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An Afternoon in Toronto with Diana: Her Ritsona Refugee Camp Journey

Diana Delbecchi, a scholar working in the refugee field, shares about her decision to work in a Greek refugee camp and vividly explains experiences and feelings she had while at the camp and later on as she processed her experience (additional video not in the documentary film):


My name is Diana Delbecchi and I actually grew up in Lenexa, Kansas. At 16 years old my family actually moved and so I had to integrate into the Canadian school system and… So I think part of, sort of, what has led me to the path that I've chosen has been that at a pivotal time – at 16 – sort of moving and getting to see the U.S. in a different light. And which then kind of brought me to study psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. In Green Bay I was working with undocumented students and became increasingly frustrated with their lack of access to education and I just needed to understand the complex situation more so I went abroad to the National University of Ireland in Galway and I studied a master's in gender globalization and human rights, where I focused my entire studies and thesis on the right to education within the human rights framework and looking at particularly the access to a higher education.

From that piece of research that I did I actually took it and applied it to the context in Greece for youth refugee populations because there's a lot of similarities with refugee populations and undocumented student populations. So, of course in the fall of 2015, we all were watching the news when really the height of the refugee crisis landed on the shores of Greece and during that time I was in Europe kind of listening and reading a lot about the crisis but knowing that I have to finish my master's degree before there was anything I could really do. So once I got to that point where I was finally able to do something I started doing a bit of research to figure out what it was I could do to help.

I just felt compelled that since I had finished my master's degree in this subject of human rights, and of course there was so much going on in Europe that was right at our doorsteps, that I felt compelled that I had to do something. But I wanted to do something very strategic that applied my skills, so I began researching organizations and areas to work in and I came across the organization IMU that was doing educational programming in Ritsona refugee camp. In all honesty, I was really terrified. I really didn't feel that it was something I should do. I tried my hardest to find opportunities to contribute to the crisis in Greece in any way I could that didn't take me there. But as it turned out the organization really needed somebody on the ground to do that piece of research and so I reluctantly said yes I would go and I negotiated that I would go for a month. I mean that it was that was it – I would do what I could in that month. I would do the research and I would get out of there and I was very adamant that I didn't want to spend too much time at the camp because I was very hesitant that my own experience wasn't enough to really make any sort of large contribution. That it was just gonna be a drop in the ocean and it was just so vast, that I was I was very afraid of doing more harm than I was going to do good. But as it turned out, I went, and I ended up spending six months in Ritsona camp, not only doing the piece of research but implementing it afterwards.

When I was first at the camp, I conducted a bit of research with the youth, primarily around the types of education that they had coming to Greece and also the types of education that they were hoping to get and continue to sort of get, a survey of where people were at and where they wanted to go. But then also doing some policy research on what was actually feasible and what was available to refugee youth in Greece. What could we actually provide to them and then I put together some recommendations for the organization that ended up really boiling down to – we have no idea where these people are going to end up – so we have no idea what language we can assist them with. So the conclusion was we need teach them English. It will be the only language that will serve them well in whatever country they go forward to, so that was sort of the first thing and I ended up implementing a curriculum and putting together a youth program around education that targeted helping those students gain some of the skills and the language skills they needed to then go on to do studying on either an online level or hopefully then get into the Greek school system eventually and be able to learn at a formal school. 

For me, when I when I got to the camp and I was doing sort of my surveying and my research, you can't help but build relationships – and particularly with the youth because most of the youth that I worked with were unaccompanied. They were there alone, oftentimes had been abandoned or orphaned due to the war in Syria, had often witnessed their family members murdered in front of them, were kidnapped in front of them and taken somewhere else and never heard from again. And as we talked, as they built these relationships and heard from these students what they were studying and what their hopes and dreams were, you could you couldn't help but want to know more about them and help them achieve those dreams.

One afternoon about a week before I left, I had my plane ticket home and I was sitting with one student who was a Palestinian refugee inside of Syria and hadn't really been able to fully have his rights validated in that context and then was then forced to flee again had lost his entire family and was just sitting there in front of me saying, you know… I just… I don't… if I can get out of here, all I want to do is have a tent on a mountain and be alone because I have no reason to do anything else. But yet he was such a great artist and he had so much that he wanted to, you know, he had so many other hopes and dreams but was still suffering with so much depression and so much loneliness and really feeling forgotten from the world. But we had built this friendship and it was at that moment that I really was like, well I think I'm gonna stay, and I'm gonna do this program and work with you and be there every day to prove that somebody cares about you, that somebody wants to see your future and believes in your future, and so it was really after that conversation and it was a lengthy one, that I decided I didn't want to go and that I did want to stay and I feel that that was authentic and I built really strong relationships as a result of that commitment that I made to stay.

Journey to Refuge ebook cover

Download the eBook at New Prairie Press

Published April 2019

Recommended Citation: Harlow, Trina D., "Journey to Refuge: Understanding Refugees, Exploring Trauma, and Best Practices for Newcomers and Schools" (2019). NPP eBooks. 26. https://newprairiepress.org/ebooks/26

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

See the full Refuge in the Heartland documentary

For more information about the eBook or film, please contact Dr. Trina Harlow, Book Editor and Film Co-Director, at drtrinaharlow@gmail.com.