Sunday, August 13, 2017

Project Elea Provides Long-Term Sustainability for Refugees Despite New Hurdles

The refugee crisis in Greece has changed—the approach to provide the right aid must change too.
Nine-year-old Omar* would only draw in black and white. He sat at a different picnic table than the other refugee children as they watched Leonie De Bruine, a volunteer from Holland, demonstrate how to draw a flower. He wasn’t disruptive or rude, but his quiet anger came through in the way he gripped his gray crayon. He drew a skull, silently defiant.
For a boy whose life has revolved around escaping death and fleeing war, this kind of drawing is to be expected. It reflects the frustration felt by many refugees—whose accommodations in Greece are becoming more permanent than they want to believe.
And for some outsiders, it solidifies the belief that volunteer art teachers’ efforts are a joke—they only undermine the refugees’ experiences. How dare they act like flowers and rainbows will “fix” the fact that 65,000 people are stranded?
To some extent, this criticism is based on reality. Two years ago, colored pencils would have done little to save refugees coming in on rafts from drowning. Today, however, the madness has subsided.
“We don’t need people here throwing clothes on people’s back keeping them warm and running around in emergencies,” says Emily Wilson, the educational coordinator of Project Elea, an organization that provides, among many other things, the art class Omar attends.
The healing power of art for expression
In a secondary aid scenario, such as the situation in Camp Eleonas, where Project Elea is based, people have their vital needs—food, water, and shelter—taken care of already. Survival mode switched off, the refugees face a new problem: post-traumatic stress paired with boredom, a potentially ugly mix.
This is when art can make a difference, even for adults. Referencing several murals depicted on the fence, Leonie describes the adult painting class in her Dutch accent:
“It’s very relaxed, we’re just like, ‘come out, smoke a cigarette, drink some water, have some tea. And in the meanwhile, we paint some wall.”
Painting gives the residents a reason to get out of their IsoBoxes—dumpster-sized air-conditioned shelters provided by the government—and engage with the other refugees.  
“With the wall—there were seven people I never saw outside the house [who showed up]” says Leonie, “I never seen them before. Then they came out because one of the residents told them wall that painting is pretty fun. And they talked with each other.”
The resulting murals provided a conversation outlet for other residents as well. Several days after one wall was finished, Leonie witnessed a middle-aged man standing in front of the wall, tears streaming down his face.
“I asked him if he was okay. He said, ‘It just, it just looks like what I’ve been through.’ He was looking at black silhouettes of travelers, painted in crisp contrast to colorful clouds above.
Without the mural? “He never would have opened up to me.”
The challenge: lack of permanent volunteers
Not all volunteers are able to get through to refugees like Leonie is—and this is due, in part, to rapid volunteer turnover. In one year alone, there have been 600 different volunteers working under Wilson.
Wilson says she herself has difficulty remembering the names of the staff, and thus the residents likely have an even larger difficulty—imagine learning to trust someone after a week of opening up, only to watch him or her leave for Mykonos the next week, a brand-new Westerner in his or her place.
“It ends up doing more for [the volunteer] than the people we are trying to help,” she says, “[The refugees] have already lost pretty much everything and a lot of people. They don’t need to lose another person just for [the volunteer’s] own “voluntourism” ego-trip.”
Similar volunteer-based organizations have battled this very problem. Khora, an organization assisting families in squats, has a strict requirement: volunteers must sign a contract for a four-week minimum commitment.
Ramiar Farapour, the twenty-two year old who inducts Khora’s new volunteers, says the organization also aims to reduce the number of international volunteers:
“Our biggest challenge is getting in contact with the Greek community,” he says, pointing to the fact that involving locals provides a permanency that is desperately needed. Especially now that refugee children are being integrated into Greek schools, it is “of utmost importance” to have volunteers who can speak the language.
