‘A simple word can mean a lot to a refugee’

GENEVA — After leaving Gaza as a refugee, Shadi Mohammedali decided to dedicate himself to helping others in a similar situation. Today, he is working for an NGO in a Greek camp for asylum seekers, explaining how they can protect themselves from COVID-19.

Now a Health and Risk Communication Officer with the NGO International Rescue Committee (IRC), Mohammedali spent a year in a camp on Leros Island, run by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) where he received financial assistance, and learned English, French and Greek.

Mohammedali shares his story as part of the #RealLifeHeroes campaign, by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), ahead of this year’s World Humanitarian Day, on Aug. 19.

From Gaza to Greece

“I left Gaza in November 2018: my life was in danger because of my political beliefs. I just wanted to get to any country in Europe, which would respect human rights, and where everyone was treated equally. I just wanted a normal life. That was my dream.

“I used my savings to travel by car to Cairo and take a flight to Istanbul. I tried, and failed, to enter Greece by road three times. Finally, I managed to cross the Mediterranean Sea and got into the country. I applied for asylum and stayed in the UNHCR camp on Leros Island for almost a year.

“I went to an NGO community center in the town of Lakki, on Leros, to help refugees arriving from war-torn countries prepare for the next steps of their journey.

“The volunteers there were very helpful and kind. I lived with nine other refugees in a container in the camp, and took IT classes and English competency courses. I passed the English exams, I also learned French and Greek. During this time, I received financial support from UNHCR until I received my temporary resident permit.

“Once I received the permit, I worked as a freelance interpreter in the camp to earn a living. One day one of my friends shared a website advertising jobs, and I spotted a post with IRC.

“I was inspired to take the job by the volunteers at the NGO. They treated us with respect and without any discrimination. They were more like friends who wanted the best for you. I want to do the same for other refugees. Someone helped me, it is now my turn to pay back.

“As someone who was recently in a similar situation, I can understand how they are feeling and, sometimes, it is really hard to hear about their problems, knowing that you cannot do anything but listen.

“What I enjoy the most about working in the humanitarian sector is the effect that I can have: I can see the impact of my work, I see it in the eyes of the refugees when they are happy. A simple word can mean a lot to a refugee. That keeps me motivated.

“Living in a camp for 11 months has made me appreciate simple things, like breakfast with my family, and hanging out with my friends. I miss my family in Gaza. I can talk to them now, but I feel sad. I don’t know when I will see them again.” — UN News