„You only need one person to change your life“

The majority of people that arrived 2018 in Greece came from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Thousands of them are children. In an educational program in Athens Marianna-Sofia Matziri (26) and Alexandra Kamaretsou (25) teach them. What it means to deal with traumas, depression and panic attacks of the kids on a daily basis they have shared with agorayouth.

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Alexandra Kamaretsou (25, left) and Marianna-Sofia Matziri (26) work in Athens with refugee and immigrant children.

Agorayouth: Alexandra, tell us a little bit more about the educational program you work in.
Alexandra Kamaretsou:
The organisation Elix supported by UNICEF and funded by the European Commission started the project on quality learning and Non-Formal Education in October 2017. With the project we want to provide day-to-day coverage of the educational needs of refugee and immigrant children aged 3 to 17 and contribute to the smooth integration into the formal education system in Attica and Greece.

Agorayouth: What kind of children are you teaching?
Alexandra: I started in July 2017 to work with kids from 6 to 17 years and teach them Greek. Most of them come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Palestine. In our school we get the children, who want to learn something. They are perfectly normal kids with the exception, that they have very difficult lives: Sometimes they live in one room for 5 to 7 people or they share the house with people having other cultural backgrounds, so they experience fights regularly. Some families have applied for reunification, so they are waiting to move to their family, others really want to learn Greek and move forward.

Agorayouth: Marianna, you work as kindergarten teacher. It is not only the work with the kids, but also with their parents, right?
Marianna-Sofia Matziri: Those parents that come to us with their kids want to do something for their children, We are a school, but we also provide psychological and social support and we talk with the parents every day. The most difficult part is dealing with traumas: We have children at the age of 3 or 4 who have depression, traumas, panic attacks or they show aggressive or violent actions, because they are used to these scenes. On the other hand I truly believe that in this age you only need one person to change your life. And I work to be this change factor, because they need to learn how to be children again – if they have ever been before.

Agorayouth: What is the most tragic part of the situation for you?
Alexandra: I have been studying education for refugees. I take my job very serious and try to offer as much as I can to the kids. Nevertheless we try to protect ourselves in terms of psychological well-being, because it’s very easy to take a trauma.

Agorayouth: How do you do that?
Alexandra: In the beginning as I had less experience I didn’t know how to handle this. I used to feel so empathetic that it would come into my personal life, which was not okay. I had to learn gradually and with the help of our psychologists that we need to differentiate their lives from our lives. You cannot help anybody if you are stuck in a certain psychological situation. If you don’t learn that, you don’t survive.
Marianna: We meet every day in the team where we discuss, help each other and exchange opinions with the other professions. This also includes information, because maybe the translators know a fact we didn’t get to know. It’s really important to understand that you are not alone in this job. If you take it personal, it consumes you.

Agorayouth: In your Barcamp-session you showed the reality of the camps on the Greek islands. Talking about Europe, its future and solidarity– what are your thoughts?
Alexandra: In Moria on Lesvos islands we have seen people dying in winter because of the cold – that happened on European soil! In my opinion we need to really act and do more as people. It’s not only a shame for Greece, but everyone who is a European citizen should feel ashamed. We are the youngsters of the crisis. We knew with 15 years that our future is unsure, but still: What can we say about an economic crisis in comparison to their problems? Greece has ten million inhabitants and 100.000 people to integrate – the number is not big. I feel like there is much hypocrisy in this topic.
Marianna: I truly believe, that a lot of Greeks did an amazing job concerning help and integration during the last years. Too much work was put on a few shoulders. One fact I can not understand is, why refugee families who had a house now after 20 months have to leave it, because the UNHCR considers them as „integrated“ and they need the space for new people. Nobody told them to find a way to survive, they just got a paper that says they have to leave soon.

Agorayouth: So there is still help needed. What would be your message to people who want to do more?
Alexandra: The society needs to try more in terms of integration and communication. When I started my work I had a Yazidi student from Iraq. Her name was Rania and she was 6 or 7 years old. In a lesson we were talking about the UN children’s rights and I said that children should not work. I will never forget that, Rania, who normally would never speak by herself, raised her hand and said: „And what if the parents died – won’t the children work?“ By listening to this, we need to understand what they have been through.
Marianna; We have four educational centres and we always need volunteers. The official numbers say that there are about 3.774 unaccompanied minors in Greece, but the real number must be double or triple. So make a contact, take a video and distribute it, support refugees by buying some of their products or try to sensitize other people – in the age of digitalization you don’t have to come to Greece necessarily. For me, the most important message is: children are the future, not EU-children.

Interview and picture: Lisa Brüßler

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