Whatever you do, do something

I am enough of a scholar of history to be troubled by the present. I was born roughly fifty years after the holocaust; less than twenty years after the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields in Cambodia; the very same month that the genocide began in Rwanda. Perhaps you, like me, have been critical of the generation that came before, the generation that sat still, turning a blind eye and letting it happen. I’ve visited “Never Forget” memorials, from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Santiago, Chile, and what they have collectively shown me is this: we are living in the same terrible, shameful times. We have witnessed the most protracted refugee crisis of the modern era, stemming from conflict in Syria and a host of other places – and we have allowed it to happen. I am an American citizen, reasonably aware of my country’s influential government and military might. So every time I clicked off the news in disgust over the past few years, or failed to call a congressional representative to voice my rage, did I not acquire guilt? Most recently, and against my best efforts, my country elected a president that has been fulfilling his campaign promises by stalling refugee resettlement, effectively letting the most vulnerable suffer or perish while their paperwork is left forever pending. Hasn’t each of his voters become an accomplice?

I am a recent graduate from the University of Louisville and a relatively new member of Madrid for Refugees (MFR). Though I officially came to Madrid to teach English through the Spanish Ministry of Education as a “gap year” before beginning medical school, I was determined to get involved in efforts to aid the increasing numbers of refugees arriving in Spain and Europe. So, I set out to find a way to utilize my university experiences of leading volunteer initiatives and working with migrants in Kentucky, here in Madrid. I found MFR through Googling potential opportunities one afternoon, and was drawn to its mission of aiding and empowering refugees of all nationalities in the Madrid community. I read about amazing efforts such as Chefugee, pop-up dinners where patrons can share a meal with the refugee who prepared it, and about clothing donation drives that benefited hundreds of refugees. Immediately, I knew where I wanted to channel my motivation. I met with the group’s volunteer coordinator and soon after became the Donations Manager. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of managing operations that equip refugees with many of the things they need to start life again in Madrid.

From the very beginning, teamwork has made the dream work. On day one of my involvement, I was initiated into the core group of MFR leaders, who had over a year of experience in the organization. They answered my questions night and day and set me up with everything needed to succeed in the role. I also received – and this is what I believe to be the most significant factor contributing to the current success of our donations system – the idea to build a team of “Barrio Ambassadors”. The Barrio Ambassadors (BAs for short) are members of the MFR Donations Team who represent specific geographic areas of Madrid. When a donor contacts us through email or direct Facebook message, we connect them with their closest BA to facilitate their donation. We ask that donors bring their donations to the residence of BAs, but we have also met donors in metro stations, at cafes, and even in their homes. The team also includes 10+ drivers, who pick up and deliver bulky donations and help us sort clothing and other items. Finally, we utilize the skills of interpreters that speak Arabic, English and Spanish to coordinate donation deliveries to Arabic-speaking families. Our work would be impossible without everyone playing their part. All of us at MFR are willing to do whatever it takes to secure quality donations for the refugee individuals and families we serve. We work rain or shine, but if you’ll notice below, it has often been rain!

A mini-van full of toiletries and shoes for the refugee center
Barrio Ambassadors meeting donors at a pop-up collection point in Sol (from left to right: Jerome, Gaby, David, Kaelyn, and Dani)
Gaby, Jerome, and Kaelyn with Francesca, who organized a traditional Scottish Ceilidh and received donations for MFR from participants
Enrique and Shervon load their vehicles with donations en route to the refugee center
Jerome, Donations Manager, and his twin sister came straight from the Papa Noel race to help with a delivery during the holidays
David posing with donations in Sol
Marti, Marie, and Jerome organizing donated winter clothing
Marie and Marti battle wind and rain to collect donations in the city
Enrique, Bibiano, and Shervon (left to right) have helped drive on numerous occasions
Bibiano pauses amid rain for a photo
Sarah (left) and Rebecca (right) organize clothing donations before our first delivery this fall

