When student, Katrina Cassel, flew ✈️all the way from America 🍔 to intern with Pass the Crayon 🖍️, we were amazed not just by the fact that a 17-year-old had the passion to spend their whole summer holiday volunteering halfway across the world 🤯, but by how much she contributed during her stay.
Katrina became heavily involved in organizing and delivering our weekly art workshops at the Weissensee and Pankow shelters. She also helped out at numerous other events, including the recent Weissensee Sommerfest and WelcomeCamp 2018. Katrina's positive energy, poise and maturity made her a hit with the PTC team, and most importantly, with the children at the shelters. Her fluency in German really came in handy when communicating with the kids, enabling her to forge close relationships in a short space of time. This aspect of volunteering was what Katrina valued the most - the chance to meet, to understand and build connections with these children.
With her impressive political knowledge and background in activism (including a Twitter network that puts me to shame!), Katrina was a huge support to our communications team, helping us create some awesome online content, including her much-shared official statement on US border policy. Her dual German/American heritage also gave her a really interesting insight into the current social and political differences between Europe and the U.S. with regards to refugee welcome culture (or lack thereof!), echoing many of the thoughts shared by our recent intern, Meghan Geist, in her comparative article on this very topic.
We have all really enjoyed having Katrina work with us, and each of us have been incredibly impressed by the work she has produced. We can't wait to see what happens to her in the future, and we all expect great things! We would like to take this opportunity to wish her all the best in her future endeavours, and we look forward to, hopefully, welcoming her back next summer! <3
We’ve loved having you work with us at PTC. How did you first hear about us, and what made you decide to make the journey all the way from the U.S.?
I am a high schooler in the States, but I lived in Berlin when I was younger and have always loved Berlin. In the States, with the current state of politics, I was depressed with where I was, in various ways. I have this connection to Berlin and have always wanted to come back, and I was interested in trying to find meaningful work with refugees in Berlin. I was honestly on the internet for four straight hours, googling, messaging various places, when I found Pass the Crayon. I have worked with underprivileged kids a lot in the States. I’m not much of an artist, but I have a deep appreciation for art, so that’s how I found PTC.
What were your expectations of coming to work for PTC, and did your experience live up to, or surpass those expectations?
In terms of my expectations, I had very little idea about what to expect. I am 17 so I was psyched to be doing whatever work they would give to me! I didn’t realise how small PTC was, and that turned out to be great because I felt able to do a lot more; take initiative in a way I wouldn’t be able to do in a larger organisation. So, it definitely surpassed my expectations. And of course, with the kids, you always end up falling in love with them, which I could have sort of predicted! I feel like I’ve been able to grow so much and made really meaningful connections, so I’m really happy about that.
You made a lot of connections with the kids. You spent some time in Pankow and mostly in Weisensee. What did you like about Weisensee? Were there any kids you especially bonded with?
What I love about this place is that everyone is at home. Everyone is so comfortable. It sounds corny, but everyone is like a big family here. They are all living together- the psychiatrist, the cook, the security guards, all the kids together- so it's really a nice comfy place to come to every day. There’s no tension at all. The kids I made special connections with, I would have to say Taha, and Zamzam, and Shahad. I mean, there are so many characters in this group of kids that come every day and are just super engaged and awesome, funny charming kids, in spite of stuff they’ve been through.
And that’s what’s really surprising, when you work and do art with these kids. Before you meet them, you might have anxieties about how their past experiences will have affected them, and how, as a volunteer, you should handle this. There are often preconceptions about what they may be like, and their behaviour. Did you notice anything that struck a chord with you?
What struck me particularly, not that it hasn’t affected them- obviously an unstable home situation has affected them- but it struck me how easy it is for them to talk about it. We often don’t think of kids as having particularly nuanced views about the world, but I feel like in my conversations with them, talking about their homeland, and Germany and Berlin, I found they had an extremely mature understanding of the situation. I remember one conversation when I asked one kid about their homeland, and what they liked about it, and she just said, ‘Yes, it was very beautiful there, but we had to leave it, and it is very beautiful here too’. How mature is that!? Obviously, it’s more complex than that, and probably it’s slightly easier with younger kids. With older kids this affects them more. But yeah, they’re kids, they’re children.
And do you think art has a role to play as a tool for exploring and communicating this feelings and ideas? Also, possibly as a way of externalising any hidden trauma?
Totally, and I think that that’s what I didn’t expect, or hadn’t thought about, because I hadn’t thought about it before and I’m not an artist. I think even as a tool for conversation, in talking to them about the art that they’re doing, and telling them to draw certain things. People tend to draw what’s familiar; art is a way of expressing yourself, and in that I was able to have conversations with the kids in organic, unforced ways. And besides working through any trauma, I think art is just great for kids. They create unexpected things. You are able to see kids have different strengths, and find their own strengths, and yeah, I think it’s awesome.
