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Mount Lives Transformed Through Service to Others

2/13/2017

Student and alum provide aid to refugees

When Mount junior Kaitlin McGeown decided she wanted to study abroad in Thessaloniki, Greece, she knew she wanted to improve lives. But she didn’t expect to transform her own. “I always dreamed of studying abroad,” she said. “Greece appealed because of its rich, ancient history and incredible beauty.” She learned more about the refugee crisis in Syria that led to vast numbers of Syrians—as well as nationals from other locations—to seek asylum in countries including Greece. “I knew I wanted to help,” Ms. McGeown said.

The total number of refugees worldwide at the end of 2015 reached 65.3 million, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The number represents a 5.8 million increase from 2014.

“It’s a terrible, difficult situation,” Ms. McGeown said.

Shortly after arriving in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city and a cultural capital noted for its international film festival, Ms. McGeown connected at once with her host family. “I loved spending time with the kids,” she said. All three are five and under.

A business major, she began studies in international business at Perrotis College, the American Farm School’s college division. Her host mother worked at the college and the host family lived on campus.

Ms. McGeown immersed herself in her host family’s daily life, engaged with other students, and spent time exploring the city. Soon she learned about the Thessaloniki Church Anagenesis, a Greek Orthodox church dedicated to providing both physical and spiritual sanctuary to refugees from Syria, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and other areas. Services incorporated multiple faiths and were translated from Greek into English and Arabic.

Ms. McGeown helped care for refugee families’ young children during services. “We did things like arts and crafts,” she said. “Kids who didn’t speak the same language could still have fun together.” Before long Ms. McGeown became a steady fixture at the church, teaching English to refugees, helping in the soup kitchen, and basically doing whatever needed to be done.

She also expressed sadness over the refugees’ plight. “School is interrupted for the children,” she said. “There is a lot of uncertainty.” There are also the living conditions: camps with limited heat and water. “The guards only stay till nightfall,” she said. Sex trafficking is a major problem.

Since returning to the states, Ms. McGeown has shared her experience with fellow Mount students. “Being [in Thessaloniki] was a life-changing experience,” she said. “I will never forget what I saw, the people I met.” She has stayed close to her host family and plans to pursue graduate studies abroad. She is also committed to continue helping refugees and aspires to have a career with an international, humanitarian focus.

Danica Luc, a 2016 Mount graduate, also studied abroad in Thessaloniki. She went in 2015, during the fall of her senior year. A Biology major, Ms. Luc studied agricultural technology at Perrotis College. “I studied two varieties of olive oil plants—koroneiki and arbequina—to find out which grew faster,” she said.

Like Ms. McGeown, Ms. Luc discovered it was essential to submerse herself into her new world. “I loved spending time with my host family and meeting other students,” she said. “I also enjoyed exploring Thessaloniki.” Despite being Greece’s largest city outside Athens, “It didn’t have the hustle and bustle of [a major city]—it was more intimate,” Ms. Luc said.

She loved teaching English to students in the American Farm School’s high school division, noting one favorite, Demetrios. “He started off really shy when I first started working with him,” she said. “Over time he became more outgoing. I loved how sweet he was.”

She soon learned about the international Refugee Solidarity Movement’s Thessaloniki-Eidomeni chapter through word of mouth. “I sorted out donations and prepared for refugees’ trips to the border,” she said. “At the border we helped pass out donations while refugees prepared for their next journey [into Europe].”

Ms. Luc said a lot of people don’t realize that refugees come from a wide range of economic backgrounds. “They are across the spectrum,” she said. “They aren’t all poor. They’re regular people—only displaced.”

She added that individuals interested in donating to refugee aid organizations should consider cold weather items such as sweaters. “The temperature can really drop at night,” she said. “It’s also important to know your audience, so to speak. Most of the refugees I worked with are Muslim, so more modest attire is needed.” Basic toiletries are also encouraged.

Now armed with her bachelor’s degree in biology, Ms. Luc added that a study abroad experience is beneficial to students from all majors. “It would be great if students could complete some of their core coursework abroad,” she said. “It might attract students from a greater range of majors.”

Since her time in Thessaloniki, Ms. Luc said that she’s become more adventurous. “I’ve always been outgoing, but I’m not as intimidated by new experiences. I’ve even started learning Greek!”

Today she is preparing for her first post-college position as a medical scribe at a City MD in Manhattan. “I’m planning to enroll in a physician’s assistant program next,” Ms. Luc said. She is also determined to return to Greece by 2020 to visit her host family. “That connection you make—it can be life-long,” she said.

About the College of Mount Saint Vincent
Founded in 1847 by the Sisters of Charity, the College of Mount Saint Vincent offers nationally recognized liberal arts education and a select array of professional fields of study on a landmark campus overlooking the Hudson River. Committed to the education of the whole person, and enriched by the unparalleled cultural, educational and career opportunities of New York City, the College equips students with the knowledge, skills and experiences necessary for lives of achievement, professional accomplishment and leadership in the 21st century.