A student perspective: Athens Refugee Project 2018
In June 2018, five postgraduate students travelled to Athens to take part in the 4th visit of Athens Refugee Project, a project that has received the congratulations of the Greek state. For the first time, the participants were postgraduate law students, including myself.
Everything started with an email we had sent to Professor Reisberg, the Head of the Brunel Law School asking to be involved in the Project; and ended up with a life-changing experience for us, Priscilla Peralta, Livia Di Giulio, Gracia Talabi and Simona Radu and I, Cristina Pagone.
The first two days we followed a very rare workshop on forced returns of refugees where we analysed together with officials involved in such processes theoretical and practical elements of forced returns. The workshop was raw and at times really emotional. It led several of us wondering whether we would be able to work in such emotional situations.
On the third day we visited the Eleonas open refugee center, one of the nicest centers. We were delighted to see how involved the guests of the camp were in making their environment a better place to live. They had rearranged the outdoor furniture to create the most pleasant environment, they have painted some walls. The place, which now acts as a long-term housing for some people has changed to reflect this. While walking around Eleonas, we met Dimitris, a Brunel alumnus who graduated in mechanical engineering. He was so excited to meet us and talked about the ways that his Brunel studies have been essential in his work improving the facilities of the camp. It was great to see how Brunel contributes to the big challenges of our society in different ways and also through its students.
Yet, the most emotional moment for me was on the fourth day of our visit, when we were privileged to witness a young man meeting his uncle after a month of detention. The young man was arrested in down-town Athens because he was caught by the Police without documents and was brought to a detention Centre. After almost a month in detention, he mentioned to the Commander in Chief of the detention center that he had an uncle living also in Athens. The uncle was found, he came to get reunited with his nephew and although he had to provide evidence of the family ties with the young man -a very difficult task for refugees- they will soon be living together again! Witnessing the eaxt moment they found each other after having been separated from 30 days was really intense, as we could see their emotions on their faces. In that precise moment, I realized that the reality is far from the theory that we study on our international refugee law books. This is something that politicians seem to have forgotten: the so/called “refugee crisis” involves real individuals with real feelings and needs, instead of figures used to make statistic on reception or integration and to conduct political battles.
The last day we volunteered with “Faros” (“The lighthouse”), a Greek NGO that supports families with children. What an uplifting experience!
The organization is run by a team of workers and volunteers that help refugees with the integration within the local community: it provides Greek classes, IT courses, sewing classes and other recreational activities. We assisted with the yoga class and we helped volunteers with taking care of children. It was funny and the environment was full of joy.
Later, we met a young girl, who was very friendly with us, even though we had just met. We made bracelets together and she tried to teach us some Arab words. I found very exciting that the trusted us, even if it was the first time that she saw us. Just before leaving to go back home, she invited all of us to celebrate Eid at her place. It was so emotional to see that although these individuals have very little, they still want to offer what they have with others and to be part of the wider community.
While at Faros we also spoke with a refugee woman who had arrived to Greece 3 years ago with her husband. She described us some of the challenges that she had to fight to get refugee status. It was very touching when she said that she was a social worker because she wanted to help people in the same situation that she used to be, to prevent them from experiencing the same barriers that she was strong enough to overcome.
During the trip we stayed at Welcommon, a social hostel run by the cooperative “Anemos Ananeosis” (“Wind of Change”). We spoke with Nikos, who explained to us the Welcommon is a new adventure of a social co-operative that is involved with social justice issues. Welcommon used to be a shelter for refugees, until it had to close in 2016. Wind of Change, the co-operative, refurbished and renewed the building to become a hostel for tourists, students, and refugees. We were the first ones who stayed in the place and although it was not completely ready yet, we all felt the excitement about commitment for this new initiative.
Nikos showed us around: the first two floors contain rooms where volunteers organize language classes and workshops for refugees. The structure is innovative because it aims to employ refugees and members of the local community to ease integration. It will be a place where everyone is welcomed to stay and share experiences and dreams. We loved it!
We have now been back for two weeks and it is only now that we realize how rare experiences we got, how amazing this trip was to us. We would like to thank Professor Arad Reisberg, the Head of the Brunel Law School, who listened to our request and allowed this trip to take place, as well as Prof William Leahy, Prof Andrew George and Clive Gee for the funding. Many thanks to our Professor Alexandra Xanthaki for organizing the trip with its myriads different elements and for being there with us in Athens -close enough to ensure all is ok but also allowing us to take a pro-active initiatives. Also, many thanks to Nancy Rawlings, the Brunel Volunteers Manager for taking care of all practicalities together with Indu Panesar and Danielle Leacock. It was an unforgettable experience which has reminded us how law cannot be separated from real emotions and real empathy.