Not a Vacation

Posted by Genevieve Westrope
(@Genevieve Westrope)

Genevieve Westrope is an educator, a hopeless idealist and a world wanderer. Her academic background is in education and emergencies, and, for the past year, Genevieve has focused on developing and teaching sexual and reproductive health education programs for forcibly displaced populations around the world. In this context, Genevieve is committed to increasing access to life-changing and life-saving sexual health information and decreasing instances of sexual and gender-based violence by providing relevant and transformative programming to women and men.
To develop and pilot these programs, Genevieve spent five months in Greece and Uganda, working with refugees from South Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Congo. She is currently Managing Director of The Unmentionables and is based in Toronto. 

When I returned home from five months of field work, my friends and family would ask about my ‘vacation’. I still don’t know how to best articulate that the time I spent in Greece and Uganda, working with displaced populations, was not vacation. Was it rewarding? Yes. Traumatising? A little. Was it transformative? Absolutely. But vacation it was not.

And that is because working with forcibly displaced populations is my job. Travelling to countries that have been significantly impacted by the refugee crisis, and providing sexual and reproductive health education, services and resources to men and women is what I do. I get to meet and work with some of the most impressive people who, in the face of real adversity, still smile. In Rhino Settlement, a refugee camp of 60,000 people in northern Uganda, my belly ached from laughter every day. On Chios, one of the main island hubs for boat arrivals in Greece, I sat in a 24-hour pizza restaurant deep in conversation with young, single men who found themselves alone in a new country. I shared in normal lives with normal families who are only refugees because of where they were born. I am only not a refugee because Canada isn’t war torn.

Seemingly worlds apart, Greece and Uganda face similar circumstances. They have become host countries to thousands or millions of refugees who have fled conflict, disaster, genocide or persecution. In between belly laughs and bites of pizza, I heard horrific stories that I’m not sure I can ever repeat. Men told me of the moment they decided they needed to leave everything behind to ensure a future for their children. I saw the scars and burn marks of torture, and listened to the collective experience of sexual violence against women.

It’s easy, in the field, to focus on humanity at its worst. Secondary trauma is real; you never get used to hearing the stories. But, the field is also where humanity is at its very best. You get to witness innovation, genuine empathy and compassion, an undeniable selflessness and share in a mindset that will, eventually, change the world. Field work is a paradox of hopelessness and hope; life and death; good and bad.

So, while it is certainly not vacation, it is many other things. It’s growth. It’s a privilege. It’s the realization that human resilience is underestimated. Most of all, it’s a reminder that we have so much more to learn than we do, teach.

And as a teacher, that’s invaluable.