Benjamin Freeborn is the recipient of this year’s Stephanie Dalley Award, which helps a Somerville student each year with the costs of an internship with a non-profit charitable or cultural organisation up to £4000. The funds will help him to continue his work to support refugees, which began in the difficult conditions of the Moria Camp and have now led him to help from a brand new perspective.
I am writing this from Nairobi, Kenya, where I am interning with the Global Development Incubator as a part of its ‘People on the Move’ initiative. This has been made possible by the Stephanie Dalley Award and Somerville College’s continued support for an issue that is close to my heart.
I first stumbled into a refugee camp after completing my military service obligations in 2020. It wasn’t my first choice – more than 20 poverty labs and think tanks had to reject me before I turned my mind to working in a humanitarian setting. I left home for Moria Camp, situated on the Greek island of Lesvos, thoroughly unprepared and holding every misconception imaginable. I had a rosy picture of the communities that I would be meeting, and a faith in the humanity of asylum processes that was deeply misplaced. I learnt quickly that when you cram 25,000 people in a space built for 3,000, you should expect tensions to boil over; and that when a host population sees immigrants begin to outnumber themselves, their generosity gives way to fear. People respond to the pressures that they face.
Nonetheless, for all its darkness, Moria also showed me that the goodness of people can shine through the face of adversity. There was something amazing in the hopefulness, understanding, and a desire to serve others that persisted.
The six months that I spent there changed the way I saw the world. They taught me that situated in the wider narrative of the refugee crisis are individuals – individuals who grapple with struggles, but crucially, also have personal triumphs, gifts, and a capacity to love. It made me question everything I thought I knew about service and gave me the opportunity to reflect on what it meant to love – that it isn’t just about what we do, but where in our heart our acts come from, and whether we can be humble enough to be recipients of love too. It pushed me to consider what it really meant to treat people as ends and not means, and to judge my actions within this framework. And at the end, it left me broken, with an anger for the world and the way I knew it would treat me differently from how it would treat the friends I had made.
The relationships I formed left me with a huge hole in my heart. Since starting my degree, Somerville has supported my desire to continue contributing to this area. Last year I was a recipient of the Thatcher Development Award, and this allowed me to spend the summer in Vial Camp working on maintenance projects with community members and conducting a beneficiary-oriented impact assessment. More recently, the college sponsored a research trip with a Catherine Hughes Grant spanning 3 refugee camps in Greece. This was on behalf of a start-up producing a new health product for refugees (a vitamin-infused & teeth-cleaning chewing gum), and my interviews, conversations, and focus groups assessed the need for the product and outlined pathways for its introduction in these camps.
Right now, the project that I am working on with the support of the Stephanie Dalley Award is giving me the opportunity to be a part of a team that is reimagining how migration should be. It is unbelievably inspiring just to be a fly on the wall to these conversations, and at the same time to see the implications of these reflected in the world around me. How can we match migrant skilling programs with labour shortages around the world? Is remote work a viable income stream for refugees otherwise locked out of the domestic economy? What can be done to increase the voice of refugee-led organisations?
I know how fortunate I am to have been given another opportunity to be immersed into a setting where I can learn and apply myself. There are lonely days and there are days that make me smile – I’m grateful for all of them. There is a calming voice that tells me that everything will make sense if I keep my eyes closed and trust that I am being led to where God wants me to be his instrument.