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News > History & Politics > From 'Rat Race' To Refugees

From 'Rat Race' To Refugees

Seven years into his highlfying marketing career, and in a bid to play his part in tackling the spiralling humanitarian crisis at Europe's Refugee Camps, Neil Taylor (PH 95-00) quit his job, and set..

Seven years into his highlfying marketing career, and in a bid to play his part in tackling the spiralling humanitarian crisis at Europe's Refugee Camps, Neil Taylor (PH 95 - 00) made the bold decision to leave his job, and volunteer with Swedish NGO, IAM YOU. 

He talked to us about the highs and the lows of his time in Greece at the Ritsona Refugee Camp, and how it would help him fill a void, and secure within him the desire to lead a life of purpose. 

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“Tee-chur! Tee-chur! I know! I know!” Shivan, blunt rubberless pencil in hand, stretches in desperation to guess the next letter for Hangman. (Manchester United was the answer.) Mohammed, a foot taller and five years older than his classmates sits four seats away from anyone, eyes down, backpack open and completely empty, scrawling on a ripped piece of A4. Diana is drawing pizzas with an array of coloured pens. She also has some pink markings around her mouth. Or maybe it’s a scar. I don’t say anything. It is my first morning in a refugee camp.
Ritsona lies about one hour north of Athens, a thirty-minute drive from the pleasant bay-side town of Halkida that connects mainland Greece to the mountainous Evia island. The camp, like many across Greece, is an old military barracks. When people arrived in their hundreds of thousands, old military bases and empty warehouses became the de facto ‘camps.’ There is no nearest point of interest to Ritsona. It is isolated. Cut off from life.
Now step back if you will, just the seventeen years (that hurts) to when I left Tonbridge to follow the formulaic, yet enjoyable path of Gap Yah, University (Languages at Leeds), some semi-proficient rugby alongside work, to a position at a FTSE100 company. I worked for Unilever for 7 years in Marketing Global Brands; innovating new products and creating advertising. With spectacular office views, a young, fun, international team, travel, and a transfer to Argentina – it was ticking the boxes.
Being in Argentina and away from London, I felt I almost found a deeper breath in my lungs. I began to see how immersive London life was; it sweeps you up with the dust, and it’s hard to see through the fog. On paper it was great, but it was a formula I didn’t write: these social forces that sweep you through month-to-month, subtle and strong. Velvet shackles. Harvesting this new mind-set brought interactions with different kinds of people, new angles to conversations, it crystalized the idea that this path was not the only one.
When I transferred back, I went on a bit of a learning onslaught. I took online courses, I read about Social Business, I mentored a young entrepreneur through the Princes’ Trust. I was giving myself a range of stimuli and started discovering so much that my world of work and existing social connections hadn’t brought.

Then came the bigger leap. As part of an extended honeymoon, my wife and I took two months to volunteer in Greece. I volunteered for an NGO that was set up only months earlier in Lesvos where they found boats of desperate people scrambling to shore, but no formal organisation there to help.
The organisation is called I AM YOU. It is based on the simple and powerful idea that there is much more that unites us than divides us; this vision you can see spilling into cities across the world right now. We aim to treat refugees in a way that is first and foremost human. They are residents not refugees. They are not faceless victims, they are not political pawns, they are people, just people like us who’ve been through hell, and it is our job to serve them with dignity and respect.
I was teaching a group of 7-15 years olds in makeshift tents. Some days were breezy, some days the kids would be fighting and throwing rocks at each other. For many, war had been all they’d seen. Some 11 year olds had never been to school. Reactions and responses were one day loving and affectionate, the next needy and aggressive. This complex set of behaviours could be loosely grouped under the unwieldy umbrella of childhood trauma.  

Volunteering and being in such an environment brings out a lot of complex emotions. There were dark times and incredibly bright moments. One shining light was seeing the kids arrive at for their first day of real school, weighed down with neon backpacks full of freshly sharpened pencil and crisp exercise books. Greek parents and teachers lined up to create a tunnel for their marching grins: it was magical.

You also learn about secondary trauma; the impact of your exposure to the trauma of others’. You learn a lot about your own patience and compassion. You feel like you’re digging into the composition of your own self. You have moments of impact, but simultaneously wonder if it is even making a dent. And then you realise that this shouldn’t be about you anyway. It’s about the people who have fled their own governments bombs and just want to live in dignity, when so many, both back in their home country and in Europe, seem intent on not allowing them that.  
Returning home for Christmas, at times I have felt wedged in between these two worlds. One is palpably real and human, characterized by simple highs, like a teenager remembering your name, and striking lows, like spending time with people whose pain of waiting is weighing down their every nerve. The other world is your average social engagement, and it’s here that I’m struck by the fact that the conversation never comes up. It’s not light dinner conversation, granted, but when is an appropriate time for us to talk about this?
I often hear this immobilising apathy – what can I do? I’m happy to say that if you haven’t moved beyond that, then I now question if you care enough. Whatever the issue, you can educate yourself more, read – more what activists and people on-the-ground are doing and less what mainstream media are saying, donate more, better still volunteer your time and lend your experience in your local area, volunteer virtually, you can join community groups, you can talk with friends and family, you can mentor young people. And once you start, you will stop asking about what you can do, but what needs to be done. The self becomes secondary.
As for me, I am heading back to work full-time for I AM YOU in Greece on Strategy & Communications. The best part of this is that the feeling of being unbound by expectation of salary or status.

On my last night in Greece, a fellow volunteer and good friend said it well “it’s like I’ve been watching in black and white TV all my life, and someone has just shown me colour.” The issue is that too many prefer black and white; it’s simpler. But if this world is to change, it takes us all to be embrace the complexity of today’s issues, be more generous, more open, more in touch with our humanity, more active with our compassion.
So from this, dear reader, please indulge me in my request that you move beyond fleeting compassion, but find a way to make it actionable and integrated into your daily life. What positive action can you take tomorrow for someone else?
To watch a great 8min film about I AM YOU or donate, click
To talk more, I’ll be here

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