Post originally posted here.
Before I landed in Greece I didn’t really know what to expect from the Summer School that I was travelling to attend. I wasn’t even sure exactly what a summer school was, so when family and friends asked what it was that I was going to, I don’t think I gave any particularly informative answers. However, now that it is over I could talk about it until the sun goes down, but I will have to just fit in as much as I can into 1000 words.
The summer school was titled: “Refugee and Migrant Crisis: new challenges of integration.” When I saw it advertised I was immediately interested as I had been a volunteer for the last year with ASSIST – a Sheffield based charity which supports destitute refugees. As a result of that position I had also chose to base my dissertation on refugee integration in the UK, using Sheffield as a case study. Due to my interest in the topic, my application for funding was successful and I was awarded a scholarship by the Sociological Department which covered the course fees and flights to Greece – without which I would not have been able to attend.
Shortly after landing in the city of Thessaloniki I met the group I would be spending my time with over the next 8 days. The group really was a melting pot in every sense; students from countries all over the world, from undergraduate to PhD and from an endless list of disciplines. Previous experience of the refugee crisis ranged all the way from being refugees themselves to essentially having no knowledge past what they picked up from the media. Whilst there was a lot of variation in this regard, there was a common thread of openness to discussion, genuine interest in the topic and engagement with the programme which made the next week that much more interesting and productive.
The programme its self was excellent: well organised, varied and engaging. Mirroring the variation of the students attending the school was the ways in which we approached the refugee crisis academically. We had lectures based on international law, on the effect of the crisis on voting patterns in Greece, on factors effecting the mental health of refugees and on the ethics of conducting research on refugees, amongst many others. Beyond that we also had sessions with the Hellenic Red Cross, the United Nations Higher Refugee Commission and we also visited a small NGO based in a town outside of Thessaloniki.
We volunteered for a day and a half at this small NGO which was called Perichoresis. We were given a talk from its founder who explained how the charity formed in response to the asylum seekers coming into Greece who were clearly in need of support. The name Perichoresis derives from a religious concept which roughly translates as ‘to make room for,’ which guided their approach to integrating asylum seekers and refugees into their community. He told us the story of his ancestors who in the early 20th century were forced to leave their homes as part of a compulsory population exchange between Greece and Turkey. He had heard first hand stories from his family of being refugees in need of help; now it was someone else’s turn. We spent the rest of our time being immersed in the activities Perichoresis delivers on a daily basis including English lessons, nursery activities for children and even a friendly game of football. It was a privilege to see people who have come from such difficult backgrounds having positive experiences, and to be a part of that if only for a day.
The last session of the week was a conversation with refugees who were currently living in a camp outside of Thessaloniki. They were three young boys aged between 17-20. As we went around the room and introduced ourselves with our names and where we were from, one of the boys responded with a greeting in the language of each person, whether that be English, Turkish, Italian and half a dozen more. To hear someone so young, obviously intelligent and full of potential talk about the tragic circumstances that have shaped their lives so far was difficult to hear, and very much put a human face to the ‘academic’ topic we had studied for the previous week. It was inspiring to hear how they remained optimistic and were making efforts to get the formal education that they missed out on.
It would not be doing the summer school justice if I did not mention the social side too. It was such an interesting, friendly and experienced group of people that I had the pleasure of spending my week with – both staff and students. A special thanks goes to the students from CITY College based in Thessaloniki who went out of their way to make us feel welcome, to show us the best their city has to offer in terms of places to eat, drink, visit, and the best spot to watch England in the World Cup. We had guided tours of the city and even got to spend our Saturday at an idyllic beach bar which was closer to what I had imagined when I pictured Greece in my mind.
I have taken away from the Summer School knowledge, experiences and friends, and that is more than I could have hoped for.
Jack is a student on the International Social Change and Policy MSc
The Summer School was organised by University of Sheffield International Faculty, CITY College, and the Department of Sociological Studies provided scholarships for some of its students to participate.