“That sums up every person that I met: they want to contribute to society. They want to work. They don’t want handouts.”
Name: McKenzie Szarmach
Hometown: Dix Hills, NY
Education: Pace University
Passions and Interests: Majoring in Psychology with a minor in Criminal Justice
Transformational Experience: Dominican Republic: Beachside Service Adventure
Making an Impact: Volunteering with METAdrasi in Greece to help support Syrian refugees
McKenzie’s first encounter with refugees didn’t happen with Syrian refugees in Europe. It all started while she was attending GLA’s Dominican Republic: Beachside Service Adventure program back while she was in high school. That’s where she met Dr. Dave Addison, whose tireless work with under-served communities in the DR lit a fire under her.
Working with Dave in the Dominican Republic was an incredible experience. He has completely dedicated his life to helping an entire community. The GLA programs integrated us into the community, which enabled us to work alongside the local people in making a sustainable change.”
McKenzie remembers being a “10th grader with no real understanding of the world outside of Long Island.” Working with Dave, even as a sophomore in high school, was enlightening. “He helped me gain an understanding of global issues, and realize my dream of working with vulnerable communities.” What he showed her on her GLA program “was when the world became big for me.”
That’s also when she was first introduced to the Haitian refugee communities in the Dominican Republic.
Stuck in Dominican Republic with little-to-no social and economic mobility, Haitian refugees face dire circumstances for themselves and their children. And care is often limited by outside groups, because locals often have little tolerance for aid to refugees without something in return for their own struggling communities.
It was watching how Dave navigated these two realities – between the refugee community and also the local population and its own needs – that provided a guiding light for McKenzie.
I’ve been really passionate about doing something with refugees after that experience.”
The realization that I needed to continue doing service work occurred while I was in the Haitian refugee camp. It was very emotional for me. It was the first time I was exposed to malnourished children. Some didn’t have any clothes. There were too many children with scabies. The amount of malnourished newborn babies broke my heart. All of this inspired me to continue volunteering wherever I could with those who need the most help.”
Fast-forward to college, and McKenzie’s drive to help refugee populations hasn’t subsided.
When she first heard about the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015 in Lesvos, Greece, McKenzie recalled wanting “to jump on a plane immediately.” Real life got in the way though, as she was preparing for her junior year of college. So she donated to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and joined a few Facebook groups on the happenings in Lesvos to stay informed.
When the opportunity came up to volunteer with an organization in Lesvos in the summer of 2016, McKenzie began to raise funds and booked her ticket to Greece within two weeks.
The problem at the refugee camp was clear upon her arrival. Hundreds of Syrians moved in and out of the camp, having left behind all their material possessions in their desperate escape and dangerous travel by sea. McKenzie arrived with a particular affection for helping youth and empowering women in the community through English language lessons and direct interaction. She spent weeks working with women and engaging with children throughout the camp, taking on many roles – including translator, teacher, and even soccer coach when the need arose. But the opportunities were often limited by cultural norms brought by the refugees, and Greece’s own financial struggles due to its ongoing economic crisis.
“Right now,” McKenzie said, “they’re just stuck.”
When asked what the biggest need for refugees is, McKenzie doesn’t hesitate to answer.
Their greatest need is a stable future. And peace. And it breaks my heart, because I can’t give them that.”
Still, McKenzie has great hope for the future.
After college, once she has the resources, she hopes to found an organization that offers prenatal care for refugee women.
Many of the women she encountered at the refugee camp did not have access to basic medical care, including ultrasounds, proper nutrition, medicine for easily treatable conditions, and even prenatal vitamins.
She knows these are basic things that – with some willpower and strong organization – can be provided to expecting refugee women one day.
When McKenzie shares her philosophy for life, it mirrors her experience. In order to make change, you’ve got to take action. Or as she says it:
Don’t wait for good things to happen. Go out into the universe and do what you can with what you’ve got. The smallest act can make a world of difference.”
We couldn’t agree more.
McKenzie is currently attending Pace University, where she is studying Psychology and minoring in Criminal Justice. If you’d like to help support McKenzie’s efforts in refugee communities, you can click here to contribute and learn more.
Programs McKenzie attended:
GLA Dominican Republic: Beachside Service Adventure, Dominican Republic: Spring Break Service Adventure, Costa Rica: Beachside Service Adventure
Curious about exploring your own GLA adventure? Check these out:
- GLA Dominican Republic: Beachside Service Adventure
- GLA Dominican Republic: Spring Break Service Adventure
- GLA Costa Rica: Beachside Service Adventure
- GLA Dominican Republic: Global Health Initiative™