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Election Time: Activism, Dedication and Ingenuity Can Empower the Young
May 9, 2016

Musicians performing at “Beats Across Borders” (Courtesy of Sciences Po)
Student artists perform at Sciences Po’s “Beats Across Borders” fundraiser to help refugees. (Courtesy of Sciences Po)

This is the fourth article in a series titled “Election Time: Lessons from Young Leaders.”

Vittoria Moretti is an Italian student in the Master of Human Rights and Humanitarian Action Program at the Paris Institute of International Affairs. Throughout her life, she has been actively engaged in tackling human rights issues, with particular regard to refugees and migrants’ rights and natural resource governance. After having lived in different countries across Europe, she will move to Africa in June to complete her next semester abroad.

The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.

How many times have we been told, as “inexperienced” or “naïve” young people eager to change the world, to face reality and stop believing we can change the system?

Listen to our story and you won’t believe that anymore. You will learn that, as the Swahili proverb says, “Where there is a will, there is a way,” and that everyone has the power to make a small but significant difference.

Take a half-dozen motivated students from different countries and cultures and put them together in a demanding university environment. Imagine them meeting during a protest in the center of Paris, calling for a more humane Europe that doesn’t close its borders to the thousands of people fleeing conflict, and welcoming migrants no matter what restrictions their governments impose.

These six students have a common fight, shared values of solidarity, and the desire to do something concrete to help — but how? A few days later, they meet again with the flame of hope still motivating them and decide to launch an association to raise awareness about the plight of refugees who arrive in France after perilous journeys and to support them with material, legal and social assistance.

The result? Sciences Po Refugee Help came into existence not by big budgets but through the principles of self-organization, personal commitment, and a bit of confidence with social media platforms — not a rare quality in our generation.

Since October 2015, when Sciences Po Refugee Help was officially recognized by our university, almost 2,000 people have followed our Facebook page, including 230 active volunteers. Other Sciences Po campuses around France have joined our efforts and set up their own branches. We have launched initiatives to finance our activities and provide migrants with some of the essential goods and services they need.

In February, for example, we organized a concert, Beats Across Borders, with local artists and featuring testimonies by refugees, which allowed us to raise €4,000, a small but significant amount of money to buy sleeping bags, shoes, dictionaries and SIM cards that allow refugees to speak with family and friends back home. We convinced hotels to donate hygiene products to help migrants avoid contracting diseases from poor sanitation. We also initiated a partnership with schools to collect old stationery that, otherwise, would have been thrown away.

One of our most important lessons was how to make use of used goods. For example, recycled and second-hand materials are a cost-effective solution to save money and reduce waste. We cannot directly help Afghans, Sudanese or Syrians to obtain a visa, nor can we, by ourselves, provide the social assistance they need to live decently in our community. Nevertheless, we can make their lives easier by providing them with a blanket, a free meal, a French class or, sometimes, just a warm word of support. Although it might seem a small step for mankind in this dark time of widespread suffering, it is a giant leap for our local community — and it is often at the local level where we can most improve the lives of those around us.

With such high percentages of young people in many African countries, the experience of Sciences Po Refugee Help might be a useful reference for young activists on how to increase resources and support in their campaigns. Setting up concerts and art events is an enjoyable and effective way to raise money to support our cause, which can be easily implemented by small groups without significant logistic or material resources. At the same time, organizing debates with local activists and young leaders is another powerful means to raise awareness over sensitive issues, building networks of followers and sowing the seeds for innovative and fresh ideas to circulate and take root.

We do not mean to feed simplistic hopes that it is easy to solve today’s challenges, nor provide a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, we want to share a story that we hope can inspire, motivate and encourage other young people worldwide to take action through small and easy steps to address the injustice and indifference of the system. When doubters say that our gestures are only drops in the ocean, we say yes. And drops are exactly what the ocean is made of.

Want to read more articles from the “Election Time: Lessons from Young Leaders” series? Please find them here:

Election Time: Want More Young People to Vote? Go Online
When Enough Is Enough: Urban Guerilla Poetry
Election Time: Lessons from Young Leaders