“We are also trying to get in touch with Greek students to come in the summer to work with us for two/three months,” he adds.  
But Wilson points out one problem with this strategy—Greeks themselves are struggling to keep their finances afloat.
“Most people probably want a job before they start volunteering.” At least for Project Elea, international volunteers will continue to make up the majority of the team.
Further challenges include lack of space and resources. Project Elea is based solely on donations. “We don’t get any [governmental] funds from anyone,” she states.  
A recent go-fund-me page, she hopes, will raise €8,000 to allow the program to build a new building on the camp—a recreation center of sorts.
“It’s necessary,” she says, “for the residents to feel normal again and to do things that people should be doing within any society.”
After all, this is a long-stay family camp. Whether they want to admit it, the refugees could remain in Greece for years.
Encouraging Refugees to Help Themselves
Though many of the refugees have been in Camp Eleonas for more than a year, few actually use the word “home”. Instead, many refer to the Isoboxes as their “containers.”
Says Wilson, “They don’t want to accept that they are living here. They see it as a limbo and any form of acceptance is a sign of permanency which they don’t want.”
One avenue to express this frustration is to resist taking care of the camp. When Project Elea volunteers spent a day cleaning up garbage and washing down the IsoBoxes, they quickly found them just as dirty the next week.
“They saw it as a temporary home, so they didn’t have respect or pride for it,” says Spanish volunteer Marta Rubio.  
Then the twenty-six-year-old noticed Khalil Alfia, a little boy who had planted vegetable seeds in plastic cups. Inspired by the windowsill, she decided to change the program’s approach.
Project Elea launched the “Pimp My Street” initiative last week. Rather than cleaning for the refugees, the group decided to involve them.
Rubio and other volunteers created window-sill flower boxes using spare wood from pallets. The residents helped. Then, they let each family plant their own vegetables.   
“If they help make decisions,” Rubio says, “then they will be more likely to help maintain it.”
What started as a planting project then turned into an entire street refurbishment. Using tarps to create shade, the neighborhood worked together to create a common area with picnic tables and a couch. Soon it became the most famous “street” in the camp.
Rubio hopes to continue the project in each of the other sections of camp, all while listening to the residents for their input.
As she adds detail to the makeshift mural—a painted bed sheet adhered to the barbed wire fence—she chuckles.
“I really didn’t want to add flowers. I think it looks weird. But the residents want it and this is about them.”
And the residents know it. Khalil Alfia’s father beams with pride as his son shows off the plant that started it all.
Noticing the camera, he says, “Take a picture. Take a picture of him.”
Families like his will continue to need volunteer aid—until, perhaps, they leave Camp Eleonas. But the campaign is a step towards freedom—in this one area of their life, the refugees can maintain complete control.
Omar breaks through.
Those who only volunteer for two weeks may conclude that art does nothing—Omar, for example, showed no signs of relieving his anger for several weeks.
But Leonie was invested for five months. Every day, she visited Omar in his family’s Isobox--to sit with him as he drew. Sometimes they talked, other times they sat in silence. But her consistent persistence created a routine that the family could safely anticipate—a refreshing change considering their journey to Greece was anything but routine. Leonie shared the moment she knew he had regained hope:
Omar’s normally-meek mother met her at the door with a hug and kisses. Startled, Leonie wondered what had happened. The uncharacteristic exuberance was quickly explained when the mother exclaimed,
“He finally draws with color!”
Sure enough, Omar had incorporated the other crayons in the box. A colorful city skyline stretched across the white canvas. And there were people in it—people who, Leonie adds, “looked alive and happy”. The drawing was a nod to Omar’s newfound hope—to leave this temporary home and settle down in Germany.


