Looking back at our pioneer UWC alumni refugee support project with Red Cross Udine

Finally – two whole weeks after the 22nd of July, when my first “On This Day” reminders started popping up about last year’s UWCAD alumni refugee service volunteer project spearheaded by Kathrin – I get this precious sliver of downtime from the relentless activity in my life to properly compose this post.

“22” was lodged in my head, because coincidentally wearing my volunteer t-shirt that day on 22 July when I’d first wanted to write this post, I’d noticed that not only was that date a full year from my original post, the other window I had open on my laptop was the order screen for the photos from Buckingham Palace with the Prince of Wales, the date of which was exactly a month earlier, 22 June.

On my t-shirt I read the date on the Croce Rossa Udine’s logo, seemingly for the first time. “Convenzione di Ginevra. 22 Agosto 1864.”

So, today’s final reminder to myself from the past comes from the final set of pictures I took from the service, and added to the end of my album of our 20-year UWCAD reunion pictures from last year. Here they are, right at the end of the album: https://www.facebook.com/elaine.mosimann/posts/10153676689381921. They’re worth looking for; each one has detailed captions explaining little stories behind each pic.


This post will be a long one. Because it’s a long and beautiful and evolving story, with many contributors.

Remembering you all from this seminal event in my life from last year, Kathrin BlaufussAna LampretRok SešekTia LampretCristina ZametzerEsther ShawBaran DodaRobert TomalinEva TrottaMaja MomicAmanda de FeliceFedericaFede AlbiniNicola DegrassiStɘfaɳo Rigato, with great fondness and gratitude. 

(And for the TL:DR folks, you may have noticed that I have deliberately stopped apologising for my eloquence some time ago. I have decided that I shall serve the functions for which I have been made. And these are but brief elements of much longer stories, of others’, in their own right, which need not only to be presented but to be given the chance to be listened to.)

My posts reflecting on the service, what we did, and what it meant to the refugees, the Red Cross Udine, us as individuals, UWC Adriatic alumni #livingthemission, and our college, legacy for ongoing students, and the UWC Movement:

“This has been one of the most profound and meaningful experiences I’ve been privileged to be part of.

I was sad and disappointed initially not to be permitted to bring the children to the refugee camp. But life works out in unseen ways. They had the best time being taken care of by Tia. And I could give my all to the refugees in the camp with full concentration as a result, without the constant distraction of overseeing them, or taking away from the others who were also able to similarly focus on giving which was what we were there to do.


My heart and mind are full, touched by the humanity, generosity, smiles, eagerness to learn, the sadness of their loneliness and untold stories present in eyes met, but above all… the sheer joy of connection, exchange, sharing, the very simplest things. The unexplainable joy of being alive, the multiple levels of giving and receiving that resist full fitting into the over-simple partitions of ‘needy’ and ‘benefactor’……”


““In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety.” – Abraham Maslow

Read the above on page 1 of UWCAD’s Social Service Handbook for new students, and was so struck by it I had to share it straightaway……

Growth, and safety – we all do this dance, back and forth, every day. In reaching out to help others, and in accepting others’ help when we need it, we offer each other the chance to grow as well as reinforce our own security…

And sometimes, like in our refugee work, it is precisely in the provision of more safety to others who have been hurting so badly from its absence, that we give ourselves the greatest space to grow – out of our comfort zone.”


“Here’s a heartwarming little video that Red Cross Udine put together to capture some moments from our five days of service at their refugee camp for young Afghani and Pakistani men who have been stuck in limbo as the system continues to undergo severe strain.

It may not seem like there was much we could do, but we tried our best to figure out on the spot how we could help them. It ended up making a real difference to the refugees, and a deeply meaningful experience for us volunteers.”

Video here: https://youtu.be/Wg-vISOhCZQ
Post here: https://www.facebook.com/elaine.mosimann/posts/10153882834291921

My post on the drawings I dreamed up for the refugees:

“I used to get into much trouble in school, with exasperated teachers who would force me to sit in the front row because I was not paying attention, doodling and daydreaming under their noses… and till today I still feel like I don’t quite fit.

Which has made me naturally gravitate to fellow outsiders, and paradoxically in doing so, discover the joy in simple, truthful connection with any other person. ‘Cos no matter how wildly, seemingly impossibly, different we are, if we look hard enough there will be a couple of things that we do share. And most of these things are the most basic things of all. Fear, love, longing, family, home, sunshine, pain, and so on.

These are the drawings that I put the biggest part of my heart into, for the refugees. I just wanted to share them on their own because they mean so much, not only to me but even more, I hope, for them, too, as they see them, day in, day out… and learn that they can find words to express their feelings, to others, and – that this helps……”


My post on the momentum growing, including Italian newspaper coverage after the completion of project:

“The momentum keeps growing; already there’s this, a newspaper article (in Italian at the moment but hopefully there’ll be an English-translated version soon), and most touchingly, a short but moving video that the Red Cross Udine put together on their own initiative, our efforts evidently meant so much to them. I’ll share the video on a separate post shortly, watching it affected me that much. Showed it to the kids just now and it makes my throat lump up all over again……

We were initially not permitted to take any photos at all within the camp, so the progressive opening up to us day after day, from them permitting us to take some photos, post and share, to printing the t-shirts at short notice for us [their idea], then the video, with more to come… was simply the most heartwarming and beautiful thing to witness.”


