It’s time to share a positive story of progress on Samos. Though it’s easy to write these articles and focus on the atrocious circumstances for asylum seekers in Greece, the last weeks have been dynamic and directed towards building something special. And now we’re at a good place.
Back in December, the coordination team of Action for Education ended up spending a few days on Samos, witnessing the situation here on the island for the 4500 asylum seekers stuck here.
We were, at this point, mid-way through a fundraising campaign intended just to maintain our current projects in Chios and Athens. But the situation was so shocking that we sat down afterwards and tried to find a way to make a new project work on limited funds in response to a huge need. It meant going back to the roots of why we do this work and how we like to operate.
That is: rapidly, effectively, finding and filling gaps in state-services to uphold basic rights. We do this always in a constant struggle with our limited human and financial resources.
It wasn’t long before I found myself setting down again on Samos with my colleague Lutz in late January with the aim of starting a project that fills a massive gap in psychosocial support and educational-recreational activities for refugee youth.
What happened from that moment has culminated with what happens tomorrow when we open The Banana House to up to 200 students each day.
The first days and weeks on Samos were difficult. Our energies was focused on finding accommodation, finding a space for our centre, finding volunteers and finding our feet. It took time, longer than hoped for but shorter than feared. Two weeks in and we had our first volunteer apartment; 3 weeks in and we had our centre.
Then came our volunteer team. We’ve been hugely fortunate to have a strong, skilled team who have made this all happen so quickly. These 8 volunteers from around the world have come, committed months of their year, investing time and energy.
And so with a centre, we started to really plan what our programme would look like. We made some big changes to our preconceived ideas, adapting what works in our other locations to remain specific and relevant here.
This flexibility led to three major revisions:
We’re trying a new system for our non-formal education that aims to give greater access to some of the 850 youth who fall into our demographic. This meant that rather than operating a closed system, we are working on a course-based system that doubles our possible student numbers, allowing fairer access in a context where the need and demand is huge. Students enrol in one or two courses, which take place twice a week. Students have access to the centre and its facilities for one hour either side of their course, a total of up to 12 hours a week. Here, students enjoy wifi, tea, our garden space and a room for relaxation.
We made a decision to focus on meeting other basic needs through our centre. This meant expanding our cooking programme to cook daily for a much larger number of participants - around 150 a day. We also offer participants to have one hot shower a week (up to 50 showers a day), making up for the great lack of washing facilitates in the camp.
We’re changed our model of education-delivery to focus on facilitating community-led education. This meant reaching out to teachers, volunteers and centre managers from the refugee community. We were overwhelmed by the initial support and welcomed over 40 potential volunteers for an information evening last week. Of these, 35 signed up to volunteer with us, as translators, gardeners, teachers, chefs, service managers and focal points. Working with a team from the community just makes so much sense: it involves more people, offers vocational training and opportunities to practise existent or dormant skills, scales up what we can achieve and makes our whole centre community-led.
So what with all this, on Monday 11th March - tomorrow! - we open doors to our first cohort of students: 60 newly-registered youth who have the option to attend courses as diverse as Breakdance, Nails & Beauty, English, Greek, Photography for French Speakers, Journalism for Arabic Speakers, Fitness, Music and Beginner’s Arabic.
It’s been quite the journey. But here we go.
It’s time to open Banana House Samos.