Arbeit mit Geflüchteten in Athen: Ein Volunteer berichtet

I´m amazed by what this project offer not only to the children, but also to the volunteers.

von Peter Achmus
(Quelle: RfG-Newsletter Mai 2024)

Yesterday’s reflection meeting about my volunteering for RfG in Athen’s threw me back into the four months I spend in Athens and all the feelings that were stirred up by it. The feeling of being told by a youth that they love your lesson, the realization that you come back from work and you feel like coming from an activity that you did with friends and that relieved you from stress rather than giving you stress, the feeling to have organized an event by yourself, and the feeling of strolling through the centre of Athens and ending up with people you know at a spontaneous event are just some of them.

I realized once more, how the stay influenced me in many ways that I did not expect in this way before I started and how it fit so well into my life’s journey right now. I remember, that when I was about to leave Berlin, which meant for me to move away from the place where I had lived for five years, built up close friendships, but neverthe-less decided to move away from to start my own lifestyle in a smaller city with a new career direction in mind in the next autumn, a lot of other things were dominating my head. The volunteering in Athens felt like an intermediary phase that had not a lot to do with the big decision I had put into action in that moment and I remember telling a friend that I’m afraid that I will never really arrive in Athens with my head being torn between thinking about the past in Berlin and the future in Innsbruck, not being able to concentrate on the moment but worst case I spend a chill, warm winter in Athens. Turned out differently.

Recalling my initial motivation when I coincidentally (Herbert got to know Tobi, my flatmate then in Berlin, and also in Athens finally, in the train) I could have thought of some things that the volunteering offered to me: I came from studying political science and after a period of internships decided to start all over to study social work again, I had some friends from Greece from my exchange semester and even knew some basics of the language, I always wanted to spend some time abroad getting involved into a project rather than just traveling having a superficial look and I have had difficulties with pursuing and designing own projects and was looking for opportunities to try this more. Then popped up Herbert telling us: “You know there is this project in Athens with children from migrant backgrounds (the biggest but still small misunderstanding, as there are mostly children living in Greece long term, basically it’s open to everyone) and of course you can do a theatre course together (Tobi and me knew each other from theatre project) and by the way it’s all very easy, just come to my place I invite you for dinner and we talk about it! But you have to cook, cause vegetarian and vegan meals I don’t know…” So, there I had a project in a country I felt connected to a little already, in a politically interesting situation, but with connection to social work and the opportunity to build own projects and even better, I would do that with one of my best friends from Berlin, so pretty fast I was convinced to go.

However, now in the train to Athens these thoughts were a bit more in the back of my head and more dominating was the insecurity of the change and my big decision etc. But I couldn’t have imagined how fast my head arrived in Athens though. Three factors for this:
Firstly, the flat that is provided by RfG turned out to be a very welcoming and homy place. First evening all the flat came together to cook for me (and of course the others) and the first weekend I was taken to a hike, a jam session at Musikarama and a rooftop party with view over the whole city, so basically taken everywhere and being able to test a bit the opportunities Athens provides, and I was provided with my roommate and social game changer Johannes, with whom I got along very well from the start (ok, I was a bit lucky) and who took me to a lot of activities and made me meet a lot of persons. Put in short I was immediately part of the family and it was more than natural for everyone that I was part of everywhere we go now.

Let me drop some words about live in Athens before I go own with things that drive me elsewhere: The combination of rooftop parties, hiking and a jam session in a social organisation, where not an unusual combination for an Athens weekend. Athens has the big advantage of combining very different things and thus giving a lot of opportunities, it is located in a valley with mountains up to 1300 Meters that gave me the chance to establish rock climbing as an all-day life hobby, also because there are hills right in the centre of the city where you feel like being in nature and also see the whole of it from above. It also has the see close by (roughly 40 minutes to the closest beach from the apartment). Then Athens is of course a metropole and as such offers a lot of activities, bars restaurants etc, but two things stick out: As it lacks sometimes some infrastructure and state organisation, there are many self-organised things. And this translates mostly to self-organized organisations or collectives that cover all kinds of needs (I took Greek courses for example but there is also the gym yoga and sports, the music centre Musikarama and lots of other things) and are easily accessible, both as a client and as a volunteer.

I started to volunteer at Khora Social kitchen and was quickly not only cooking, but helping to organize the budget and organising events, so it is very easy to get involved in the Athen’s environment. Also, self-organization means that there are all kinds of events that are free and just happen to take place in parks or occupied buildings or social organisations, like Gather for Gaza raves, Greek traditional music in the Empros Theater, or Punk Concerts in the KBOX in Exarchia. And again, for knowing about all this, the flat plays an important role, as the different generations of volunteers in the flat pass on which social organisations or event venues are nice, so I could skip the part of moving where you arrive in a city and don’t know anything, because immediately I was taken everywhere. It also helps a lot that the flat is located right in the centre of vibrant Athens, namely Exarchia, 5 mins walking from bars and restaurants, 1 minute to the biggest park, 10 minutes to Strefi hill and the so chill Saturday market, 15/25 minutes from culture lab and Youth Center. In the end I felt like I lived in a small city with all of the advantages of big cities, because I ended up walking everywhere and kept meeting people from the small international volunteering bubble in the streets. Also of course it is an advantage that the volunteering at Network leaves you with a considerable amount of freedom to use your time and organize your all-day life in a way suitable for you and so I did after a small amount of time, but this brings me to the second point, why I felt at home in Athens quickly:

