Athens, Greece – Slowly, the Afghan girl articulates the words in Greek: “Me lene Zahra,” – my name is Zahra. Then comes the hard part: “I am not married. I am free,” she says, using the Greek expression for single, faltering on the vowels, laughing at herself and resurrecting the sentence.
Two weeks ago, Zahra and her friend Fatima boarded the tram outside their refugee camp at the old Athens airport and travelled downtown to Melissa, a non-profit organisation for migrant women. There they enrolled in Aleph, a Greek language immersion programme sponsored by Mercy Corps.
The very name Aleph, Arabic for Alpha, reveals the Semitic origins of the Greek alphabet, adapted from the Phoenician some 3,000 years ago, and was chosen for the programme to convey a sense of mutual respect.
Since last March, when Austria, Hungary and the former Yugoslav republics shut their borders to a river of migrants and refugees travelling from Greece to Germany, some 57,000 have unintentionally remained in Greece. Many are applying for relocation to other European countries. Others are applying for asylum in Greece.
Both processes will take months, and applicants are graduating from the state of pure emergency that brought them here. With the help of volunteers, they are attempting to achieve normality, and even the beginnings of integration.
“Maybe one day we will stay here and there is no way to go to another country,” says Zahra. Yet this is not the only reason they are learning Greek.
“They want human contact, in every way, just like all of us,” says their teacher, Vicky Kantzou. “You can come closer with the Greek people, you can be friends with them,” explains Zahra, who tries to talk in Greek to the volunteers at her camp.
“The desire to learn and to belong has very much to do with your background, your world view, your vision of the future,” says Nadina Christopoulou, who founded Melissa.
Many girls of 15 and 16, Zahra’s and Fatima’s respective ages, are expected to start a family in Afghanistan; but tradition is not the force shaping these girls’ lives. Zahra wants to study civil engineering and chemistry. “My parents say, ‘Study first, then get married’,” says Fatima, who wants to be a doctor in Germany.
“There is no way to be successful in Afghanistan – for women,” she says.
Ambition and family support have shaped a sense of opportunity for these girls, and their gender has turned from a liability to a strength.
“The one thing that has really impressed me is their determination to make a life in a new society,” says Christopoulou. “They are fully aware of the things we also perceive as oppressive – domestic violence, for example, or the lack of access to education.”
Christopoulou and a dedicated platoon of women from Africa and the Middle East conceived Melissa three years ago as a haven for new arrivals.
Melissa’s very arrangement is meant as therapy.
“These people have not been in a home environment for months or years,” says Christopoulou. “A kitchen, a casserole, a pot of flowers, a pot of basil, a bowl of cherries – helps them make the transition so much better.”
The power of language
Some normalisation initiatives come from the refugees themselves and are strengthened by volunteers. Kastro Dakduk, a Syrian artist who made his way to Greece in the 1970s, has carved a shelter for some 300 refugees out of a disused school in the neighbourhood of Exarcheia. Volunteers provided food and clothing, but once those basic needs were met, the challenge was altered.
“I noticed the children all day would play football, play football, play football. I thought, what is next?” says Abeer Mawad, an English teacher from Syria. “Will they only play football? … The women sit in the playground and talk. What’s the next step?”
One day in late March, Abeer as everyone calls her, took a chair and a small Ikea blackboard and stood in the playground waiting. “Suddenly they follow me, the children and women, and come,” says Abeer. “We brought chairs and they sat and I began with my teaching.”
Abeer often had to knock on classroom doors where families slept into the late morning to convene her class.
“Throw the sleep, throw everything and come,” she told them. Through the teaching of basic English to children, many of whom have never attended school because of the unrest in Syria and Afghanistan, Abeer began their transformation from fugitives to residents.
Exarcheia is most famous as the capital of the Greek Anarchist movement, but the refugee children of the Fifth High School craved the trappings of order – a schedule, the demands of discipline and the authority of adults.
“Before everything was difficult. There was no speaking, only pointing. For example, going to the supermarket without speaking,” says Abeer, pointing in the way her pupils used to.
“No! Now my students can go and speak English: ‘Yes Sir, I need some water, Yes Sir, I need bread,’ and make conversation with grammar in a good way. When I see this, sometimes I cry, because I changed something inside them and outside them.”
But Abeer is no longer there to teach them – on June 18, she flew to Germany to be reunited with her husband and four children.
Bonding through theatre
A small number of Greek volunteers have achieved a rare social fusion for a brief period. Wilma Andrioti spent most of last year feeding refugees at the port of Piraeus. A few weeks ago, she organised some two-dozen Kurds and Afghans to retell their plight as a theatrical performance.
During weeks of rehearsals at her house, Andrioti and her two children, aged 11 and 13, became firm friends with the Afghan, Iranian and Kurdish refugees.
“We’d cook together, and what moved me was that, because they felt obliged to me, they brought whatever they were given at the camp – oranges, croissants, feta cheese in small packages,” says Andrioti.
“We played games and the Afghans taught my children the games they played back home … speaking words over hand motions – clapping, finger clicking, elbow bumping and hip movements.”
Andrioti now says, “We are a family with these people … They would clean and wash up everything afterwards. These people are civilised. They have noblesse, they have dignity and they are homemakers.”
Humanitarianism and empowerment
Integration is not offered, or sought, in other places as keenly as it is in Athens, where refugees live in close proximity to Greeks.
Most refugees are kept in converted former army camps in the north of Greece, far from urban centres, and volunteer efforts are still focused on bringing them their daily bread.
Some 8,000 are in enforced isolation on eastern Aegean islands, because a March 20 agreement between the EU and Turkey turned open reception centres there into incarceration facilities. Tensions in those reception centres are simmering.
But Greek volunteers and migrants who have spent decades in Greece have acted as an outreach programme for the latest arrivals, in many cases making up for a lack of state infrastructure.
“Greece never enacted any system of social integration, firstly because it was always a passage for migration, and secondly because it never really wanted to,” says Fanis Kollias, who recently started publishing Solomon magazine, exclusively written by – and for – refugees.
Kollias believes that the aid offered by NGOs and volunteers can be debilitating. “[It] keeps refugees on a lower rung. It tells them, ‘I am here helping you because you need me and you will always be an inferior person.’… It doesn’t stimulate the refugees to begin to claim any sort of ownership. The point is to give people what they need to carry on alone.”
What Greece is witnessing now, through its accidental hosting of 57,000 refugees, is that humanitarianism is mingling with empowerment.
“We think about migrants in terms of their vulnerabilities and dangers they’re exposed to,” says Melissa’s Christopoulou, “but not on the basis of their skills, dreams, desires, their positive traits – their contributions.”
Girls such as Zahra and Fatima are determined not to be victims, in Afghanistan or anywhere else. They have jumped at integration programmes like Melissa’s. In the process, they may be forming the vanguard of a new society on the edges of the troubled European continent.