When Carolynn Rockafellow FR’77 FRS’09P (Trustee ’08-’10) met students Adriana Isaza and Sarah McIntosh during the spring 2007 celebration to inaugurate SYA France’s new home Villa Alvarez in Rennes, she was very excited. The young women had decided to raise money to assist vulnerable schoolchildren in Mali, and Rockafellow, a member of the Board’s Program and Development Committee, embraced the opportunity to mentor them in fundraising and in inspiring others to share their vision. Working with faculty member Pascal Montéville, she enthusiastically shared her own experiences and ultimately encouraged and assisted the young women and Montéville to visit Mali and see firsthand the results of their successful efforts. The guidance she offered strengthened their convictions and growing sense of connection to the greater world.
The ability to make a world of difference by acting responsibly to those less fortunate made a world of difference to Isaza and McIntosh, and to countless others that Rockafellow mentors. For the past three and a half years, Rockafellow has been living and working in Ritsona Refugee Camp in Chalkida, Greece, with her project Café Rits. Ritsona is currently home to more than 900 Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Sudanese, Somalian and West African refugees, including approximately 250 children under the age of twelve. A retired senior investment banker with 25 years of experience at Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank in New York, London and Paris, Rockafellow (who speaks three of the four SYA languages and several others) is also a passionate chef. Following her graduation from Georgetown School of Foreign Service, she worked in long-term refugee camps in Thailand before turning to a career in international banking. Reflecting on her inspirational leaves of absence to work as a chef serving hundreds of volunteers following Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, Rockafellow, who lived in Greece as a child, thought she would go spend several weeks working in a soup kitchen. She ended up being one of the first volunteers in Ritsona, arriving at the same time as the first wave of refugees came to the mainland from the islands in March 2016.
Café Rits' mission has evolved as the size and needs of the camp have changed, but the work is directed toward supplementing food to create a healthier environment and using food to restore a sense of lost culture and dignity. Café Rits uniquely does not rely on international volunteers; its team is largely made up of Ritsona residents who are trained and mentored by Rockafellow to be better equipped culturally and professionally to succeed in their new countries. Thirty-seven “graduates” of the Café Rits program now live in Ireland, Switzerland, France, Germany and Sweden. All have left Greece with a knowledge of English, a desire to work, learn and go to school and, most importantly, with hope and confidence. Rockafellow commits to all her alumni that she will remain with them wherever they go to provide as much ongoing mentoring, advice and assistance as possible.
Café Rits is largely self- supported and all proceeds go directly to assist the residents of Ritsona. It distributes weekly fresh food and staples to residents in need and monthly, all camp food and household product distributions. The café also hosts weekly children’s art, learning and sport activities with healthy meals; English and German lessons; all-inclusive camp parties celebrating everything from religious, national and secular holidays to goodbye parties when residents move on. For café team members and their families who receive asylum in Greece, Café Rits provides integration activities such as weekly Greek lessons, job searches in the area, and resume writing classes.
Making friends in the community to dispel the many negative stereotypes is a focus. For the past three years Café Rits has sponsored two Ritsona football teams that play against local Division A and B Greek teams followed by a catered meal by the café to be shared by all. The café also sponsors a team in Ireland, made up of Café Rits alumni, which has participated in annual Fair Play Football tournaments hosted by UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency) and Sports Against Racism in Dublin. In its first year, the café team won zero of its matches, but was awarded the Fair Play Cup for inspiration, courtesy and sportsmanship. “The best prize of all,” noted Rockafellow.
Following the 2007 Villa Alvarez dedication in Rennes and Rockafellow’s help with the Mali project, then-Resident Director Don Austin commented that “… the future of the planet depends on bridges across economic, political, cultural and linguistic barriers.” In a Spanish TV documentary interview in 2017, Rockafellow said, “We spend a lot of time not understanding each other. Food is a common language. It gives people pride and ownership, makes people feel more powerful and in control. We can use this as a way to build community and to learn to get along as a group becoming better than each of ourselves. It is a challenge, but I believe I have seen the tangible results.”
Rockafellow’s hands-on approach and investment in humanitarian efforts spans across all the barriers identified by Austin and continues to serve as inspiration to many.
Visit Café Rits Facebook page.
- Featured Alumni