"I remember one conversation when I asked one kid about their homeland, and what they liked about it, and she just said, "Yes, it was very beautiful there, but we had to leave it, and it is very beautiful here too""
Getting a little more political now: You’re very active on Twitter and a passionate supporter of refugee rights. Has working directly with a refugee non-profit affected, enhanced or changed those views?
For sure, I think that most of my activism has been centered around race relations and civil rights in the past, because that’s what I’ve done a lot of work on. I think with anything, you become more involved once you’ve really engaged with the issue, (the same thing happened when I became involved with police brutality in the States). I had read a lot about the refugee crisis, and when you read ‘hundreds of thousands of refugees are now in Germany’, you read these stories and it’s hard to really comprehend. Definitely working with PTC during this particular period in time has been extremely interesting…These nativist narratives have been going on for a while, but I definitely feel like Trump, just in the last month, has made comments about refugees ruining European culture, so it’s been really surreal to be here. They’re just people. What is European culture anyway? I feel like this is part of the culture. I think I feel more passionate now than ever about these particular issues.
You’ve done so many different things with us. Firstly, your involvement with the art classes: What are some of your fondest memories of the art classes? Any standout moments?
There have been tons of great moments. My best memories were when the kids surprised me. There was sometimes when we were doing a fabric collage workshop, and having the kids exploit the art to you, and me being surprised at how expressive and nuanced the art work of an 8-year-old can be. And just getting to feel comfortable around them, and seeing them interact with each other. It’s just a nice positive learning environment.
You also led your own workshop series last week. How did you find that experience?
Definitely one thing I learned is that you plan something with a lot of thought in mind, and then it’s like, ‘Oh no, we’re going to take this material and use it for something entirely different!’. With that being said, yes, I did a workshop with multiple themes, we combined the older and younger versions. The first couple of days was all about how to draw oneself, and how to draw faces. It was supposed to be, ‘think about yourself’. It was really cool. They drew smaller versions of themselves, and on the second day we traced each other and then painted on our clothes. They definitely got a lot out of that, and some took them home afterwards. And then we went outside, and we used leaves and flowers as the paint brushes, and stuck them on, which was cool- and it’s fun to be outside! The kids ended up making really amazing artwork.
You have also written some amazing blog articles and important PTC statements, including our recent statement about U.S. border policy and the separation of young children from their parents. As a U.S. citizen, how do you feel right now about the current situation in the United States, with regards to the recent border policy decision (now technically ‘revoked’ but still ongoing)?
They said they revoked it, but little change has been made. There are still thousands of children who are not in contact with their parents. There are parents who are still being deported with their children left in the United States, so it’s still very much not a resolved issue. It was all surface level promise, but they didn’t put any money or resources behind to fix the situation. So, no, I don’t feel great about the situation. In the U.S. there is a lot right now. Related to the work I’m doing here, what’s been most striking is the rhetoric of ‘EU culture and EU rights’ has been used as a narrative to indicate racism and white supremacy, without stating it outright. I’m living in Europe, obviously Berlin is a bit different, but Berlin’s culture is so much better for the refugees it has taken in- obviously challenges come with that, just like any major shift in policy, but I feel like these kids add so much to their schools and the friendships that they make. I think diverse friendships and relationships are one of the most important tools to becoming a more thoughtful person. We went to the zoo this week, which was really fun, but it was really disheartening to see people's’ reaction to the kids- we got some funny looks. When we were at the petting zoo, the kids were petting the animals and some people did not seem happy to see them. I love these kids so much, and here (the shelter) is such a safe place for them, but I can’t imagine what it must be like to grow up and go to school in this environment. There is still so much work to be done. It’s been such a long journey to get here, to now be shamed for living here.
We’ve loved having you work with us and we hope you’ll return to Germany. Do you have any plans to come back?
For sure, I would love to come back to PTC. I have to figure out my life a little bit, but I definitely want to come back next summer. I just have to buy a plane ticket!
What are your future plans, in terms of work and studying?
I’m planning to go to college, if all goes well. Before I came here, I was very interested in race in the States, and I still want to live in the States when I’m older, because it’s my home and I’m attached to the remnants of the political process we have there(!) but, I definitely feel like I’m a lot more interested in international geopolitics than I was before. I feel like it’s so complicated- the more you learn the less you know, but I definitely want to learn more. I also really love kids, and I feel like it’s almost frowned upon (from an intellectual perspective), and perceived as slightly inferior. The work I’ve done here is so fulfilling and so obviously meaningful, and has such a direct impact, that… I don’t know, I’ll have to figure it out.
And final question: Can you describe your overall volunteering experience in 3 words….
I would say my experience at PTC has been… encouraging…. fun…..and...meaningful.
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