CCS Alumni Spotlight: Denise Riebman
Denise Riebman decided to ring in the new year the right way--dedicated to the service of others. Denise is a career development specialist that decided to embark on her first CCS adventure to provide resources to refugees at the Ritsona Refugee Camp. Before her trip to Greece, she reached out to her friends and family to collect vital item donations for the distribution center at Ritsona. Unique to the Greece Refugee Program, CCS provides volunteers with a list of appropriate and useful donations that will make a positive impact on the residents of the camp. Denise was incredibly impacted by seeing the camp, the people that she met, and stories that she heard. After she went back home, she hosted a “Giving Back Tea” in her local community to collect donations and spread awareness about the issue. We caught up with her to hear more about her experience and see how she got her friends and family involved!
What drew you to volunteer with CCS in Greece?
Last year, I saw a film called “Human Flow.” It is a documentary about the refugee crisis and how over 65 million people around the world have been forced from their homes to escape famine, climate change and war in the greatest human displacement since World War II. I sat dumbfounded in theater, trying to wrap my head around the complexity of this issue. Those images and what I learned stayed in the back of my mind; that’s how it started.
A few weeks later, I saw a picture in the paper of a 13-year-old boy who was fleeing Myanmar. He was starving and malnourished and looked like he had been through so much. It was so impactful and heart-breaking to understand that this was another reality of our world. I knew that I wanted to do something and felt this sense of recognition of my fortune, and a desire to give something back, even it was small. That same weekend, I started to research came across Cross-Cultural Solutions. I knew that this was going to be a way to make an impact in this realm that I began to learn so much about.
What have you learned about the refugee crisis by being on the ground at Ritsona?
Seeing the reality is different than just hearing about it in the media. You really get the opportunity to really understand the conditions--both the good and challenges. It is completely different seeing it through your own eyes.
What struck me the most is the raw universality of human emotions and desire for a normal family life. Seeing what the parents have given up for their children and trying to give them a sense of normalcy among uncertainty was part of it. In another light, you also see the mom frustrated with her kids that are misbehaving. You see the dads tired of the moms taking long to shop. You see the girls shopping together, trying to choose the best outfits. It’s the same things that you would see in an American Mall-- you truly realize that these people are us but in a different circumstance.
It really gives you an understanding of how the situation must be in their own country to give up where they have a home, a sense of belonging, and their job to be forced to live in an environment like this. People don’t know how long that will last--just a month, or a year--they really have no idea how long they will be there. It hurt my heart to see and know what they will go through but also gave me hope to see their positivity and the resilience of the human spirit.
Seeing laughter and joy of children everywhere reminded of the other end of this. It gave me hope. Despite the craziness of the world and their circumstances, you can still find a place of hope and eventually find a way back to normal life.
What is it like walking around Ritsona camp?
You know that this is not the life that the residents should be living but they still maintain pockets of hope. They have more compared to other camps but it is still not a situation that people want to be in for a long time; crises like this are happening all around the world. It can be difficult to see the reality, but you also see people making the best of their situations. There is no way to escape thinking about what they’ve might have had at home but they have made it their own. Some residents have little back porches and gardens--they create a space that is their home.
Tell me about the donation that you made to CCS with your trip.
When I was talking to the Program Specialist Team, they let me know that the usual policy is to not bring donations to any program. Greece is the exception that policy for specific items that are in need at the camp. I am so fortunate to have generous friends and family who really care about issues like this as well. I sent a call out to people and was overwhelmed by their generosity.
The refugee crisis is something in America that we see on the news but we have no direct control over it. There is so much that is out of our reach, but so many people who welcome the opportunity to do something for this issue. They were ready and willing to help.
The people who donated loved that I was able to hand-deliver the items that they donated. It felt really special to them. I felt so overwhelmed by the kindness and desire for others to make a difference. It made me so grateful for my support network and showed me that people are just waiting for the opportunity to do good.
How did it feel to see your items being used right after you donated it?
It was incredible to see as I put out some of the items that my family and friends helped me bring; they were immediately taken. I saw a gentleman wearing sandals looking for new shoes, and his face lit up as soon as he saw the boots. We are doing something so little, but knowing that his feet will be warm makes a difference. To be able to get something new is a self-confidence boost that is universal among us all. There is something special about people having the opportunity to get something new. They gain this sense of normalcy that makes them feel good about their new items. To go through something like this and still have a sense of self-care is really important.
It felt so amazing to see the direct impact even on a small scale. Just one thing that you can do can plant a seed and impact someone in a positive way. When you plant seeds in others, you also plant a seed in yourself.
What difference are you making by volunteering at Ritsona?
I am playing a tiny part in continuing a larger operation. I wanted to be part of something that was sustainable that would last after my time there and CCS does that. The more the residents see other volunteers, the more they realize that there are people around the world that recognize their plight and want to do something to help them. We are just a part of a larger cohort of volunteers that continually assist the residents.
We are just getting a small glimpse of part of the resident’s stories. We’re playing a small role but it does make a difference. There is a need for volunteers---you’re not a hero but you play a part in the bigger picture that’s going on.
By experiencing this, I am able to bring and share some of my energy with my friends and family to show them how they can give back to the world. I am so fortunate in my life and it feels so good to give back. Everyone can do just a tiny thing that creates a chain effect. Some people need to be woken up. I feel it is now my duty to continue to let other people know about this and inspires others to give back.
At the end of the day, these people just want a life and it’s important that others know that.
How can you get involved?
Volunteer. Go see this crisis for yourself. Although you can not change it all together, you can make a difference. It will impact you and the people around you and the people that need it the most.
Raise money. After my experience, I decided to host a “Giving Back Tea” to share my experience and spread awareness. It’s important that others know about this plight and understand the reality and learn that they can make an impact that matters.
Parts of this experience broke my heart but it also gave me a sense of hope. There are so many things that are going on an international level that we have no control over but on an individual level anyone can make a difference.
To learn more about how you can make an impact with the refugee crisis like Denise, visit: https://www.crossculturalsolutions.org/destinations/refugee-program-greece