provide refugees with food and clothes, but refugees can still wait in uncomfortable conditions for weeks before they are given papers that allow them to apply for asylum elsewhere.

Now Warden is living in Athens with a Syrian family she met at Idomeni. She and a few other volunteers were cleaning up the camp when a mother and her three daughters asked if they could help, saying they would rather pick up trash than sit around.

Warden was amazed that these women would help in the midst of this human conflict. She began to talk to the family and found they “have such peace inside and such light in their eyes.”

Warden explained that even though they are refugees, this family helps others constantly. Furthermore, they maintain a sense of gratitude and a strong faith in God. The mother told Warden a story of life back in Syria: a bomb went off outside their house. Her daughters had been outside in the car, and she thought they had surely died. Once she went outside, she saw they were alive and thanked God for protecting them.

Warden with members of her Syrian family. "I saw them, and I was like, 'They will be my family forever,'" said Warden. (Melena Warden)
Warden with members of her Syrian family. “I saw them, and I was like, ‘They will be my family forever,'” said Warden. (Melena Warden)

When the family was set to leave the camp, Warden felt like she needed to go with them. She followed the family to Skotina where she and the Syrian mother started a school for the children, who had not been taught in over a year. Warden taught the children English and also started an English program for the adults.

Warden said she feels like she has began to find that purpose she has been searching for.

“I’m learning that instead of thinking I need to help everyone, I need to look at those around me and know that’s enough,” Warden said.

This summer, Warden will return to her family. Her mother, Deanna Warden, joked that it was her fault that Melena went to Greece because she raised Melena to try to relieve the suffering of others and to realize that she is a citizen of the world.

Warden plans to continue to work as an advocate for refugees once she is back home by teaming up with organizations such as Lifting Hands International, which her friend, BYU-graduate Hayley Smith, started.

“Everybody’s human,” Warden said. “Everybody’s the same. We should always cherish humanity, and we should never let ourselves dehumanize other people in any way.”

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