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Reflection on our time in Athens

Suewan Kemp Destinations 8 Comments

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post. And it’s because of this one post. Writing about Athens has felt impossible. I just don’t have the words. I have written this post again and again. I feel like I can’t write about our experience of volunteering in Athens because it will not do it justice.

So I’ve been putting it off.

But now we are in Hong Kong and I realise it’s important to at least try to write about our time in Athens because I don’t want to ever forget.

Athens acropolis -This is about spending time as a volunteer in Athens, Greece.

The Acropolis

I loved Athens. There is a lot to love about it – the locals, the food, the culture, the architecture. If you want to know about what you can do in the beautiful city then our friends at ‘2 Days in a City’ have written a brilliant guide to Athens.

However, the thing that really changed me was an opportunity I had to volunteer in Athens, Greece..

I have volunteered a couple of times over the past year in Lesvos and Calais, so it felt kind of natural to offer my time whilst in Athens.

I knew there would be lots of refugees here as the borders closed earlier this year. However I didn’t know there would be so many, and I didn’t realise there wouldn’t be enough space for them here or enough resources.

So, we (myself and Roobs) volunteered to teach English through No Border School in a community centre (Khora) and also in one of the squats that housed refugees. We were teaching kids and adults as well as running craft activities.

As I got to know the children and adults it made me question how unfair it is that these people, who are just like you and me, are not able to go where they want to. And yet our family has the luxury of going to most places we want to, whenever we want to. These families are not “travelling” but fleeing. They have had to escape from terrors I have never seen and can’t begin to imagine.

I don’t understand why these people aren’t being offered homes – why they aren’t being embraced and looked after by the rest of the world. I wonder if we have lost all sense of compassion and have become so selfish and afraid that we are now only concerned about ourselves. But what I do know is that these people have shown me how to have hope when all is hopeless. I have been astounded by their stories and their continued fight for a better life.

B and A: These wonderful, funny, inspiring men are two cousins from Iraq who are in their 20s. B is a qualified Arabic teacher, he used to teach in a primary school. A just graduated and has a degree in computer programming. They fled Iraq because the cities they are from are not safe anymore. Both want a better future for themselves and their family. Heartbreakingly A had just received a scholarship from his university in Iraq which meant he would have studied in England for his Masters. It was such an amazing opportunity. However, the government stopped the scheme as the war got worse – meaning A lost his scholarship and all his hopes of an amazing future.

We got to know B and A really well and would meet for coffee and share meals. They taught Roobs how to count in Arabic and she taught them how to play Dobble and Blackjack. They treated us to an authentic middle eastern meal – despite the fact that they have so little and lost much of what they had on the journey to Athens.

They were given an apartment in Athens because they are from Iraq and therefore their case was high priority – however, they came across a Palestinian family living on the streets and gave them their apartment instead. And I NEVER heard these guys complain about their life in a refugee camp. These guys showed me what it is to love others. They have hearts of gold and I am glad to have them as friends.

H and M: Two kids aged 8 and 6. They are gorgeous little kids. They came with their mother and uncle from Syria. When you meet them they are just ordinary little people – wanting to play, run around, draw etc. They played with Roobs and despite the language barrier, they could still play together happily. Seeing these kids broke my heart. They have so little and I don’t know what terrors and traumas they have seen and suffered but I worried for their future. Kids shouldn’t have to live like that. When I left Athens they still weren’t sure if they would be given a home in another country.

Mm: Mm was a university student. He had chosen his degree and had already done a year or two in Iraq. But then ISIS came to his city and the university was closed. He had to flee for his own safety. When I met him he had already been in Athens for 9 months and he was getting desperate. It was so sad to see him feeling lost but the truth is that waiting to find out where your future lies is a horrible thing which you can’t control. Refugees don’t have a lot of say in where they will end up and whether or not they are accepted. Imagine as a young person, eager to learn, to live, to work – that you have to just wait……. With no end date in sight.

S: S had the sunniest smile in the class. He always seemed positive. As I got to know him better I realised he was a super smart person whose skills were just being wasted because he was ‘stuck’ in Athens, unable to work and unable to make decisions about his own future. He wants to be an inventor and I can see he will make it. He found it difficult to be in limbo in Athens – but somehow he still brought hope and positivity to people around him.

A and S: These two brothers are teenagers – they’re just kids! They should be kicking a football about, or wrestling (as they prefer!), complaining about school and dreaming big about their future. Instead, they are living in a pretty grim camp in Athens with their family and hundreds of other families. They haven’t got school now so they came to No Border School to learn English. Their thirst for learning was amazing! After a couple of months, they decided they’d study German too. They were so kind to me and Roobs and so respectful to myself and all the other teachers.

Sa: He had a really good level of English and so we were encouraging him to keep coming to classes as we could see he would become fluent very quickly. However, he stopped coming so regularly and when I saw him I asked him why he wasn’t coming. It turns out he was volunteering at the local hospital – translating for refugees who need to communicate to doctors. He showed me how to put other people first.

I have so many more stories from the people we met – well, they aren’t even my stories. But I want to remember these guys. I want to remember that we are the same. And if I was ever put in that position I would want the world to welcome me and help me get back on my feet.

It seems overwhelming when you think about the politics of war and how on earth we can make a difference as tiny little dots on this huge planet. But in Athens, I learnt that we have to stand by each other. We may not be able to stop wars but we can be kind, we can put other people first, we can be hopeful and positive, we can respect each other, we can love.


Comments 8

  1. Wow. Thank you Suewan. As you write, these refugees become people with an identity. Their lives and backgrounds, their personalities. As you write we’ve got to know them a little. I was blown away by how they still wanted to pass on their love and kindness to others when they have so little.
    Can our World learn something here. Can we mirror than kindness back? Thank you guys x

  2. Reading your blog, has made me feel quite humbled. You’re totally right that we are so wrapped up in our own little lives, that we forget to offer kindness to others. Please keep the blogs coming, they are so important to us. Much love to you all. Xxx

  3. Thank you Kemps! Roobs will be so aware of the world and will have so much to teach those around her. I admire your ventures and how you’re using your resources. We are all the same. Truth.

  4. What struck me is how we have come to give different definitions to people dependent on their situation. These young men we met started off as refugees, fleeing from war in their country.

    However, after 18 months in Turkey and Greece, it can be argued they are no longer refugees – they are safe after all. Like anyone would be, they are now considering their futures and working out how they can use the skills they have to make a better life for themselves.

    But there is recession in Greece, there a no jobs for anyone. So now they need to travel to further their careers. This makes them economic migrants – a term that has come to mean something quite derogatory in the UK. We may feel compassion for refugees, but economic migrants – “coming over here and stealing our jobs”?! No chance, if you read the tabloids.

    But what other option do they have? Would we really begrudge them making an honest living? Especially when they are well educated, with skills that could boost any economy in Europe.

    And it really struck home for me, as a digital nomad, picking and choosing where I want to work from month by month. I understand it’s complicated politically, but let’s face it, it’s just not right or fair that the opportunity and freedom that I possess is not available to someone else, just because they had to flee their country to start a new life.

  5. Brilliant piece of writing Suewan, such a great thing you and Roobs did. The world is not fair in that we get to be who we are (or not) really by an accident of birth. Heartbreaking x

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