WHEN GABBY MET RAYA

BY: GABBY GIBBS

On June 21, 2019, I headed to Greece to work in a refugee camp with an organization called Happy Caravan. During the month I spent in Thermopylae, I met Raya. Raya is a 16-year-old girl from Syria, who has been a refugee fleeing the war since the age of eight. When I met Raya on my first day at the school on June 22nd, she was quiet, but had the sweetest smile. Raya was a translator that Happy Caravan hired to help volunteers communicate effectively with the kids. Raya is not only incredible with the kids, but has a genuine desire to be with them.

 

I remember the day I had my first full conversation with Raya. We were making popcorn for the kids for cinema night at the back of the classroom and I asked her about her family. She pointed to four of the children in the room and told me they were her siblings. There was so much that intrigued me about Raya from the way she lit up when you taught her a new English word, to the way she could calm a crying child down in only a couple minutes. Throughout that month, our daily chats got longer and longer — soon I knew everything about her parents from their jobs as chefs back in Syria, to their time spent in other refugee camps, to her dreams of simply going back to school again one day. 

 

One week, Raya invited me into their family’s container where they lived. It was on this day, sitting in the container with her whole family, that I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness for the individuals subject to living in the conditions of the camp. A shipping container is not a home for anyone, let alone a family of seven. Nonetheless, Raya’s family was incredibly kind and grateful. I sat talking with her family for about an hour — it was within that same day that Raya shared with me her dream to leave Europe and immigrate to Canada with her family. 

As a 20-year-old woman who's had an abundance of privilege in my life to pursue my dreams and to have the freedoms that I do, I felt connected to Raya in that moment for no other reason than the fact that it was simply circumstance and happenstance that I had the privilege that I have been blessed with. Over that month, Raya became my friend and my sister. In Arabic, I would call her “ukhti al saghira”, which means "my little sister", and she called me “ukhti alkubraa”, meaning "my big sister". My goal now is to use my passion to share Raya's story, a story of overcoming adversity, strength, and incredible love, with anyone who will listen. 

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"The face of the children who have gone through such great adversity to an extent that I will never understand, is something that I will forever have in my mind now. To look into the eyes of an 8 year old and see pure terror and sadness is a level of heartbreak I never knew existed." Photos courtesy of Gabby Gibbs.