Still I Rise Youth Center, Samos Island, Greece.
Sometimes just showing up is an act of of tremendous courage, persistence, and hope.
Part of being a Fulbright teacher is visiting many schools and other teachers in Greece. Interestingly, I wasn’t seeing the refugee integration into the public system that I had expected, given the numbers of refugees entering this country. With some exceptions (and for complex reasons), the refugee children have, for the most part, been separated from public education. Therefore I decided to take my project to refugee children in a camp that is currently the most controversial hotspot in Greece, on the island of Samos. I sewed another panel to the mural, and off I went.
Understanding the refugee students on Samos requires information about the Greek financial and refugee crisis, the island and the journey every single refugee child undertook to get there. The towns of Vathy and Samos join together (combined native population of about 7,000) in a small harbor on the northwest side of Samos Island, located only 1.6km across the Mycale Strait from Turkey. The island’s proximity to Turkey makes it a destination for refugees attempting to leave Turkey on overcrowded inflatable rafts steered by illegal traffickers. These traffickers attempt to avoid the Turkish Coast Guard and navigate out of Turkey’s territorial waters. Once in Greecian waters, they signal for Fortex (coast guard ships from Germany) to pick up the asylum seekers and take them to the nearest island with a refugee camp. This process is risky--many refugees have been returned multiple times to Turkey and are detained in conditions many consider inhumane. In addition, an estimated 2,275 refugees died in 2018 when their fragile rafts sank in the Mediterranean. A few days after I left Samos a raft sank, and while most of the refugees were rescued, a father and his twin 4-year-olds drowned.
The refugees who are rescued near Samos are taken to the camp adjoining the town of Vathy/Samos to apply for asylum and be given a case number. Typically they have nothing but the clothes they are wearing and, if they are lucky, some sort of official documentation like a passport. The camp is located in an old military barracks halfway up the hill behind the town, and originally was meant to house about 648. As of this writing, the population in the camp is 5114, with a steady stream of new arrivals. Residents lack access to adequate food, sanitation, healthcare, and even shelter--the “tents” are mostly cobbled together from tarps, scraps of plastic, and cardboard. A more thorough and disturbing account of the conditions that residents struggle with can be found here, and is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that the children I was working with on Samos had layers of trauma extending back throughout their lifetime (sometimes for generations) and continue to experience trauma and violence daily in the extreme conditions of the camp.
Officially, the camp is ‘closed’, and there is a police presence at the main entrance to keep visitors out. Practically, the camp is wide open, sheer numbers have forced the residents to create what shelter they can in the surrounding mediterranean brush of the hillside. Only one non-governmental organization (NGO) is allowed to offer social services inside the camp, but residents can walk down the hill to the town to seek services like school, counseling, legal aid, and training from several NGOs
attempting to alleviate the suffering of the camp residents. Still I Rise is one such organization offering educational services to 150 children ages 12-18. A few core staff offer instruction in English, Greek, math, and computers. Volunteer teachers offer additional experiences for the children, like art, music, and physical activities. The school is known locally as Mazí (in Greek: “together”), and I saw the staff offering much more than just classes to these children. From the time the doors open until they close in the evening, Mazí offers a safe space with food, counseling, peaceful conflict resolution, opportunities to play, and--most importantly for these kids--hope and unconditional positive regard.
As I described on the Thessaloniki page, it is challenging to get official permission in Greece to work with schoolchildren, even more so with refugee children--my repeated requests for information and permission were met with no response. In what I have come to recognize as a very Greek way of making things happen, my project became possible because of connections I made outside of the government. A friend of a colleague connected me to Mazí, and they graciously offered to host my project. From the beginning I felt warmly welcomed and supported by Mazí, as they restructured their days to work with the space and the hours I would need with the children. Thanks to a grant from the Public School Foundation in my home community, I was able to bring all the materials I would need. Mazí trained me on the situation with the children and the camp, accompanied me when I visited the camp, and provided helpers who already knew the kids. This was invaluable to quickly establishing trusting relationships with the children so they would feel safe enough to work with me in a meaningful way.
Flexibility, always a key character trait in educators, became primary to the success of my project on Samos. We--the children, the staff, and the volunteers--were all
working on the shifting sands of circumstance on Samos. No one knew for sure if and when and which children would show up on a daily basis. One day it was cold and rainy, and few children made the trip down the hill to town. After 4 in the afternoon, it was difficult to have girls participate, as the few girls who were allowed to leave their family’s tents had to be home well before dark/evening mealtime. On the last day of the project, unaccompanied minors from the school were unexpectedly transferred to the mainland, a social loss that left many of Mazí’s children too sad for school that day. It quickly became clear that I had to rethink my concept of a set group--meaningful participation in this context would be about warmly welcoming whoever came each day, for whatever time they could give. As I came to understand the challenge that just showing up entailed for each child, I was able to greet every participant with deep gratitude for the gift they were giving me by just being present and willing to create that day.
