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A vague idea becomes an inspiring month: Phoebe's time with Project Elea

In October 2018, I spent just over a month volunteering with Project Elea within Eleonas Refugee Camp in Athens. My plan to go to Greece started as a very vague idea many months before, whilst I was still completing the Teach First graduate scheme. For a long time, I didn’t know where I would be able to contribute most effectively or where to look for information, and anxiously pictured myself turning up on a Greek island, hoping that someone would point me in the right direction. Then, I saw a post on the Teach First Community website, calling for qualified teachers who were interested in supporting refugees. That was how I connected with Helen at refugeeEd, who was extremely helpful, talking through the various options, whilst always being very transparent and realistic about what to expect as a volunteer in Greece. As I was going out on my own and felt apprehensive about what to expect, I chose to opt for a well-established project within Athens. Having listened carefully to my preferences and considered my background and experience, Helen directed me towards the Little School initiative at Project Elea, and put me in touch with the Education Coordinator over email. Having spent two years as a primary school teacher, I was used to working with young children from a variety of backgrounds, and I hoped to use my experience to work towards adding an element of routine and behaviour management to the daily Little School sessions.

Currently, refugees who are under the age of seven are unable to attend Greek school, leaving thousands of young children without a stable routine or access to an education. Little School is a daily two-hour programme run within Eleonas Refugee Camp, which aims to provide the young children with the opportunity to play, socialise and learn in a safe, structured environment. Project Elea uses daily outreach carried out by volunteers to make sure that activities are available to all residents, and the number of children attending Little School during my time in the camp averaged about 25 each day. We worked as a team of six or seven volunteers to ensure that all the children were engaged, happy and safe during the sessions, and spent time each week planning activities and choosing new themes to focus on. As a volunteer I also become involved in many of the other initiatives which Project Elea focuses on; I was part of a team leading weekly discussion-based Teen Time sessions, I learnt countless dance routines whilst supporting the girls’ Zumba class, and I now own a lot of paint-splattered clothes due to Project Elea’s plan to make Eleonas a brighter and more colourful place for the residents to live.

The most challenging aspect of volunteering on the Little School project was managing the range of personalities and behaviours; as well as dealing with trauma from their individual experiences, the children also spoke several different languages and lacked any regular structure. We therefore worked hard to create a calm and stimulating environment, and used lots of songs, dancing and art projects to make sure that the activities were accessible to all the children. And despite feeling confident in my teaching abilities, the nature of the task was also a big change for me; I was used to a formal classroom setting where the same children (mostly!) arrived at the same time each day, and stayed in school until you delivered them back to their parents. By contrast, activities within a refugee camp, by nature, lack this formal structure and therefore I very quickly got used to seeing different faces each day, and to children appearing or departing half way through a session.

It was, however, also an extremely rewarding experience. The many children who attended regularly began to learn to count and write letters; many of those who were initially very quiet began to increase in confidence, talking and interacting with others; and it was always an amazing feeling when the children lined up at the end of the session, walking out the door with an enormous smile on their face.

The aspect of Project Elea which I love the most is its focus on community and collaboration; the coordinators make a concerted effort to ensure that the project focuses on empowering the residents who live within the camp, listening to their concerns and helping them to develop their skills and independence. Many of the project’s volunteers are also refugees who either live or have previously lived within Eleonas Camp, ensuring that the residents are always at the centre of Project Elea’s work.

The month I spent with Project Elea in Athens was one of the busiest, most rewarding and inspiring months of my life; for now, the next rung on the London career ladder calls, but I know that at some point in the next few years, I will once again be returning to Athens, to Project Elea and to the children of Little School. Without refugeeEd, the process would have been much more difficult – they were able to find the project which best suited my skills and preferences, and to offer advice and support whenever I needed it.

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