Talking with Palestinians in Arabic, Helene Songe discovered a proverb she can’t shake. It likens education to a “golden bracelet”—the one valuable, incorruptible thing that remains with you, regardless of what life might throw your way. While her background is vastly different from the Palestinian refugees she works with every day, Helene has lived the truth of these words.
She grew up in Norway, but hasn’t called it home since her departure at age 17 to attend the United World College in Singapore. As a UWC graduate, she was awarded a full ride at Middlebury in the very first year of the Davis UWC Scholarship Program.
From the very beginning of her international education, Helene had a mission. “I just happened to be born in a stable country,” she explains, “but we could all become victims of conflict. Wherever people lead difficult lives, we must help however we can—purely out of human empathy and compassion.”
Undergraduate course work in international studies and various internships abroad prepared Helene for her current post with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians Refugees in the Near Middle East(UNRWA). And a summer in the Middlebury Arabic School will help her provide basic services to Palestinian Iraqi refugees living in Syria.
Helene explains that when the Iraq War started in 2003, Palestinians began to flee the country in large numbers, becoming refugees once again. Several thousand fled to neighboring Syria, where they are unable to work legally and are vulnerable to detention or deportation. Helene administers assistance with rent, food, education, and health care to roughly 780 families in Damascus and other parts of Syria. Her improved Arabic skills allow her to better understand those she serves.
Helene laughs at the irony of leaving Syria to work on her Arabic. “Because it is such a difficult language, I needed a lot of support to get fluent,” she explains. Helene had faith that Middlebury would provide the learning environment she needed to make major gains. “Due to the intensity and unique language immersion aspects of the Middlebury program,” she says, “I can now communicate better with both Palestinian refugees and Syrians.”
Although she sometimes feels her work is more of a Band-Aid than a solution, she keeps a positive attitude. “Even if it’s never enough, at least I am able to do something to ensure a more dignified life for these refugees,” she says.
She worries most about the adolescents who have reached the end of their UNWRA-administered education and lack the means to pursue higher education. Restless and frustrated, they are prone to resorting to violence, drugs, and crime. But Helene does find sources of hope. For example, the Syrian government has recently sanctioned vocational training for Palestinian-Iraqi refugees. UNRWA and other area NGOs, she says, are fully prepared—and eager—to provide such opportunity.
Helene has seen first hand how providing basic services—food, shelter, education, and health care—can act as a powerful stabilizing force. Our sense of justice and compassion, she believes, should be enough to motivate us to help those in need. But when it is not, a deep desire for peace is reason to improve the lot of the most vulnerable amongst us.