The children I worked with over the course of the project ranged in age from 12-17, primarily from Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the DRC), and the Sudan. There was no common language other than the English they had picked up by this time--and (to my great relief) the common language of visual art. I had to really ‘sell’ the project to get it started--and my biggest tool for recruiting was the mural itself. I had sewn another section of canvas to the mural and at 27 feet long and 4.5 feet high, it had a substantial presence in the work space. The kids were drawn to mysterious potential of the blank panel at the end just waiting for their ideas and effort.
The primary goals for the project--to empower children and build community--never changed, but I had to radically shift my expectations and implementation of the process. I cut the community building games because the community of artists shifted by the hour and we didn’t have time to translate words into all the children’s languages. Our opening circle turned into an open house on day 1. Kids who stopped by could draw about Samos while I walked around, talking with those that I could, and offering non-verbal encouragement when there was no shared language.
On day 2 I gathered whoever could come at a certain hour to create a composition group, with all of the previous days’ drawings taped to the blank section of the mural. Instead of grouping words to get a sense of what was most important to the kids, we grouped their initial drawings by content. For example, fully ⅓ of the drawings featured tents, and so we knew tents had to be a main compositional structure. As with the other groups, I tried to introduce the idea of a metaphorical or abstract image, but these concepts were difficult to translate into so many languages in the moment, and the powerful precedent of literal representation had already been set by the previous two groups. It made sense to me that these kids would want to operate within the same framework as the other two--much of their lives have been spent with the goal of fitting into a new culture. Still, there were lots of decisions to be made. With some kids translating as best as they could for the others, we were able to get a few children to sketch compositions. One girl, V. from the DRC, emerged as a competent leader of the group, patiently explaining options in her native language and English, and helping
me make sure we had input from everyone. I lingered after the session, creating the image from their drawings (using my laptop and Photoshop) while the children watched, as a way to non-verbally demonstrate how their drawings would fit into the composition they had chosen. They were fascinated as they watched me take the drawings they had selected (the mountains, for example), cut out the relevant linework, and layer the images together. They would ask questions and offer suggestions in their limited English or by asking another child to translate.
There was no surprise or resistance when I finished the image and projected it onto the canvas as there had been with the other groups--only excitement to continue to the next steps of tracing and painting. In part, I think their lack of reaction stems from feeling little ownership of the process, because each day a different mix of children would be working at different times on the project. I also believe that by observing and participating in the Photoshop/image-creation process, it was easier for some kids to feel connected to the final result.
The next steps proceeded almost identically to the other groups--a remarkable consistency given the completely different context of the work. The image itself seemed to engage the kids, along with the safety and guaranteed success of tracing. The background painting was incredibly satisfying--from start to finish kids were waiting for a turn to stand shoulder to shoulder and paint the larger color fields of the image.
With this group I had less time with each child but more time in each session because I didn’t have a set time slot I had to adhere to. I set up in the mid-afternoon, and stayed until Mazí closed for the evening at 6. Kids could work as long as they wanted to, whenever they could fit it in. A few kids worked every day on the project, but most ended up working only one or two sessions.
Amazingly, the drawing and painting of the mural itself only took two days to complete--and I knew it was finished when the last child working stood back and said he thought it was done. I asked a few kids if they agreed, and--just like that--we knew it was complete. I think the compressed time span--we only had five consecutive days to work in total--and the extended daily sessions contributed to the feeling that this image represented a moment. It was obvious to everyone when the moment was over and everything had been said/represented. This clear sense of being finished with the image had not happened with either of the other two groups. The children in Thessaloniki had felt especially disappointed to not have time for more details. Perhaps also life experience has taught the refugee children how to live in the moment and find resolution when they can.
On the last day I set up an open house again, with paper, markers, and paints for kids to work with, to make images they could keep. Unfortunately, fewer children came to school that day, as an early ferry had taken 10 kids to the mainland, and many students were too sad to come to school that day. With persistence and help from one of the volunteers I was able to get feedback from some of the children who worked the hardest on the mural.
What do you like about the mural?
V. liked the initial drawing stage of the project; she liked the freedom of this stage, being able to put whatever she wanted on the page and for that to be seen and factored in to the finished product.
J. said he enjoyed how the whole process brought back memories of his family’s journey since leaving his home country: the journey by boat, arriving on Samos, etc.
E. said he liked that all of his familiar surroundings were included in mural; things he sees everyday, tents and mountains for example.
What is important about this project?
All of the students had almost the exact same answer to this question: they thought the mural was important because it will show people in other places what they are going through.
V. also said the mural was helpful to make friends. She said it was good for people who are more shy, as there is no pressure involved--you can be a part of any part of the process and contribute what you want to. When I reflected on how few choices V. has had in her life, this made a lot of sense to me.
I had mixed feelings about taking the mural with me when I left. The wall it had occupied seemed so bare, whereas before it had been the focus of so much joy and energetic work. I felt better about it after hearing how important it was to the children that their experiences be seen and heard by other people in the world--for more on this see impact.
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