*Name has been changed

(See photography that complements this post here.)










Project Elea Photography


 This past June I took a summer journalism course at the Arcadia Center in Athens. For my final project, about volunteer art initiatives for refugees, I visited several different refugee camps and interviewed both volunteers and the refugees themselves. These photos are some of my favorites that I took at Camp Eleonas (where Project Elea, the main subject of my article, is based). 

I love the contrast of the torn gray couch against the bright blue wall. The composition is simple, and instead of having a person as the subject, the couch itself is the subject, which tells a story all by itself.


I think this photo truly captures how excited the little boy was about his plant. The plant is in focus, and he is looking down at it with awe instead of looking at the camera. I also like that his family's "container," or IsoBox, is shown behind him, which gives the viewer a taste of what his living situation is like.  The other photo next to it shows the progression--that his plant led to other plants throughout the "neighborhood."
The composition of this photo allows the viewers to see three different things: 1.) The laundry hanging on the line (which hints to the fact that the refugees live here); 2.) The fence thinly separating the camp from the slums of Greece; 3.) The mural which adds color and attempts to make the "view" more appealing. 
This photo captures the art class this girl is attending--she is focused on her drawing, relaxed, and doing what any ordinary child might do: color with crayons. Behind her, however, you can see the sign "Hate me I don't care" an indication that her living environment makes this moment different than other children. 


This mural "What if fall? Oh but my darling, what if you fly?" is a visual complement to one of the anecdotes in my article: one refugee broke down in tears when he first saw it.  


The photos below also help provide visual imagery for aspects of my article that describe the setting of the camp:



Check out my article here



Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Ramadan Afternoon: A Photo Essay

I met the Bako family at Ritsona refugee camp. They invited me to come back with them to their apartment (about twenty minutes away from the camp) and spend the evening until the rest of the Arcadia clan arrived for dinner. I happily obliged. Here is the resulting photo essay:
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 Chalkida, the main town of Evia Island, attracts many international tourists.  Hidden in a neighborhood behind a built-up  boardwalk, the Bako family lives on a second-floor apartment. June 14, 2017

 Ahmad, 11, watches Shrek the Third  on his family's shared laptop; he is the youngest son. Chalkida. June 14, 2017.   

Khlail, 20, searches on his desktop for his saved Statistics and Dynamics textbook: "I want to study Mechanical Engineering. This is 1051 pages!" Chalkida. June 14, 2017

Hiva, 42, prepares potatoes to be cooked later in the afternoon. In observing Ramadan, she has not eaten since 4:00 am. Chalkida, June 14, 2017. 

Hiva rests in the common room while Ahmad watches television. Chalkida. June 14, 2017. 

Khlail checks the time; he spends exactly two hours at the gym six days per week. Though he is eager to start a new life with his family in Germany, Khlail makes an effort to keep his life "as normal as possible" in Greece. Chalkida. June 14, 2017

Hiva prepares a cake for Ramadan celebration; her slow movements reflect the exhaustion from a day of fasting. Chalkida. June 14, 2017.  

The Bako family's kitchen, complete with a washing machine; this appliance is an exciting upgrade for Hiva, who explains that. in the refugee camp, she had to hand wash all her children's clothes. Chalkida. June 14, 2017. 

Hiva displays her method for cutting onions, adding, "If you have to cry, cry." Chalkida. June 14, 2017.   

The Euripus Bridge connects Chalkida to the mainland of Greece; the family crosses twice a day (via a volunteer chauffeur) to spend the morning and afternoon in Ritsona refugee camp. June 14, 2017. 

Adnen, 17, navigates through his neighborhood. Asked if he speaks any Greek, he scoffs and shakes his head; "I'm moving to Germany." June 14, 2017. 

The island of Evia from afar. June 14, 2017.



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Additional Photos:








Monday, June 12, 2017

The Changing Dreams of a Barista

Nikos Domuros is the ideal barista. Charming smile, firm handshake, flawless presentation—he blends a perfect coffee without even breaking eye contact with his customers. And the regulars—who call themselves his friends—say they could not imagine going anywhere else for a coffee break.

But Domuros has not always been a barista. In fact, five years ago, if you told him he would be in Athens serving drinks for a living, he would have called you crazy. Originally from Thessaloniki, the self-proclaimed “unconventional Greek” started up his own graphic design and video editing firm—something he had wanted to do since majoring in graphic design in 1997.

Life was far from perfect—as with many fine arts professions, freelance graphic design is not always lucrative. But with a night-club security job on the side, he was making ends meet.

And then the financial crisis hit.

What used to be a fifteen-hundred-euro monthly income quickly became half that. His earnings continued to decrease until he was left with a failed business. His only option was to move.
“I had to go South,” he says, “the more South it is, the better things are. In Crete, you know, they’re okay. But bigger cities mean bigger opportunities, so I came to Athens.”