The coordination team of specifically Zoe and Lizeta (Amar was not in Athens when I arrived and I got to know him only a month later) were from the beginning very understanding of each’s volunteer’s struggles to arrive and gave me a lot of time to arrive, adapt, and from the beginning gave me the feeling of having not many expectations but want to give me the freedom to design my life and work in Athens how it was suitable for me. Also, the atmosphere at work is the least work-like I ever experienced (in a positive way xD), meaning we get very nice things done, but in an atmosphere that feels more like friends and gives you room to be yourself and to enjoy as well. So, the culture lab and the youth centre as well were quickly places that just felt comfortable and I was happy to spend time there.

The third reason why I arrived in Athens quickly relates more to my struggles in the beginning. Because I expected to be occupied in my head with berlin and Innsbruck but was from the beginning very occupied with how to find my place at Network. Even though I felt very welcomed from the beginning, there were 8 volunteers when I arrived and for some reason after the new year there were not many children and youths coming and on top network also had financial problems and just cut a lot of staff from the projects and this lead to the situation that there was not really room for new activities and the one’s that were carried out could be satisfied before I arrived. And as the organisation of the activities is a bit confusing to oversee in the beginning, with volunteers having their own responsibilities and choices when to organise what, I felt a bit lost and like I couldn’t give much to the project in the beginning. Also a fact that I just needed to get used to was that children and youths are just a bit flexible and sometimes they might just not come and then you have to accept it because in the end all your activities are for doing the children some good and not for forcing them.

However, this slightly difficult start could turn into a very different direction, because of children coming back, the volunteers number being reduced to seven, my own involvement with the other volunteers and incentives to also take over the organisation of some activities some time and the effort of Zoe in particular to motivate youths and give the room for the start of theatre and guitar lessons in the youth centre.

So with some patience, perseverance and help from the people around me my weekly routine looked roughly like this after one month:
Monday: Cooking at Khora; Network: Yout Center: Guitar, English Lesson (if they came XD);
Tuesday: Network: English Lesson and playing with the small children in Culture Lab; Khora games night with lot’s of international volunteers and refugees.
Wednesday: Network: Arts and Crafts in the Culture Lab
Thursday: Greek Courses at Nea Koinonia; Network: Theatre Course or free activities like music or yoga in the Culture Lab
Friday: Network: Team-Meeting and Energizers in the Morning, every second week Experiments with the very small one’s and chaos in the Culture Lab.

From that point on, I had a very fulfilling all-day life, felt like I was doing something that was both fun for me and felt useful, but simultaneously I had a lot of free room to spend my free time with interesting things and in a family like atmosphere with people around me I like a lot (also Tobi had arrived at this point). This is the first important thing that I took from my stay in Athens:
Just to change the environment, to do something else in a very different context gave me the space to try out once more what a good life looks like for me. Things as simple as having good weather from February on (January without heating was a pain!), to work in the afternoon and be able to sleep long mostly, if I wanted, and to organise my work and private life very flexible with little fixed appointments but still a lot to do, and also to live in a shared flat with 8 persons, were experiences that showed me that I can also live differently than I did before and I’m sure that I will implement some of these things in my later life.

But I also had a meaningful experience: Both at Khora and at Network I felt part of projects that meant something to me and that I played an important role in in the end. At Network this meant the opportunities that Zoe and Lizeta gave me on the one hand to and the understanding of the broader goal of YC and Cl. Namely to give children a good place to feel at home and learn and develop their characters in a friendly environment. And having been able to give inputs by showing youths how to play guitar and by setting up theatre lessons that will now continue after my stay is just a good feeling. And at Khora I could feel empowered to just do things, like steering a small NGO, being parts of planning meetings or organising events with other volunteers. And this for a place of which the concept, namely to combine social service with a place to build a community and enjoy life, convinced me thoroughly.

Then I could see that working with children is something I can imagine very well in my future, as I care intrinsically and I feel like it fits my abilities for this kind of work, and I can also combine it with my hobbies. On top of this it was the first time for me to organise projects by myself and get positive feedback for it. All in all it boosted my self-confidence for going on to study social work.
And as you would expect of volunteering abroad, it also brough me closer to the Greek Society and the controversies there. As I had some Greek friends before it was not completely new to me, but to learn Greek, to understand the conflicts of left activists and the government in Exarchia from right inside it, to meet people that came from Syria or Iran and had to stay in the inhumane refugee camps, to be taken on long walks with Amar and understanding the Nazi crimes in Greece and the difficult Greek history with big population movements, dictatorship etc. and to understand even deeper the struggles of the Greek youth to grow up with a very limited perspective to pursue their lives in their own country, made me feel connected to the country on the one hand and sad on the other hand about how little people know about this in Germany.

So I can just say that my expectations on what I would take from these four months were outrun by far and that I am amazed by what this project offer not only to the children that are coming to Network, but also to the volunteers coming there. I will keep this time in mind as an example of how I can imagine to live in my future and always hope to come back to Athens to see how the cities and all the projects inside develop.