Adapting to address changing refugee needs in Athens

In Athens, one NGO has focused on adapting its services to suit refugees' needs, offering shelter, Greek and English lessons, food and above all a safe space.

Adapting to address changing refugee needs in Athens
Perhaps surprisingly, English lessons have proved more useful to the refugees than Greek. Photo: JRS Greece
This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.
When one arrives to Victoria Square in Athens, it seems as if you have left behind the Acropolis, ouzo and souvlakis, and entered another country, a place of reunion for many refugees. In Victoria, kids play cheerfully and the adults chat, sharing their stories and passing the time.

But on occasions, the square unfortunately becomes a place where refugees spend the night when they do not have any other place to go, when the asylum system cannot handle the amount of people who lack a place to sleep or it simply fails to connect the free spots with the people in need.

It was in Victoria square where Amin found out about the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS)*. Amin, an Afghan refugee (26), had just arrived in Athens from Moria, the refugee camp in the Greek island of Lesbos, and he did not know much about the city.

In Victoria, the other refugees informed him about an NGO – which turned out to be JRS – that was offering tea for free and which also had a nurse looking after the refugees. Thanks to this word-of-mouth system, JRS became quite popular at Victoria square.

JRS describes itself as “an international Catholic organization with a mission to accompany, serve and advocate refugees and other forcibly displaced people, so they may heal, learn, and determine their own future”. Concretely, JRS Greece has four priorities, in which they focus through their different activities: education, livelihood, reconciliation and advocacy.

JRS Greece is financially supported by private organizations, companies, foundations, and individual donors. It also counts with 12 employees, among them 5 teachers, but many of their activities depend on volunteers (including some doctors), who mainly come to Athens through agreements with other partner organisations.

Since 2017, a community of Missionary Sisters are part of JRS Greece team, who also collaborate and volunteer. in the Hellenic Republic.

JRS has been helping refugees since the beginning of the migration crisis in 2015, adapting to the different needs that they had. 

They went from offering them a place to stay for the night on their way to other European countries, to becoming a permanent shelter once the borders were closed and refugees were stuck in Greece, to finally becoming a social centre, mostly offering workshops, language lessons and a place for social interaction.

It was precisely this need for social interaction that every human has, especially when you have left your family and friends behind, that kept Mustafa (21), an Afghan refugee, coming back to JRS. Mustafa especially liked ‘Tea Time’ (currently closed due to the pandemic), a place where migrants could find community and conversation while enjoying a cup of tea or coffee.

“I liked the Tea Time because every day you could meet a lot of new people. Also, I saw again there many people that I had met at the (refugee) camp and in other places. It was a very friendly place, the best place for everyone. It was the place where people did not worry about anything, they just came there to play cards, to chill. It was very good for them”, explains Mustafa.

Activities tailored to children, men, and women are all part of the puzzle. Photo: Anne-Sophie D, a JRS volunteer

In 2019 alone, around 2078 people attended Tea Time; 1500 men, 372 women and 206 children. More specifically, Tea Time Man had around 150 men every day, Tea Time woman had around 40 women and both Tea Times had around 30 children.

The Women Day Centre, which opened in November 2019, is also a special place for refugee women. At the centre, they are able to have a shower and wash their clothes, but also to get a free appointment with doctors that are volunteering there twice per week or to attend to some of the workshops designed especially for them, such as ‘beauty time’ – where they can polish their nails, get a new hairstyle or learn how to make a shampoo – or pilates. 

“It is really a safe place for them”, states Anne Sophie (33), a volunteer from Belgium who worked with JRS for six months. “They do not have to think about what is happening outside and it is really a clean place – in contrast to the neighbourhood where most refugees in Athens live”, concludes Anne Sophie. “

From November 2019 until the end of December, the Women Day Centre managed to support 71 people, among them 46 were women and 26 children.

JRS completes its activities with Magazi, a basic goods store where refugees and other vulnerable groups can obtain clothes, household goods and toys free of charge; Pedro Arrupe Center, which provides an after-school mentoring program and interactive cultural activities for 225 students, including refugees, migrants and Greek children; and Magistories, that provides workshops and language lessons, including Greek, English and French.

English is the most requested language, over Greek, since most asylum seekers do not plan to stay in Greece – they dream about going to countries like Germany, Sweden or Switzerland -, and they need to communicate in a language that mostly everyone understands. “Before coming to JRS, my English was not that good. I joined the lessons and they loved me, helped me and respected me (…) JRS helps everyone, every refugee from every country”, says Amin.

Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus pandemic, JRS had to adapt some of its activities to the new regulations, reducing the Women Day Centre and Magazi capacity, reducing the number of students at workshops and language lessons and closing the Tea Time and substituting it, until further notice, for a Food Basket Project that provides food and basic necessities for 100 families. 

