National Geographic posted a photo in June of a seven-year-old Syrian refugee named Rama, who lives with her family in a camp in Athens. The photo was posted as part of series for World Refugee Day as a way to raise awareness about the plight of refugees around the world.
Student Tara Padovan, who just spent the last semester working in refugee camps, immediately recognized Rama. “This girl actually lived in the camp where I was working, and I had her in the dance class I helped with, as well as art and gardening projects,” she said.
Since the Syrian civil war officially began March 15, 2011, about 6.7 million Syrians are now refugees, and another 6.2 million are displaced within Syria. Half of those people affected are children.
Tara grew up in King George, Virginia, the daughter of folk musicians. At fifteen, she discovered Joelle Alexander’s memoir, Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid, in which Alexander tells the story of leaving her job to pursue a more meaningful career in humanitarian aid. “I love travel. I love helping people,” Tara said. “For the first time, I had a name for what I felt I wanted to do.”
Tara attended a high school semester at Conserve School, which grounded her in environmental stewardship and leadership, and then went on to do a semester at Woolman School, where she focused on social justice.
Coming to Northland was a natural next step, she said.
Majoring in gender and women studies and sociology and social justice, Tara learned about the refugee camps and opportunities to volunteer in a Human Rights and Social Justice course.
She and classmates were so inspired that for May term 2018 the five of them flew to Greece to volunteer with Project Elea, a non-profit, volunteer-managed group that specializes in creative facilitation, culturally sensitive activities, and community-building workshops.
Tara returned and immediately began planning to return. She spent last fall applying for grants from Northland’s Brother Bear Fund and McLean Travel Grant, figuring out housing, and working out the details. In December, she returned to the same camp in Athens.
“It was amazing to have people remember me because there are so many volunteers that cycle through,” Tara said. “My first day back the kids were ‘Tara, Tara, how’s it going? How are you?’ and it was really, really beautiful and overwhelming—and I was able to jump back from where I was in May.”
Tara took more of a leadership role her second time around—overseeing programming for adult women, teenage girls, painting, crafting, dancing, leading field trips to the museums, and having tea time. “It was important to give the girls and women a space to express themselves outside of their home and their chore duties,” she said.
She finished her allotted time at Project Elea and her tourist visa was about to expire. But she wasn’t done.
Instead of heading home, she decided to volunteer at Salam LADC, a refugee aid organization she had heard about in Lebanon. And so she sat up late one night filling out an application to the endowed Robert Rue Parsonage Fund for Student Opportunities, a fund created to support student-initiated leadership projects, started by former Northland College President Bob Parsonage.
“Being in Greece has given me valuable insight to the European side of the refugee journey,” she wrote. “Volunteering in a Middle Eastern country will bring a totally new way of living and working with refugees that is necessary to be knowledgeable of the issue.”
Professor Angela Stroud, who served as her advisor, said Tara possesses courage that stands out not only among her peers but in general. “I am struck by how Tara is compelled by a quest of self-knowledge and need to understand the world,” Stroud said. “She has a restless curiosity, and she’s been able to create these incredible experiences because Northland allows people to go wherever their drives lead them.”
Tara received the funding and left Greece for Lebanon, a place she describes as beautiful and fascinating, volunteering with Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, an area steeped in agriculture. Tara said there was more of a language barrier there than there had been in Greece but she interacted with students through gestures and learned a few Arabic words along the way.
She led the preschool program with fifteen kids, assisted with English classes, and worked in a bus that served as a mobile learning site, with games, activities, and a talent show.
“It was definitely most impactful to see ordinary people just trying to live life and have their actions and statuses as people dictated by huge actions happening way above their heads,” Tara said.
“In Lebanon, refugees are looking for work, trying to get by, and waiting for the conflict to end—it’s hard to think about leaving your home, to go somewhere similar to home but just different enough to be a stranger to wait and wait for global conflicts to sort themselves out.”
Tara plans to apply to graduate school for international development.