For the first time since he was nineteen, Domuros found himself living with a roommate; he was suddenly relying on friends—even friends of friends---in ways he never expected he would have to do.

“And that’s how I ended up here, even,” he says, a cigarette lingering too long between his fingers, “I used to come here for my coffee and beer or whatever… when I quit my previous job I mentioned it [to the owner] and he was like, ‘Okay do you wanna make coffee here on the weekends?’ I told him I don’t know how to make coffee. And he said, ‘Well, you’re gonna learn.”

Domuros laughs and then turns nostalgic. “See there’s another example. You find support from your friends and they become your family.”

It has been three years since moving to Athens, but he is finally feeling a bit more stable. By September, he plans to be in his own apartment—thanks to his savings from work.

But there is more to life than money, and the move to Athens gave Domorus an avenue to pursue new talents.  He teaches martial arts and deejays during the weekends—a nod to his love for the arts.

“Yeah, I’d love to run a media company again. But I’ve learned to live and let live.” 

Domvros quickly hides the melancholy. He looks up and smiles.

“I’m still an artist. Martial arts is an art. Even coffee is an art! Blending this stuff? It’s a f------ art form.”

Glancing around at the place he has come to love, it is as if his next thought takes him by surprise.

“I guess my dream is to have both.”





Saturday, June 10, 2017

Much Ado About Athens: An Update

It's been two weeks since I arrived in Athens, and I think I am finally adjusted to the laundry-on-the-clothes-line, feta-cheese-with-everything, laid back way of life.

Hanging my laundry on the line like a true Greek :)
I absolutely love my little apartment that I share with four other girls. I have my own room, with a door that opens to a balcony and lets in lots of natural light. The best part? A bakery with amazing breakfast pastries right across the street. And every Friday, the street next to mine is turned into a market; for less than eight euros, I can buy enough fruits and vegetables for a week!

7.50 euros worth of groceries! What a steal!

The Greek people I've met so far have been incredibly friendly, and for the most part they speak English. They love when we try to speak Greek in conversation--even if it is just 'thank you'.


As for Athens itself, I am in awe every day. The view from the top of the hills is breathtaking--no picture can do it justice. And its an archaeological heaven. With our American student IDs, we were able to buy a discounted package deal: the seven top ancient sites for only 15 euro!

If you look closely, you can see Acropolis in the background (kind of above Tashi's head)

Aside from museums and ancient ruins, the weeks have been full of other random activities. Arcadia staff provided two Greek cooking lessons--we made Greek salad, a cheese pie, and a spicy sausage entree. We visited some of the art exhibits from the Athens and Epidaurus Festival, including one theater performance. And we even visited an outdoor movie cinema...


The movie theater itself was really neat--set in the National Gardens at night. It's well-known theater that locals visit a lot; it showcases one movie for an entire week.  Of course, the weekend we decided to visit, the movie of choice was The Queen of Spain. It was entirely in Spanish, with Greek subtitles. And it was a sequel. (Needless to say we didn't totally understand what was going on!) Even so, it was neat to do something that local Greeks do for fun too.

Practicing my Greek lettering :)
And that's it for now! I'm looking forward to exploring more of Athens soon (and hopefully other parts of Greece too!).

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

...And that, my Friends, is Greek Coffee at it's Finest

It takes Giannis Bratsolias 126 seconds to make my iced coffee. He brings it to me with a smile; one hand holding the blended drink, the other holding a glass of cold water.

 I am the first and only one here in this early morning—at Bar The Way in Pangrati, Athens—and I watch as Bratsolia’s sister appears from downstairs to mop the colorful floor in preparation for the day. She is wearing long jeans and a white t-shirt, as if the hot and sticky temperature is barely warm enough.

I am here on a quest—to see if coffee is as much a part of the Greek morning routine as it is the American. An East Coaster myself, I am well-versed in the delicious potentials of the iced coffee.

This particular coffee fulfills my wildest dreams. It is a perfect gradient of browns: dark chocolate brown at the bottom, caramel next, a light tan towards the top, and foamy white deliciousness at the rim. I try to drink it slowly to soak it in, but it is so light I consume it all within a minute. 