Behesta (26), an Afghan asylum seeker, also values JRS’s work: “It has helped me in every way. I did not know an English word when I came to Athens. JRS also helps us when we need to see a doctor, or we have any other problem”.

Nonetheless, JRS does not offer everything that refugees need. “They could train for jobs or offer employment opportunities. All [NGOs] offer food or clothes, but the most important part for refugees is to have a job”, remarks Mustafa.

For refugees, being able to work is a way to become financially independent, to be able to control their own lives, to feel included in society, but also to occupy themselves during the months or even years they spend in Greece.

However, finding a job in Greece is not easy even for locals – who have the advantage of speaking the country’s language – since the unemployment rate is the highest in Europe – around 16,8 percent in August 2020, according to Eurostat.

This circumstance, added to the flaws and delays of the Greek bureaucratic system and the shortage of long-term solutions, make refugees like Amin conclude that “life is not good for us in Greece”, even though NGOs like JRS make the path easier for asylum seekers in the Hellenic country.

*The author of this article was a volunteer herself at JRS in Athens for five months.

Fabiola Villamor is a Spanish journalist with an interest in migration and social issues.

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How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools

In Sweden, every fourth student in compulsory education has a foreign background, which means that they were either born abroad or born in Sweden with both parents from abroad. However, students from Swedish families and their peers with foreign backgrounds are meeting less and less often in schools, in a result of increased segregation that is posing a challenge for many municipalities.

How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools
Camilla Wennberg and Zamzam, one of her students. Photo: Private

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 2019, Sweden's public broadcaster SVT surveyed 3,641 primary schools and reviewed data from Skolverket, the Swedish National Agency for Education, on the academic year 2017/2018. The results showed that the distribution of students from foreign backgrounds was very unequal, with some schools having almost only students from migrant families and others having as few as five percent. According to Skolverket, the concentration of students with the same social and migration background might be one of the reasons for an increased difference in school results, which poses a threat to the goal of offering equal opportunities for all.

The relation between segregation and difficulties in succeeding in school was pointed out by some of the migrant parents in study circles that Eva Lundgren Stenbom, a cultural producer, organised in Norrköping, central Sweden, in 2013. The very decision to found her own NGO, Imagine (what we can do), was motivated by an encounter with the mother of a girl who participated in a project Eva Stenbom worked previously. She wanted help to get to know more locals with whom she could practise her Swedish, because Eva was in fact the only Swede she talked to regularly.

Seeing how difficult it could be for a foreigner to establish relations and feel part of society, Lundgren Stenbom created the association and started the study circles, among other activities such as sewing workshops. The events were planned for locals and migrants living in neighboring areas of the city to meet once a week and discuss the everyday issues they faced in their community.

The meetings were attended mostly by adults, sometimes followed by their children. Topics on integrating into Swedish society and parenthood would often come up, and Lundgren Stenbom remembers many parents asking for help with problems that affected their children, especially in school. Thinking about the younger generations and hearing the demand from parents, she decided to expand the study circles to include children.

For the past four years, an increasing number of students with migrant background have enrolled on the tutoring programme organised by Imagine (what we can do). At first, the study circles took place in Lundgren Stenbom's home, located in a neighbourhood that is almost the perfect metaphor for the segregation between locals and migrants. On one side of the street is the Röda Stan neighbourhood, where most of the houses are owned by Swedes, while right across Värmlandsgatan many migrant families live in the Marielund buildings. The organisation started with the aim of creating places and opportunities for the neighbours to meet.

However, the study circles soon showed to be inefficient, Lundgren Stenbom says, because of the busy and loud atmosphere of several students sharing the attention of few tutors. “Sometimes there would be 10 or 12 students for two or three tutors, and it made it very difficult to advance in the lessons,” she remembers. A different system was needed.

The tutoring programme then became individualised, with better results, according to the NGO's evaluation. As it currently works, each student is paired with a tutor with whom they will work for at least one semester. The meetings usually take place at the tutor's house, which proved to be the best solution and one of the learnings the organisation had throughout the years. “Because many of the students live in families with more kids, very often it is more difficult for the student to focus and concentrate on the work without interruption,” Lundgren Stenbom explains.

The programme also recommends that the tutor/student pair set a schedule of weekly meetings on a pre-defined day and a time slot of one to two hours. Feedback and follow-ups are constant, but according to Lundgren Stenbom they lack data on how much the students' grades have improved after enrolling in the programme.

There are currently 35 pupils, mostly aged 11 to 19 years, receiving help with homework or preparing for exams, and another 20 people on the waiting list. Several of them have been in Sweden for almost 15 years, while some have moved to the country more recently. The goal, Lundgren Stenbom states, is to support the students so they progress to higher educational levels and get better opportunities on the job market.

