When a group of ASU social work students and faculty departed on the “Unique Europe” study abroad trip this summer, they had no idea just how unique it would turn out to be.
Led by Dr. Tom Starkey, chair of the Social Work and Sociology Department, the trip was designed for the students to study the European social welfare system, as well as European culture and diversity. It included stops at universities, social services agencies and cultural sites in the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands and Romania.
It was while in Bucharest, Romania, that the ASU group visited the Fundatia Inocenti (Innocent Foundation) and came face to face with about 50 Ukrainian refugee families who had fled the ongoing war with Russia in their home country. To Starkey’s surprise, two visits with the refugees had been set up by his colleague on the social work faculty at the University of Bucharest, Dr. Theodora Ene.
“Mostly it was women with their children and just a few elderly men,” Starkey said. “The younger men had all stayed back home to fight. Once they got used to us, the kids were laughing and seemed less conscious of their situation. But the adults, while they were welcoming to us, you could see it on their faces that they were going through a lot.”
“The night before we left on the trip, we had talked about the war in Ukraine and there possibly being refugees in some of the countries we visited,” he added. “But, I think this experience was really an eye opener about the reality of the situation, seeing that there are real people being impacted by the war, and getting to interact with them.”
The Innocent Foundation is housing the refugees in an old school, with classroom, play, eating and living areas set up in former classrooms and theaters. After some initial tension, they were willing to welcome a group of American strangers and even have some fun, particularly the children.
“Even though we didn’t speak the same language, just being able to go out and fly kites with them or play with a soccer ball was amazing,” said ASU grad student Adrea Mount. “They were pretty upbeat. There was one boy playing the accordion after we got there, and he was having the time of his life. When we were flying the kites with them, everyone had a smile on their face.”
“Before we visited the second time, we watched a documentary on how everything in Ukraine started,” Mount added. “Some of us were crying because of all the emotion involved. Especially when there are kids involved, it’s heart wrenching and sad.”
Dr. Anna Scaggs and Ingrid Russo of the ASU social work faculty helped lead the “Unique Europe” study abroad trip that included nine students:
- Madison Balladares of San Angelo
- Charlene Cardenas of San Angelo
- Keegen Crane of San Angelo
- Felicia Garcia of San Angelo
- Bella King of Kerrville
- Adrea Mount of Lorenzo
- Jessie Superville of Smithville
- Noelia Tovar of San Angelo
- Madison Wallace of San Antonio
The ASU group also made quite an impression on Valentina Maghirescu, director of the Bucharest branch of the Innocent Foundation.
“It was a joy to have the group of students from Angelo State University visit our programs,” Maghirescu said. “From the second they walked in the center, they were eager to help and they jumped into action. They brought big smiles on all the kids’ faces, playing in the courtyard and teaching them how to fly kites. Might I add that the students picked a great field to study and they will become great professionals one day.”
All in all, it made for a unique experience of a lifetime for the ASU group.
“I would certainly do it again, go back and spend more time with them,” Mount said. “I’ve even thought about changing my career path and becoming a travel social worker in other countries. That would give me more opportunities to experience different cultures rather than just those in Texas.”
“I think it gave the students some perspective on how fortunate we are here, but that we also need to be willing to help those people in other parts of the world who are suffering,” Starkey added. “It was a great bonus for our trip.”