The airiness of Bratsolia’s coffee isn’t unique; it’s the epitome of the Greek caffeinated drink. When I tell him I’ve only had American coffee, he replies, “You try this and tell me what you think.”

A second customer arrives 13 minutes later, and Bratsolias gets to work making a drink for him before he even says a word; it is remarkably quiet and the regular pulls out a cigarette to smoke as he waits. He doesn’t pay—at least not from what I can tell; the two speak a few words in Greek and I assume he is either family or on some sort of tab system. After this second customer come two more, and soon a steady flow of people begins to filter in. 

Each customer here is quiet, patient, and friendly. They have the same sleepy just-woke-up look as the Americans back home, but there is a relaxed atmosphere that is a stark contrast to the average east coast Dunkin-Donuts.

When I go up to pay, I tell Bratsolia his coffee is delicious. Then I ask if he thinks Greeks can survive without caffeine. He replies, “Our coffee is good.” I smile. That’s answer enough.

And then I can’t help myself. I spend another 3 euro on a second coffee. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Day Trip to Aegina Island


The only time I truly dislike traveling is when I feel like an outsider, a true “tourist.” My most interesting experiences tend to be unplanned; things that seem ordinary for locals seem extraordinary when I learn about them. Thus, whenever I am wearing the “tourist cloak,” I feel inferior. Case in point: our lazy day on the beach.

Our tourist-y transportation: Flying Dolphin XV
As soon as we walk off the ferry and onto the Aegina shore, I feel the anxiety kick in; others watch as our group takes selfies in front of the scenery. We are the stereotypical American teenagers: big sunglasses, brightly-colored bags, addicted to Instagram filters. The whole package. 


Emily, Kaylin, Maggie; Tashi, Me

And as we continue aimlessly up the hill—to an area that gradually becomes less “beach-town” and more residential— I realize just how much I dislike "looking like" an American. Too exhausted to wander and unable to connect to WiFi for more specific directions, we flag down a bus; one of the girls manages to convince the driver to let all of us on. Twenty minutes later, we arrive at a beach worthy of a magazine—several miles away from the port and on the other side of the island.  


The view from a sidewalk just off one of the Aegina ports

The beach boardwalk does not look much different than ones back in the States; rooftop bars and expensive hotels overshadow more humble structures further inland. As I look past some abandoned buildings, I wonder what real life is like for the locals who grew up on the island. Though many likely live off tourism, I cannot imagine they enjoy it.



When I mention this to the people I meet, however, I am pleasantly surprised. Unlike other Europeans I have met, these people do not harbor bad feelings towards Americans—or if they do, they sure hide it well.

Each person I talk to is more than happy to make conversation. The taxi driver asks me which state I am from, and tells me he once dreamed of moving to America. I ask him if he thinks there are too many tourists here. He laughs. Then I say, “No, really. Are we annoying?” He laughs harder. Expecting him to agree, I am surprised with his answer. “I admire the way Americans live. They make it so that the young are independent and free.”

His description of American college students, free-thinkers who move away from their families and even travel by themselves, is not unlike my own experience. I realize as he talks that the opportunities I have truly are unique. His description of the custom “extended family model” is quickly illustrated when I meet Helen.

The storeowner of a souvenir shop, Helen makes conversation with me as I sample pistachio butter and look at hand-painted sailboat figurines. Her two little boys wrestle playfully with their grandfather in the outdoor space behind the shop, and I realize this space doubles as their home. Seeing me watch them, she apologizes for her “big, noisy, Greek family,” but I smile because their closeness is refreshing to witness.  


A peak into the room behind the store. 

 I leave the store knowing even less than before. I understand why the taxi driver spent seven years pursuing a green card; living in America has given me more than I can comprehend. But I also crave the closeness that comes with living together; if their laughter is any indication, Helen’s kids have built in best friends.


All in all, I plan to step away from the black and white view of life. Perhaps the people here secretly despise Americans, perhaps they do not. The question does not need to be solved but rather simply experienced. And I can experience this while still embracing my nationality—not hiding it.  



:)