One of the volunteers on the programme is Camilla Wennberg, an engineer who has tutored two students since 2017. Her current pupil is 14-year-old Somayo, from Somalia, with whom Wennberg has worked for the past one-and-a-half years. Before that, she taught Somayo's older sister Zamzam for two years.

Before stricter recommendations to lower the spread of the coronavirus came into effect in Sweden, every Wednesday evening Somayo and one of her parents would cross Norrköping by tram to go to Wennberg's house. The father or the mother accompanied her because they believe taking the tram alone at night is not safe, which Wennberg agrees with. During the weeks when social contact has been more restricted, tutor and student have met online.

The effort that Somayo and her family make to attend the tutoring session and the fact that she has been not only up to date with her homework, but a bit ahead of the class, is a sign for Wennberg that the Somalian teenager has high educational aspirations. “She is more ambitious,” states the proud tutor. 

Wennberg sees the language as a main factor for difficulties children from migrant backgrounds may have in school. “When it's just calculation it's easy, but when you have to understand what the question is asking for, then it is more complicated for her.” Sometimes they translate the questions to English, which helps.

Ann-Sofi Ringkvist and Madeleine Szente, who coordinate a programme by the Red Cross, which has provided support to schools in Linköping since 2011, also believe that improving language skills is an important feature of homework tutoring and one of the biggest challenges for migrant students and their families in the integration to the school system.

Although the programme was not created with the purpose of helping children from migrant backgrounds, but everyone who needs extra educational support, most of the students are currently from migrant families.

The three schools where the Red Cross is present in the city show the divide in the distribution of students with different backgrounds: in the Skäggetorp neighbourhood, the vast majority of students in the two schools participating in the programme belong to migrant families, while in Ekholmen the proportion of students who do not have a Swedish background is much smaller: around five per class. Ringkvist, who is herself a volunteer, believes that children benefit from a mixed class environment and stresses that several students need tutoring, independently of their family's country of origin.

The program is aimed at students from 8 to 16 years of age. In grades seven to nine, the tutoring takes place after school, while for younger pupils it takes place in a separate room during school time. Unlike the initiative in Norrköping, where the tutoring is requested by the families, the Red Cross volunteers collaborate with the school staff. The tutors, many of whom are retired teachers themselves, work with groups of students and follow the instructions from the teachers. During the sessions, two volunteers provide support for groups of 10 to 15 pupils, but there are times when as many as 25 young students are working together.

The large number of people attending tutoring sessions is seen by the organisation as both a challenge and a sign of success. Ringkvist explains that students wanting to receive tutoring is understood as a positive evaluation of the volunteer's work, but that many children in the same room can make it difficult for them to focus on school content.

“There are several goals, the main one is to make going to school pleasurable. We are not supposed to give them grades, we just want to help them, so maybe they find it easier to talk to a volunteer than to the teachers.They can feel more confident of themselves,” says Szente.


Although the adults involved in the homework tutoring programmes see language acquisition as one of the main challenges students with migrant background face in succeeding in the Swedish school system, what do the young students themselves think?

Somayo, who is being tutored by Camilla Wennberg, was unavailable to be interviewed because she was taking part in a two-week introductory programme to the job market and was working part-time in a fast-food chain. Due to her busy schedule, she was not able to attend the tutoring sessions when we spoke to Wennberg.

Somayo's absence did not seem to be a matter of concern, as her tutor stressed how important the work-training programme was for the teenager. Somayo's grades and accomplishments in maths can be understood as a sign of the programme's success, and alongside the fact that she was also doing part-time work, it can be inferred that her Swedish language skills might be much higher than it may seem.

One important aspect to consider, however, is the difference between the academic language skills required to pass exams such as the national high-school exam – usually a source of anxiety for young people, as it defines the educational pathway they are able to take – and the skills required for everyday interactions in informal settings or in lower-paid work.

The unequal representation of students from migrant families in Swedish schools may result in a daily experience of segregation for the young people who are trying to navigate a school system and a culture foreign to their parents. While governmental strategies to distribute students more evenly are being developed, volunteers in the homework tutoring programmes have been making individual efforts to orientate school children.

As Camilla Wennberg describes, her encounters with Somayo and her family are limited to the tutoring sessions, but these are occasions for her to answer questions from Somayo that go beyond mathematics. She thinks of their friendly exchange with her students as an opportunity she would not have had otherwise, something she values.

“It is nice to know her,” says Wennberg. “I think most people can help others teaching their own language, for example by correcting an essay. They just need to be open minded: whatever you can give, it is worth something.”

Myung Hwa Baldini is a journalist working in education and children's rights. She is based in Sweden.