I’ve just finished listening to the recordings of our interview with Valentina Osborn for a second time. I’ve got a cold tea that has steeped for too long beside me and I’m sitting in bed alone. My heart is clenched with guilt and inspiration. ‘God what an amazing person.’ I think to myself. This article was due yesterday and yet I’m still staring at my blank page wondering how in the world I’m going to sum up this woman.
Valentina is a single mother, an account manager at Hootsuite, and the founder of a crisis aid organization called RefugEase. She has a calm nature and a fiery passion for what she does. She talks about refugee aid in a way that can consume you and in a way that has clearly consumed her. She freely admits that she willingly let herself be pulled into creating RefugEase and even says she finds a certain element of peace in her work. “It’s addictive and you can’t leave it once you’ve started. It’ll create a lifetime of stress but on the inside, I’ve found a complete peace in all of it.” When asked how she keeps motivated in such an emotionally and physically draining environment, she simply shares her own stories and experiences that have stuck with her to remind her why she must continue. “It’s very harrowing to see the desperateness of people finding safety. You’re not always able to give it to them and yet you must find a way to help.”
“One of the most moving experiences was on the border of Hungary. At borders, many families and people are constantly in transit. I remember there was a young girl named Maria. I gave her a packet of sweets and it amazed me that she gave some to others. She even gave some to me. She was 6 years old and hadn’t eaten in days. She didn’t understand how to be socially manipulative or clever, she was simply a very giving, young girl. I had to go to the washroom and cry because it was such a memorable and simple act of kindness.” Memories like these motivate Valentina. In her own experience as a mother, she finds a maternal adrenaline as well as an understanding. “For a long time, we only focussed on sending survival aid. I started RefugEase in a music venue across from my flat at the time. We opened it up to donations. Anything people could give. Our aim was to be able to supply for Hungary. In the end, we ended up supplying to Hungary, Serbia, and Croatia with everything we had.”
However, helping isn’t always the easiest thing to do. There are limits to helping and an element of exhaustion that comes with understanding the inability to ever being able to fix the problem. “It’s a job that requires you to be empathetic. But innate empathy for these kinds of things can sometimes be destructive. If you have too much empathy you don’t stay productive. It’s important that if you want to do the best work you need to stay focused.”
In recent movements, RefugEase has a long-term project: the idea of distraction. Valentina notes, for many, emergency is exciting and adrenaline filled. However once the excitement dies down, suffering becomes a lifestyle – not a single moment. “We don’t tell them to hope. Hope can be destructive because there’s no timeline. It’s a different kind of effort. So we offer distraction – to make the now seem a bit better.” She explains the importance of finding community and support in small things. Setting up couches for mothers to gather and have tea, children to play sports and fathers to meet and discuss. “It’s important that once we leave, we leave them with something they can sustain – all we have to do is supply what they need. Of course we’d like to give them schools, but there is an element to that that can be unsustainable.”
Currently, there are three main focuses for RefugEase and three facets in which you can help: 1) Creating a channel in which people can help. i.e. going on volunteer trips. The RefugEase team is currently in Jordan helping families along the border of Syria. 2) Sending aid. Donations in money and objects are always welcome and help in ways we can’t possibly imagine. Lastly, 3) The Long Term ‘distractions’ project. How do we improve their quality of life for the moment in a sustainable and suitable way? “The one thing I am always told from the refugees is how glad they are that they haven’t been forgotten. Western media can create hype but it can’t create a lasting effect. After all the newspapers have stopped printing, these people are still there. They haven’t gone anywhere.”
Valentina proves that you can always do more. She throws everything she has into her work to help others and has created an incredible company in the process. How, especially as a working single mother, she ever found the energy or time – I’ll never know. But what I do know is that my heart is filled with inspiration and an energy to educate myself further.
Photography: Raisa Desypri