Cassidy Murray Speaks on Refugee Advocacy
Cassidy Murray is a teen refugee advocate, international speaker, and activist who has traveled to 100+ countries around the globe, volunteering and empowering youth to make a change for a brighter future. She is the director of HumanityUp and co-founder of non-profit Kids Unite 4 Hope. Murray is passionate about making a difference in the world through her work with Syrian and Afghan refugees in Greece. Since 2015, she has been volunteering with refugee children and women and even started her own school in a refugee center, where she teaches young kids, teens, and mothers to know their rights. Her mission is to "empower the next generation of youth to become global changemakers and create a new future based on peace, unity, and equality". Murray very kindly agreed to partake in an interview with Elizabeth Bratton, in which activism, youth empowerment, and education are discussed.
Why did you create HumanityUp?
My friends and I created HumanityUp because we believe that we, the youth, have the power to truly make an impact in the world and that this impact will create a positive change for generations to come. We want to create a global community for young changemakers to feel empowered and connect with one another through their shared vision of a more united and peaceful world.
At what age did you realise you were a changemaker yourself? What sort of change did you want to see in the world?
When I was 15 years old, I was spending almost all my time volunteering with kids in a refugee camp in Athens, Greece, and that’s when I truly realized that my actions could make a difference in the world. My sister and I had started our own NGO called Kids Unite 4 Hope to help Syrian and Afghan refugees a year before volunteering in the refugee camp, but it wasn’t until I saw the difference I was making in the lives of the kids I was helping, that I truly realized I was a changemaker. My ultimate vision for the world is to see all refugees in safe and welcoming countries with access to education/equal opportunities, and for youth all across the globe to feel empowered and uplifted to make a change.
What do you hope other young people gain from being part of HumanityUp?
I hope that, by being a part of HumanityUp, young people will feel empowered and encouraged to make an impact within a cause they are passionate about.. When we know that we are a part of something greater than ourselves, we feel inspired to make a change because we know that we are advocating for something that is bigger than just us - this is why we at HumanityUp believe that it is so important to have a community that uplifts and emboldens one another.
As a volunteer, could you talk about some of the work you have done, how you helped others, and how you benefitted on a personal level?
My work as a volunteer began when my family and I traveled to Turkey in 2015 to volunteer with Syrian and Afghan refugee families who were living on the streets with no home, no money, and no education. Following that experience, I continued to do volunteer work across the world. At one point, I spent 6 months volunteering at a refugee camp in Greece, where my sister and I began our own school, teaching up to 35 kids. When I first started volunteering with refugees, I didn’t realize just how much it had changed me in a positive way, however, following my experience, I realized just how much I had grown into a more compassionate, loving, and humble person. That was all thanks to my dear friends I made at the refugee camp, who soon became my family.
How important do you think it is for the youth to be involved in current affairs and activism?
I think it’s very important for youth to get involved in these matters, because it shows us both the difference we can make in the world, and empowers us to lead one another into a more compassionate, accepting future. When we learn more in depth about the cultures, religions, ethnicities, and people of our world, we also learn how important it is for us to speak up about injustices, inequalities, and prejudices. Our voices matter, and what we have to say can in fact make a positive shift in today’s society - never doubt the power of your story, your voice, and your mission.
Could you describe some of the challenges you have overcome as both a changemaker and a volunteer? How did you do manage to do so?
As a changemaker and volunteer, I’ve had to overcome many challenges ranging from self-doubts to fear and anxiety. When I first started volunteering I didn’t believe my actions could make a difference and I let these self-doubts overtake what I had to say and all the good I wanted to do in the world. But I soon realized that there were, in fact, many people who were inspired and uplifted by my words and actions. That’s when I began to push beyond the self-doubts and fears. Even to this day, I struggle with self-doubt, but you just have to remember why you’re doing what you’re doing, and the people/cause you are doing it for, so that you can stay focused on your mission and your goals.
Could you describe some of your refugee advocacy work? What inspired it, and why is it so important?
