Emigrating to a new country is a challenge under the best of circumstances. IBM employee Richard Cohen ought to know: he moved to Finland from New Jersey in the United States, and did not yet speak the language. But this is nothing compared to the experience of children and teenagers who come to the Refugee Center in Siuntio, Finland from the war torn areas of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone.
Cohen and his 15 year-old son spent 10 days volunteering at the center which houses and educates the kids as they wait for a formal ruling on their asylum applications. “Virtually all the kids there were orphans who somehow – remarkably – made it to safety at the Red Cross Refugee Center in Siuntio. A Finnish volunteer organization called KTV, affiliated with an international volunteer group, organized this volunteer project with the Finnish Red Cross,” says Cohen.
Cohen, his son, and 12 other volunteers from various countries, including Russia, Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland, Ghana, Italy, France and Afghanistan, spent a week making small improvements to the Refugee Center facilities. They also brought some classic “summer fun" to the center by organizing summer camp types of activities.
“During the summer months, life is slow and routine at the Center,” says Cohen. “There are no organized school or study programs for the children, many of whom are anxiously waiting for decisions on their asylum application. We wanted to connect on a personal level with these kids and so we organized trust, team building and other group activities, as well as sports activities ranging from golf to ultimate Frisbee to blindfold and falling games.”
But it wasn’t all fun and games. The group of volunteers and the refugee children worked together, putting in new topsoil for a garden. “We managed to communicate just fine using some Finnish and English,” says Cohen. “People in other countries study English more diligently than we study other languages. English really has become a universal language.”
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Cohen and the other volunteers also played chess and cards with the kids and let them ham it up for the camera. “The photography activities were particularly successful. I brought with me to the Center a high quality Nikon SLR digital camera. The teenagers loved to both pose and take pictures themselves and immediately upload them to Facebook,” Cohen recounts
Cohen loved watching how his son connected with these children who had seemingly lost everything. “My son is growing up in peaceful, middle class Finland, attending the Jewish school of Helsinki, and has both his parents alive. The refugees we worked with grew up in war torn, poor parts of Afghanistan, Kosovo, Somalia, and Iraq. They attended mosques and churches, and lost both their parents to war. Despite the differences and preconceived notions of the other, the teenagers managed to discover that they had more in common with each other than not– enjoying the same things teenagers everywhere enjoy: soccer, basketball, music and Facebook.”
“I learned that one of the most powerful tools for reducing prejudice – and, perhaps, by extension, the ethnic violence that so pervades our world – is simply bringing teenagers from diverse backgrounds together in activities that help them forge personal connections. Many of the connections forged at the center still continue today on Facebook.”
Building on this experience, Cohen is hoping to explore ways he and his IBM colleagues can better leverage social networking tools such as Facebook and Internet gaming to virtually bring together teenagers from around the world in order to help reduce prejudice and stereotypes.
“The volunteer work I did will likely not dramatically change the world for most of the kids. However, I believe big differences can be the cumulative result of a large number of small differences individuals can make every day in the lives of others.”
IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.