Law students from Brunel University London have returned from an educational volunteering experience to Greece in which they experienced how much the situation has changed for refugees, unaccompanied minors, and the legal and other staff fighting for their rights.
Professor Alexandra Xanthaki, a leading expert of minority and migration rights in international law, took the group of ten undergraduate law students to Athens for a week in December 2017. The initiative was set up as a quick response to the European refugee crisis in the autumn of 2015. Since then, there have been four such trips, each one addressing the current needs as Greek efforts transition from dealing with a large volume of arrivals to integrating the asylum-seekers into society.
This time, the students donated their time to support unaccompanied minors and families at the family centre of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Faros, at the day centre of the Melissa Network and at different activities of the Network for Children’s Rights. In addition, they spent some time at a shelter for vulnerable refugees, and discussed the current challenges in Greece with the Office of the Greek Ombudsman for Human Rights and the Greek Council of Refugees.
For Thohura Kabir, a final-year law undergraduate, this made a lasting impression. "When we were speaking to a children's human rights lawyer, she was telling us a story about how she felt when she was able to tell a young boy, who had literally been tortured and had seen his family murdered, that he had achieved asylum in Greece – and the happiness she felt that she had made such a difference in his life."
Throughout the week, the students provided hands-on support to the refugees, including play, education and listening to their stories.
"Going to Greece to help refugees has been truly an eye-opening experience," said student Sara Salasel. "I say this because these people have been through a lot and I realise that what they need is not just the collective efforts of NGOs. They need people like us; people who sympathise with them; people who understand them."
The project – a first for a European university, and supported through fundraising – also involved students speaking to the different actors, finding out their needs and priorities, so that funds could be used to leave a lasting legacy.
"For one of the centres, Faros, we bought laptops because we believed that would benefit the women," said student Sumaya Jannat, "in the sense that they could learn how to use Microsoft Office and improve their employability skills, as well as children using it for educational purposes.
The Network for Children’s Rights received keyboards and a guitar to help with music lessons for refugee teenagers, whereas all NGOs and the shelter received sports equipment, toys and small gifts.
The experience has been invaluable for the students, who gained first-hand experience of how the media portrayal of refugees differs from the situation on the ground, and an understanding of the difference between the law and its implementation.
Professor Xanthaki noted: "It's important to develop a critique of the law, to understand its weaknesses and its structural limitations. And it is important that the students develop empathy as future legal practitioners, and that they understand that persons in difficult situations are very vulnerable.
"And of course, it is important to know the different facets of probably the biggest crisis in Europe at the moment."
The trip was coordinated by Brunel Law School and Brunel Volunteers, the University's 2,000-strong network of philanthropic students, and was fundraised through Brunel’s Development and Alumni Relations Office.
Find out more about undergraduate law programmes at Brunel University London.
Joe Buchanunn, Media Relations
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