Three months later, a progress post from our college UWC Adriatic on 26 October 2016 during the global UWC Congress that we hosted last year, reporting on the follow-on from our pilot alumni service initiative and its conversion to a fully-fledged student service:

“Today the UWC Student Representatives attending the UWC Congress 2016 and some fellow UWC Adriatic students went to Udine to a refugee camp that has become very familiar to UWC Adriatic. This summer a group of alumni attending the 2016 Reunion launched a pilot project in collaboration with the Udine Red Cross in order to do refugee work. The project is now being continued as a regular volunteering service…….”


Also in mid-October 2016, I got the chance to listen to the amazing female president of the Afghan Red Crescent, Fatima Gailani, at a British Red Cross charity gala for prominent women leaders, which gave a complementary perspective to the Afghan refugee crisis:

“In a moving and personal speech of unflagging hope and vision, despite having lived through and witnessed from alien shores the untold horrors of her beloved home country of Afghanistan, Fatima reminded us of the many ‘firsts’ that Afghan women achieved in their country before the outbreak of civil war in the 70s started tearing it apart. We don’t see or hear much of this forgotten side of Afghanistan nowadays. I certainly didn’t know.

Her palpable love and longing and grieving for her country reminded me forcefully of the flag after flag that the men at my table, seizing on paper, red, green and black markers, drew in utter absorption during our service. They never used freehand. Always, the hard edge of a pack of markers was used, lovingly and in respect, to carefully draw flag line, flag post, erect. Edges coloured in, carefully. I had to trouble them for the red and green (which we needed to colour in the Italy flags) markers back, which they did so reluctantly.

They long for their home. They cannot go back. They are not under an illusion that ‘life out West’ is ‘better’. Most of these men I sat and talked and worked silently and companionably alongside and got to know a little better during those four days were there out of desperation – not a misplaced sense of entitlement.

One flag drawing I kept. It has beautiful script in Pashtu, alongside a neatly-written “I love Afghanistan.” “What does this mean? I mean, the actual writing in Pashtu?” I asked one of them, pointing to the foreign sentence.

The answer: “Beautiful Afghanistan, in my heart.”

The heart weeps alongside. How could it not?”



My German co-year Kathrin Blaufuss’s posts immediately after the conclusion of the week’s project, on 26 July 2016:

“Finally some time to reflect on the past days. And I am so very grateful. To all of you who supported the initial idea of volunteering; without your amazing enthusiasm, the UWC-Red Cross Refugee Aid project would have just stayed an idea. To all of you who volunteered to break up the monotony of the refugees’ days and were enthusiastic throughout (including during the inevitable spontaneity) And especially to Nicola Degrassi, FedericaFede Albini and Amanda de Felice – it’s your commitment that I admire most and that will ensure our project was just the beginning. I am so looking forward to hearing about where you and the next generation of UWC Adriatic students will take this.”


Her mid-project progress share, on our 4th day into the service:

“4th day on our way to the refugee camp in Udine knowing that we will be eagerly awaited by the many afghan, pakistan, eritrean men wanting to learn italian. For a few their faces lit up as they are illiterate and can now write their own name. small steps….so: literacy classes, italian classes, compiling an information booklet, canteen is now full of pictures and vocabularly and most of all having established the link…both the college and the camp are now eager to have a permanent project going. Yeah thanks to all who have been supporting this idea and to all those who made it happen.”


Fellow volunteer and my British first-year Robert Tomalin’s thoughtful reflections on the experience:

“During my two days at the camp, spending time with refugees predominantly from Afghanistan, some from Pakistan, and one (!) from Eritrea, I felt an incredible sense of connection. Human connection. The headlines, the photos, the newspaper articles, the news articles on the television…they suddenly all stopped being two dimensional stories, and very quickly, and on a very real level, became three dimensional. Each and every face, and each and every pair of eyes connecting with mine had a story. The stories ranged from fleeing for their lives, to escaping poverty. (Both valid reasons to want to leave “home” and risk so much in my personal opinion)….

This project was not about a bunch of overly privileged ex-UWC students going off to do something that would make them feel like heroes. The point was to start a sustainable project between the Camp and the College where human connections, and trust between fellow humans, can be formed, where a process of humanisation can take place with people the media love to dehumanise, where refugees can feel a sense of belonging knowing that outside those barbed fenced walls they are known to locals by their names and not the number on their wrists, and where those who choose to get involved can be tiny part of a wider, more community based solution to a global crisis.”


Fellow volunteer and my Welsh co-year Esther Shaw’s reflections:

“Wow……finally, I am all safe back in Perth after the most amazing week in Italy. Twenty years ago I was plucked from the Welsh borders to go to this incredible school where I lived, talked and studied with some incredible young people from all over the world. I was deeply affected by those I met coping with the aftermath of the Balkan wars. Twenty years on, we met for our reunion followed by a week assisting the Red Cross in Italy. We were welcomed by 180ish immigrants and refugees. Talking with the young men, sharing stories, teaching Italian, basic literacy and having a cup of tea, I felt the deep sense of ‘sameness’, we are all human- we want our families to be safe,to have access to education and healthcare and the freedom to be ourselves…”


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