In 2015, Europe witnessed one of the biggest refugee crisis in its history. Men, women, but also children, left their country to escape armed conflicts or economic instability. The cost of the travel? Huge. Not only financially but also psychologically. Families forced to relocate face extreme challenges and obstacles that are sometimes fatal. According to International Organization for Migration (IOM) since January 1 to April 22, 2018, 570 deaths were recorded in the Mediterranean Sea. A lot of families, not being able to afford the trafficker’s payment or not feeling ready to abandon their country, sent their children to Europe unaccompanied. In 2017, the number of unaccompanied minors that applied for international protection in the Member States of the European Union was at 31,400 according to Eurostat.
In Greece, it is estimated that as of August 2018 the number of unaccompanied children is 3,290, of which 93.9 % were boys (National Center for Social Solidarity). As applicants for international protection in Greece, the unaccompanied minors have the right to be part of public educational system free of charge, which is the first step for their social integration into Greek communities. But of course, they face a lot of difficulties such as the language barrier and cultural gap. School is a formal setting that depends a lot on verbal communication and can often be very structured. The Time to Be Welcome (TTBW) project seeks to create an environment, through non-formal education, in which young people can socialise and connect in different ways regardless of the language they speak or where they are from. That is the great thing about the project – unlike schools where language plays an important role in education – the work volunteers do doesn’t focus on communication via language, and often the young people that we work with speak many different languages. Activities such as sports or arts (photography, theatre, crafts) don’t rely on verbal communication and this gives the young people we work with the opportunity to be creative and to interact with each other in a non-formal setting.
Unaccompanied minors, especially the teenagers close to the age of 18, are afraid of what their future entails. Even if they are granted asylum in another European country, which is not a given fact for everyone, they don’t know if they are going to find a job, if they will be accepted by the society and even if they will be able to live for that long away from their families. A 17-year-old boy who lives in a Shelter in Thessaloniki expresses his concern that his only way to survive when he is out of the shelter will be to earn money through illegal means. Fortunately, most of the boys dream of studying and finding an appropriate profession. This is where TTBW volunteers have an important and supportive role. We aim to bring young people, from all backgrounds, together to recognise that with the right motivation and the right attitude, they can work towards securing a stable future for themselves and they can work together as valuable members of society. By bringing young people together, it gives them the opportunity to see that they are not alone, and that the struggles they face are often the same struggles faced by many people of their own age. And by encouraging young people to get involved in activities and projects in the community, hopefully they can start to feel like part of the community – not just accepted in society, but valued.
During the Summer School project in Thessaloniki, that was planned and carried out by the TTBW volunteers in the summer of 2018, refugees that participated stated that “it felt like we had a family again”. The genuine interest in them as people, the absolute acceptance of who they are and where they come from and our enthusiasm for life gave them a boost to go on. Projects such as TTBW have a very important impact on the mentality of the individuals we work with, which should not be underestimated by organisations and society. The unaccompanied minors have all the needs that any other child or teenager has, plus the need to survive away from their families and friends in a country that doesn’t always make them feel welcome. It’s time for citizens all over Europe to open their arms and let those people have the life they deserve, and to feel like the valuable individuals they really are.