„You only need one person to change your life“

The majority of people who arrived in Greece in 2018 came from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq – thousands of them are children. In an educational program of the NGO „Elix“  in Athens, Marianna-Sofia Matziri, 26, and Alexandra Kamaretsou, 25, teach them. They have shared with agorayouth what it means to deal with trauma, depression and panic attacks on a daily basis.

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

Agorayouth: Alexandra, tell us a little bit more about the educational program you work for.
Alexandra Kamaretsou:
The organisation Elix , which is supported by UNICEF and funded by the European Commission, started the project on quality learning and non-formal education in October 2017. Through the project, we aim to meet the daily educational needs of refugee and immigrant children aged 3-17 years and contribute to their smooth integration into the formal education system in Attica and Greece.

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

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

Agorayouth: What is the most tragic part of the situation for you?
Alexandra: I have studied education for refugees. I take my job very seriously and try to give the children as much as I can. Still, we try to protect ourselves psychologically, because it’s very easy to be traumatized..

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

Agorayouth: In your Barcamp session you showed the reality of the camps on the Greek islands. When we talk about Europe, its future and solidarity – what are your thoughts?
: In Moria on Lesbos island we saw people dying in winter because of the cold – this happened on European soil! In my opinion we really need to act and do more as human beings. It’s not just a shame for Greece, it’s a shame for every European citizen. We are the youth of the crisis. We knew at 15 that our future is uncertain, but still: what can we say about an economic crisis compared to their problems? Greece has ten million inhabitants and 100,000 people to integrate – the number is not large. I feel that there is a lot of hypocrisy in this issue.
Marianna: I really think that a lot of Greeks have done an amazing job in terms of helping and integrating in the last few years. But too much work has been put on a few shoulders. One thing I do not understand is why refugee families who had a house now, after 20 months, have to leave it because the UNHCR considers them „integrated“ and they need the space for new people. Nobody told them to find a way to survive, they just got a paper saying they have to leave soon.

Agorayouth: So help is still needed. What would be your message to people who want to do more?
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 one of our lessons we were talking about the UN children’s rights and I said that children should not work. I will never forget that Rania, who would never speak on her own, raised her hand and said: „And what if the parents die – won’t the children work?“ Listening to this, we have to understand what they have been through.
Marianna: We have four educational centers and we always need volunteers. The official figures say that there are about 3,774 unaccompanied minors in Greece, but the real number must be double or triple that. So make contact, make a video and distribute it, support the refugees by buying some of their products or try to make other people aware. In the age of digitalization you don’t necessarily have to come to Greece. The most important message for me is: children are the future, not EU children.

Interview and pictures: Lisa Brüßler

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