Since 2014, the UNHR has recorded 1,169,000 refugee arrivals in Greece — not including those who either died or went missing on the journey. Christy Lefteri, daughter of Cypriot refugees and author of The Beekeeper of Aleppo, recently wrote: “media coverage often does not give us insight into the life and emotions to people who have been forced to flee their homes; the events of Brexit and the anti-immigrant rhetoric of right-wing parties makes matters worse.” Yet the trials and experiences of those 1,169,000 arrivals don’t disappear with the turn of the news cycle — and as with many things — it is difficult to understand and empathise when experience is represented by a number rather than a voice.
“We’re living in difficult times, and there is a lot of division and fear-mongering, especially in the UK. I remember before I went to Athens to volunteer, it was all over the news. Now it’s nowhere. Where is all that gone? It still exists, those people have still been displaced, they’re still trying to settle, they’re still traumatised. Where is everything now?”
In 2016, Christy sat on the beach on the far east side of Cyprus and looked across to Syria, imagining the emotions and the experience of someone that had just lost their home. Compelled to do what she could to help, she decided to volunteer in Athens.
The story of The Beekeeper of Aleppo arose out of a strong emotional response to her time in Athens and a desire to encourage people to look beyond the headlines and statistics, to tell a story that evokes empathy — “empathy that has the power to propel people into action.” Christy is using the book as a platform to raise awareness for the continuing humanitarian crisis and to create a space for refugee voices to speak for themselves and be heard. She is working to encourage support for organisations actively providing support and services to refugees in transit areas.
One such organisation is the Open Cultural Centre (OCC) in Greece — an NGO operating in the Thessaloniki area. The OCC seeks to improve life quality and social inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers through education and community activities in transit areas. At the OCC both refugees and international volunteers work together to give classes and create a safe environment for children and adults, one in which they can continue to learn and engage in cultural activities. In partnership with the Open Cultural Centre, Lefteri is publishing an ongoing series of stories from refugees currently at the centre in Polykastro.
To find out more about the activities of the Open Cultural Centre and the work of its volunteers we spoke to Jalal Afhim — Project Coordinator for OCC operations in Greece.
“I was so disappointed by the UK government’s response to the refugee crisis, I just wanted to try and help.”
Jalal first volunteered with the Open Cultural Centre for a few weeks in the summer of 2016: “At the time, people had just been removed from Idomeni, and put in a camp called Cherso. It was a scorching hot summer, and they were living in tents. There wasn’t proper sewage or waste-water disposal, the tents were like ovens, and people were being given really awful food by the Greek military. The team drove in two donated vans to Cherso every day from a nearby town where we were crammed into a small flat. We spent the day teaching English, running art/crafts activities with the kids, running a women’s space, movie nights, this kind of thing.”
It was a profound experience for Jalal and he returned for another short stint in the winter. By this time, Cherso had closed and they had to adapt again, driving to vulnerable people staying in UNHCR-funded flats and Polykastro and teaching in their kitchens and living rooms: “I remember that winter the heating broke down in the flat when it was -14 degrees.”. Jalal returned again in June of 2017, bringing four enthusiastic students from King’s College London, where he was a member of staff.
Now Jalal is a coordinator, with overall responsibility for running the project in Polykastro: “I have to wear many hats in this role, managing volunteers, training new arrivals in our procedures, and safeguarding principles and practices. I do a lot of relationship building and maintenance with people from the community we serve, ensuring our vehicles are maintained in good repair, building strategic partnerships with other grass-roots organisations, and recruiting new volunteers.”
“We provide adults and children with learning, community and laughter, despite their situation.”
In 2016, the border between Greece and Macedonia closed and with it the so called ‘Balkan Route,’ which refugees were taking to get to Northern Europe. “As a consequence, thousands of people were stuck on the Greek side of the border at Idomeni” explains Jalal. “Conditions were terrible, with thousands of people basically camping out in a field without access to food, water, or sanitation. It was really unsafe, especially for children and families.”Independent volunteers from around Europe rallied to help, some providing meals, some offering tents, and some of those formed the Open Cultural Center, providing adults and children with learning, community, laughter, and respite despite their situation.
“One of the advantages of being a small grassroots organisation like this is that we have been able to adapt quickly with the evolving situation. Refugees in this area are now residing in a camp called Nea Kavala, and some — the most vulnerable — are housed in apartments nearby.” The Open Cultural Centre provides the same things — community, safe spaces, relationships, recreation, education, and transportation — but it does so in their spaces in Polykastro, near to the Nea Kavala camp.
“Part of our mission is to promote inclusive communities and the rights of refugees and asylum seekers through awareness and cultural exchange.”
“Cultural exchange is as much a mindset as a process”, explains Jalal. The Open Cultural Centre is unusual in the world of grassroots NGOs in that it comprises both people from Europe and North America from non-refugee backgrounds, as well as people from refugee/asylum seeker backgrounds, in equal proportion. “People from the refugee community are front and centre in our work, and this means the work of a European NGO is very much informed by the cultural dynamics and values from outside of Europe. At the same time, our non-refugee volunteers bring skills, values, and ways of working from their cultural context, and share these with the other volunteers. It’s a learning process and cultural exchange for everyone.”
This means that the Open Cultural Centre team is modelling for the community an inclusive and open-minded way of interacting with the world around them. “We believe this mindset is a driver of successful integration and is essential for the tolerant, pluralistic Europe that we want our children to grow up in.” In addition, the OCC hosts cultural exchanges in the more conventional sense, with its sister organisation in Barcelona (OCC Spain) hosting European Voluntary Service volunteers from Greece who come from both refugee and non-refugee backgrounds. These volunteers travel to Barcelona for work placements, work skills training, and language tuition.
“Cultural exchange projects are a really effective way for individuals to challenge themselves and their assumptions, learn how to get along with people from diverse backgrounds, build confidence, and develop valuable workplace skills,” says Jalal. One person he knows, who previously lived in a camp in Greece, has really challenged herself through a cultural exchange programme – living independently from her family for the first time, and gaining the confidence to interact with people in an office environment: “In a relatively short period of time, her understanding of European society and labour markets has leaped forward, giving her a much wider range of choices for her future life.”
The Open Cultural Centre is a small organisation, with few resources, and just one paid member of staff. People can assist with the work of the Open Cultural Centre by signing up to become supporters of the OCC with a small monthly donation. This is the best way to contribute to making their work sustainable in the long term. Supporters also receive a monthly newsletter telling people what the team has been up to. The Open Cultural Centre also has a crowdfunding campaign up at the moment, to try and raise money for a van to transport people in isolated places to the OCC. The OCC currently picks people up daily in a rusting VW Golf with over 290,000km on the clock and only four seats.