Gaia and Marta from Italy and Noemia from Portugal joined ESC voluntarism project in Ioannina, at our organisation Youth Center of Epirus. Their main activities were to implement recreational and non-formal educational activities for asylum seeker children and teenagers, and to work on digital content creation on asylum seeker integration related themes. Below, you can read some of their testimonies and see photos of their experience in Ioannina!
Their activity was part of the project "Asylum seeker integration in Epirus society" which is supported by the European Commission and is under the European Solidarity Corps programme.
I have been volunteering at the Youth Center of Epirus since August 2021. Even though it wasn't my first experience of non-formal education with teenagers, it has been definitely a challenge as much as a fulfilling experience.
As for the first one, the language barrier, their temporary stay and hence the turnover, the delicate 'teenage' combined with a tough background pushed me (and my fellow volunteers) to find alternative and creative ways to catch their attention and interest.
Once you reach that, your path is more or less smooth and it allows you to grasp precious pieces of information: does he like sport? Was he a straight-A student in Maths back in Afghanistan or the captain of his cricket team? Does he like to draw or dance? Does he have amazing manual skills?
It also gives you a great chance to learn from them!
I remember my first days at the facility - that everyone calls 'Hotel'. I didn't really know from where to start, and what to say after "Hi, I'm Marta from Italy", especially with those who are not chatty and outgoing. In that moment I fully (and frightenedly) realised that nothing was taken for granted with them. Neither their presence in the playroom, nor a greeting. They don't need us as much as a 10-year-old would. So now you can imagine the proud inner Marta giggling for an unexpectedly warm "hi Marta, how are you?" from an avoidant boy; when one of them shows interest in the activity that we had proposed, or when they ask us to do something they like. I've been pleased to see them immersed in an activity, to notice a crowded pitch or a lot of heads around the table. I've always happily accepted an invitation to play whatever sport, even though they were well aware of my poor skills.
Despite all the training, I haven't improved in football or cricket. However, I've learnt a lot in these 7 months. Since nothing was taken for granted, I am even more proud of the outcome of this experience.
I find myself writing these first lines wrapped in the dense and fragrant air of the Greek summer, just over a week after my arrival in Ioannina. Every day here is an emotional and creative storm, the desire to do and the enthusiasm are many, and ideas crowd my head, fervent by a renewed vital drive. With every smile of the boys, my heart bursts with joy and love, the real one, bringing to mind the reason why I am in this land so ancient, primordial, archaic mother of the West.
“Il faut cultiver notre jardin”, wrote Voltaire. And after so many years spent on sweaty papers, I felt the need to cultivate my garden. I therefore decided to catalyze my energies and dedicate my time to a project in which I deeply believe, and which I have been looking for for some time. Ready heart and backpack on my shoulder, within a couple of days I was selected and left for Greece, as an international volunteer through the European Solidarity Corps. Here I am part of the volunteer team of the Youth Center of Epirus (YCE).
My main activity is to go, about three times a week, to the Agios Athanasios reception facility for unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. The latter is located in a tiny village in the imposing mountains of Epirus, immersed in an extraordinary stillness, broken only by a few distant barks.
The boys who live there are between 12 and 17 years old, and come from lands so distant and war-torn that we no longer even know how to imagine them, except as a heap of ruins: Syria, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Pakistan and Iran. A difficult past and an uncertain future weighs on their shoulders, at the mercy of bureaucracy and the benevolence of those who should welcome them with open arms and eyes swollen with pity.
As volunteers, our role is to sweeten their present and help sow the seeds of their future. In fact, we conduct non-formal education workshops with them, to help them develop the famous soft skills that help them so much to integrate, but also to break the dullness of their days, which are consumed in the inexorable wait to access the next bureaucratic step.
These activities bring us closer, and overcome the communication difficulties and cultural differences that exist between us. Sometimes it is complicated to understand each other, and the universal language of gestures is accompanied by some timid and poorly pronounced words in Urdu, Farsi, Arabic, and so on and so forth. Every little effort I make to access their linguistic and, necessarily, cultural universe is rewarded with broad smiles and tender laughter. Because, after all, I am doing for them what they do for me: speaking a language that is not my heart. Such a simple gesture to feel similar and, in the end, not so far from home.
At the same time, I create various digital contents for YCE, in order to raise public awareness on various issues relating to migration. In particular, these days I am dedicating myself to the creation of an explanatory video on the situation of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Greece. Furthermore, together with the other volunteers, I am organizing an event in the streets of the city on the occasion of the World Refugee Day. This highly informative work aims to make more accessible those issues that are still too much set aside in a country that is a crossroads of so many legs.
I believe my work here in Ioannina is so intense and profound that I find myself thinking that perhaps it is the only really important thing I've ever done. Whenever I'm lucky enough to be able to emotionally connect with guys, I also rediscover myself. I see in them the embodiment of hope, titanic strength, vulnerability, visceral attachment to life.
If some of them, due to the painful past, are mature heads in immature bodies, others still retain that joy and that childish spontaneity that still lingers in adolescence. What unites all 37 children is only what pushed them to the gates of Europe, namely the hope that the future, however uncertain, is better than the past or present that their country could have offered them.
Hard skin, mind hardened by a thousand pains, rippled souls driven by the hope of finding themselves in any place, but in which to feel safe, fantasizing about being able to reunite with their families, in this world or in the other. And, ultimately, the hope that this world can become a better and fairer place. But above all the conviction that this promise made to oneself is not just a chimera.
If it is true that first impressions are what matters, these guys will perhaps teach me even more than I can.
Noemia was a volunteer from Portugal who joined this European Solidarity Corps project in Ioannina for 7 months.
She mostly worked on planning, preparation and facilitation of non formal educational activities for underaged unaccompanied asylum seekers in Agios Athanasios facility in Zagori. She contributed mostly on creative activities and covered several educational areas.
At the same time, she contributed plenty on online content creation about severan humanitarian themes which are also related to awareness about asylum seeker issues and integration. For example, she researched and wrote an extensive, fact based article about Human Trafficking and how that affects refugees and asylum seekers.
This project was co-funded by the European Commission.