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Four Things I’ve learnt in my first week as a Field Coordinator

My name is Nicole Tay and I am the new Field Coordinator of RefugeeEd.

Why did I want to come out?

I started working with refugees in 2015 when I was backpacking around Europe. Back then, I was living in a bubble with no inkling of who and what refugees were or even that there was a war happening in Syria. Out of curiosity, I decided to volunteer with an organisation that helped refugees in a bid for myself to learn more about the situation.

One month into volunteering, I was chatting with my friends and family back home when they asked me, “Why are you still there?” and that got me thinking. I realised then that during the period I was volunteering, I wasn’t exploring the city like a “normal traveller” would, nor was I trying out the various cuisines and activities that the city has to offer. Despite that, I had woken up every morning looking forward to what the day had to offer (namely, working with the refugees) and not with a sense of dread that I was so familiar with when I was working back home. It was then that I realised that this is what I am passionate about and what I want to spend my life doing.

Fast forward a few years: When I saw the posting from RefugeeEd about looking for a Field Coordinator, I was psyched. Through my various stints with grassroot organisations as a volunteer teacher and then, subsequently, volunteer coordinator, a prevalent problem I had observed was the lack of sustainability and curriculum in the informal education settings.

Thus, being able to work (full-time!) for refugees again and help to build up a more sustainable and stable informal education system for the communities, is like a dream come true! When I got the callback for an interview and subsequently, the offer, it was an affirmation that all the atypical choices that I’ve made and paths that I have chosen were not in vain nor immature.

Here are 4 things I’ve learnt so far in my first week in Greece:

There are a lot of very, very steep slopes in Athens.

Coming from Singapore which is a flat island, Athens is like a mountain range to me. Prior to my arrival, I had googled how to get to my accommodation from the airport and it seems pretty easy: a train, a bus and a five minute walk. Well, I’m glad to say that it was a very good thing that I got lost: the transit from the train station to the bus stop was befuddling and I spent 10 minutes trekking around the area trying to figure out which is the correct bus stop that I should be at with my data-less phone.

Long story short, I managed to get myself some data, contacted my landlord and subsequently, my flatmate, who so kindly called a cab for me on the Beat app (a good app to get cabs as it shows the fare and the route to reduce the risk of being overcharged). And boy was I glad that I got lost as the supposed five minute walk to my apartment was up a really steep slope. With 14.5kg worth of baggage on me, I doubted that I would have made it. So, yay to getting lost!

Food: Cheese, meat, cheese, meat, bread...

To me, food is a cultural affair. It is not so much about the taste, texture and flavour, nor is it about sustenance (well, just a little). Instead, it is the ritual of food preparation and sharing that calls to me: the company and the memories that are made.

And therefore, prior to my departure, when my family and friends had mentioned about how I need to bring along some asian food, flavours and spices so that I will not miss home, I laughed at them. Being full of myself, I proudly told all these naysayers that being the well-travelled me that I am, I don’t and won’t miss the food back home.

Well, karma certainly has its ways.

For my first 2 days, my flatmate who has kindly taken me under her wings (poor little asian with no friends), invited me along with her friends for outings and meals and she was very excited introduced me to all the typical, traditional Greek cuisine. The food was nice but I didn’t have much of an appetite and had to take away my leftovers. I chalked it up to jet lag and weather.

Day 3 at a restaurant: We went to another Greek restaurant for dinner and lo and behold, after scanning through the menu multiple times, I finally gave in to my whims and ordered risotto. RISOTTO! It was then I had to admit that I was wrong and that I am, deep deep down, a true blue asian who cannot survive without rice.

The heat!

Coming from the tropical island of Singapore and having lived in Bangkok, Thailand for the past two years, heat is no stranger to me. Though granted, in Singapore and Bangkok, air-conditioned shopping malls are everywhere, providing an easy escape from the heat.

In Athens, the searing heat and long days are a killer. I find myself really exhausted at 4pm which restricts my mobility as well. Coupled with the long days so it doesn’t get cooler until about 8pm by which time I’m all showered and ready for bed.

I need to figure out a schedule that works……

Google maps is misleading!

I managed to arrange a meeting with a mentor on my 4th day here (yay!). Google maps said that it would take 23 minutes by bus and 29 minutes by foot to get to my destination. I decided to walk since I figured I need to exercise and it is a good way to familiarise myself with the area. On said day, I was ready way earlier than expected and decided to leave early to give myself some buffer time just in case my walking pace is slower than Google Maps’. I left my place at 13:07 and only managed to arrive at the meeting place on time at 14:00. It took me nearly an hour to get there – it’s just as well that I’m just a tad paranoid. But, google maps is really misleading.


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