Day of Service: More than a little fun and games

In London, giving teenage refugees a day of fun.

Mette Bastholm

Mette Bastholm

Yalies joined with the Children's Section of the British Refugee Council to give a group of teenage refugees a day of pure fun. View full image

Mette Bastholm

Mette Bastholm

Artist Bokani Tshidzu led the morning mask-making session. View full image

Despite the rain, there was nothing but warmth inside the Victoria & Albert building in London’s Victoria Park, where Yale alumni joined teenage  refugees on May 12 for an afternoon of games, food, and music. One smiling 16-year-old, who had arrived in the UK 11 months ago from Somalia, delivered the general opinion—“a very fun day”—and added: “I was so, so glad to be here meeting people who want to have fun.”

This was the third consecutive year that Yalies partnered with the Children’s Section of the British Refugee Council for a relaxed day of diversions. For those forced to leave their homelands due to conflict, political instability, or torture, the event is a welcome break as they endure the limbo and uncertainty that come with seeking asylum.

Joe Jakes, coordinator of the Youth Development Project at the council, said the young refugees who arrive in the UK have no idea how their life is going to turn out. For them, this day offers a chance to meet professionals and experts in different fields, which can be inspiring for young people hoping to get a job and integrate into UK society. The volunteers, said Jakes, “share their experiences. Especially of hope.”

Leading the day’s activities was the energetic yet easygoing Kamilla Arku ’05, a London-based pianist, teacher, and founder/director of Music for Liberia, who easily got 50 strangers dancing and clapping giddily within minutes. After some goofy but challenging group exercises, we partnered off for an art project, drawing portraits of each other that were then exhibited on the walls. During lunch, a boy explained to me that his new approach to learning English is to stop worrying and just talk. “I close my ears to other boys laughing at mistakes I make,” he said. “You need to be brave. I’m driving myself to improve—not waiting for school.”

After lunch, we broke into groups for more games and art projects, this time aimed at exploring our common ground—as people from places as diverse as Eritrea, Albania, Guinea, Afghanistan, Iran, and England.

One volunteer, Tim Spurr ’91MA, said he was struck by how well the young people engaged with the Yale volunteers, after some initial shyness. “So many of their stories are heartbreaking, even shocking,” said Spurr, a finance director at Barclays in London. “I sincerely hope that they found the day helpful, and even therapeutic where necessary.”

The afternoon ended with a trio of dreamy songs, played on a hollow-body electric guitar by Scippio Mosely, who teaches with Arku at the World Heart Beat Music Academy.

The event, said Jakes, was “about the meeting of two minds. About having something in common with UK society. These are people who want to do things, who want to escape conflict and be in a safe country and dream like anybody else.”

As people were saying their goodbyes, a boy thanked me for the afternoon. “It’s amazing that people care about refugees,” he said. A girl added, with a gentle smile: “Today was a great day for me because I went out of my house.”

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