I had seen pictures all across the media of refugee children and families who were suffering and dying because they had fled their home country, due to persecution or other extreme dangers. I thought it was so unjust for the world to discriminate against people who had no choice but to leave their homes, and flee for a future. That’s a sense of responsibility truly awoke within me, because I knew that these people needed someone to speak up and advocate for them. The world and mainstream media had labeled these innocent people as “dangerous”, when, in reality, they were the ones fleeing danger. I believe it is so important for us to smash these stereotypes and look beyond the prejudices which divide us by ethnicity, color, or religion. We need to see that we are all human and that we all share the same earth and the same future.
Do you think the world is becoming more or less welcoming towards refugees? How can we make them feel safe in the countries they are entering?
I feel that the world is slowly becoming more welcoming towards refugees because there are more people speaking up and advocating for them. I also think that we can all take a part in a movement to make sure refugees feel accepted and welcomed in their new countries. You can also support and help refugees across the globe by spreading awareness online or on social media about their stories, and how crucial it is for us to prevent refugee crises from happening in the future.
What processes did you have to follow in order to become a teacher? Did you need prior teaching experience?
Before I started volunteering, I had never taught a class or had the thought of becoming a teacher. However, after seeing the need for education within these refugee camps and communities, I realized that my contribution in regards of teaching was better than nothing. When I started teaching in the refugee camp, there was no organized system and everything was quite makeshift. This allowed me, a 15 year old homeschooler, to become a teacher to these kids who had never received proper education. Following that experience, I learned so many lessons on how to teach efficiently, and even learned some Arabic and Farsi. A few years later, with no university diploma or official teaching credentials, I began my own school at a refugee center in the heart of a refugee community in Athens. I was able to start this school, first of all, because I had on-the-ground experience of teaching refugees and because I was a youth, which meant I could connect more with my students, because they were my peers.
It must sometimes be harrowing to witness the conditions in refugee camps, or to hear certain stories. How do you maintain your mental wellbeing, and do you ever feel the need to detach your personal life from your work?
It definitely is difficult sometimes to maintain my mental well-being when volunteering in refugee camps with very bad living conditions, and hearing people’s heartbreaking stories. Over the past 5 years that I’ve been doing this type of volunteer work, I’ve had to make sure I don’t get too overwhelmed or burned out from overworking myself and withholding too much. I would oftentimes find myself taking on the burden these refugees held on their shoulders: from leaving their home, to facing unknown dangers along their journey. I had become too emotionally connected with the kids and families that I realized I was taking on too much, and that I needed to step back. My advice for other volunteers, advocates, or activists is to take time to yourself to recharge emotionally and physically.
As you run a school, how often is it that refugees miss out on a comprehensive education? How does this affect them later in life?
When I first started teaching, I was surprised to find out that the majority of the refugee kids, teens, and mothers could not read or write in their own language. This awoke me to the truth that the children I was teaching had been too young to attend school when they fled their country years prior, and many of the mothers and young girls had never received a proper education due to their gender and complications within their countries. This made me even more passionate to provide education to these loving and compassionate people, who just wanted the same opportunities and education as others around the world were receiving. The young girls and mothers were so driven to learn English, because they wanted to create the life of their dreams, and saw beyond their current status as “refugees”.
Specifically, do you find that female refugees are more deprived of an education than their male counterparts?
I can say with confidence and accuracy that young girls and women from war-torn countries have less access to, or experience with, education than their male counterparts. I once met a woman who was from a small village in Afghanistan, where it was unheard of for a girl to attend school. This woman is now one of my students, and by far the most driven woman I have ever met. While she attends my classes and studies in her spare time, she also takes care of her small daughter, who is always by her side. It is incredibly inspiring to see how these women and girls are so devoted to learning and creating a future beyond family and marriage.
What has happened to the students as a result of the pandemic?
As a result of the pandemic, many of my students are stuck in their small apartments around the city of Athens, and some are living with family members who physically abuse them. This is something that many don’t realize is a consequence of this pandemic - many students had originally come to the youth center to escape their households or their families. Often, the kids I work with live in very small apartments with many family members and never enough beds to fit everyone. I believe we should spread awareness about such problems, as many believe that, if refugees aren’t living on the streets, they’re fine. In reality, it is crucial for us to continue to help and procure safety to these children and mothers who are facing difficulties, even within their own homes.