There have been challenges and setbacks we’ve faced in carrying out our mission, but I remind myself how easy my job is compared to how difficult it must have been for refugees to leave everything behind and start over. My role is an around-the-clock job that requires effective communication, problem-solving and creative thinking, but I’m more than happy to do it. I’ve found purpose, belonging and community through MFR: a group composed of passionate change-makers from diverse backgrounds. I’m truly honored to be part of this organization and this movement, and I have the joy of getting to volunteer alongside several of my best friends here. One of the most incredible things about our work is how much we’ve accomplished with a miniscule budget and all volunteer members. The monetary donations MFR receives have gone to NGOs directly serving refugees on the Greek islands, which have been hardest hit by the refugee crisis. So, for material items, we have relied almost exclusively on donations from the Madrid community. Through my role, I’ve also met and worked with many incredible members of the Madrid community, including local business owners, English teachers and expat mothers. What unites this seemingly dissimilar bunch of individuals is the desire to contribute what they can to support the wellbeing of their new neighbors in Madrid.

I am continuously astounded by the generosity of this city’s inhabitants and the willingness of strangers to offer help without asking questions. In only a few months’ time, we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to meet hundreds of refugees’ short-term needs through our donation campaigns. Conservative estimates of what we’ve been able to collect and donate from late October 2016 through January 2017 include:

  • 225 coats, jackets and other outerwear
  • 395 sweatshirts
  • 550 long-sleeve or casual dress shirts
  • 300 pairs of pants
  • 340 winter accessories (scarves, hats and gloves)
  • 120 pairs of shoes
  • +200 long-sleeve, casual dress and other tees
  • 5 big boxes of shampoo, soap, diapers, toothbrushes, feminine hygiene products and other toiletries
  • Toys during the holiday season for 20 kids from 8 families
  • 6 strollers
  • 2 cribs
  • 25 large blankets
  • 4 heaters/radiators
  • Backpacks and school books for several children
  • 10 furniture items (beds, dressers, couches)

We are brainstorming ways to afford a long-term storage space or a physical MFR center, but for now, our own members donate space in their apartments for storing items. Drivers donate their vehicles and gas, and members purchase miscellaneous supplies with money from their own pockets. Accordingly, we need our donors to understand that due to these limitations, we have only been able to accept donations on an as-requested basis and we must sometimes decline generous offers. When we are in need of items, we ask widely and we hope to receive. All in all, donations has been a ton of work, but we would all agree that it has been work worth doing. And we would love if you joined us!

In addition to donating, here are three ways you can get involved to help refugees in Madrid:

  1. Drive for MFR. We need more volunteers with cars to pick up heavier donations or donations outside the city center. You may be able to personally deliver donations to refugees at reception centers and families living in Madrid.
  2. Host events and mobilize your network. Some of our members have hosted dinners with their social groups and asked their friends to bring hygiene items or clothes for MFR. Others have asked their networks to bring donations to them, and in turn they have brought carloads to a place convenient for us.
  3. Become a Barrio Ambassador. We need more Barrio Ambassadors in the outskirts of Madrid, as all of us currently live in the city center and we get many offers from outside the center.
  4. Fund our Donations operations. If we can succeed in securing and maintaining a permanent space for donations, we will be able to expand our capacity. We will increase the number of refugees we assist and the efficiency of the help we provide.

If you would like to assist us in any of these ways, please email me directly at donations@madridforrefugees.org.

One day, in the not-too-distant future, I’ll visit a memorial dedicated to all the humans unfortunate enough to have lived under the tyrannical regimes of our times, on a planet repeatedly characterized by indifference. One day, my children and grandchildren will read about all this in their history books. They’ll ask what I was doing when migrants spilled into the world’s oceans, just as I have asked my own parents and grandparents who lived through the human tragedies I studied. I will respond with stories of volunteering for Madrid for Refugees, and be proud to tell them I helped in the ways that I could. And you, reading this, what will you say?

About the author: Jerome Soldo – Donations Manager

Jerome is from Hopkinsville, Kentucky and is a recent graduate of the University of Louisville. He is in Madrid for a year, teaching English and managing donations for MFR, before returning to the U.S. to begin medical school. In his free time, he enjoys hiking, reading, traveling, and spending quality time with his friends. He is grateful to have found a home in MFR and looks forward to aiding refugees wherever he is in the world.