Refugee Assistance : my name is Anna, I am an archaeologist…

In October 2016 World YMCA established a Field Office for Refugee Assistance in Thessaloniki. Through this Office, in co-operation with YMCA Europe, we are supporting the  refugee programme of YMCA Thessaloniki. WY staff persons Lisa Kalivatsi and Michal Szymanczak spoke with Anna Argyri on February 3.

Anna is 39 years old, and she was born in Mytilena on the island of Lesbos. Whilst visiting her family there she experienced the dramatic arrival of refugees to Greece.  Anna is not a refugee, she is a leader of  the refugee support programme run by YMCA Thessaloniki, Greece.

YMCA Thessaloniki’s work with refugees has already changed – as the situation of refugees in Greece is changing.  They started with  material help for refugees, who were arriving on boats to the Greek islands as well as for those at the borders, who were trying to leave Greece in their search for a  better life.  Later they were working in Diavata Camp – playing with children, organizing theatre performances, helping the camp with sport and kindergarten equipment.

Now the camps are almost empty, and the Municipality of Thessaloniki, with support of local communities and NGOs (including YMCA), is implementing the programme REACT (Refugee Assistance Collaboration in Thessaloniki). Within REACT refugee families are getting lodging in flats and houses and the core of the programme is the integration of them, even if nobody knows how long they will stay in Greece.

But you know, says Anna, integration programmes are perhaps more needed for Greek communities then for refugees.  She said that even if thousands of Greeks have extra-ordinary positive attitudes towards refugees – so positive that first time in the history the Nobel Prize for Peace,  one of candidates for the award was not an individual or an organization, but just ‘communities of Greek islands’.

Anna’s empathy, her love of children and young people with whom she works, her passion and creativity as well ethical reflections made a day with her and her team absolutely unforgettable.

Within the REACT programme YMCA works with 65 families, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan.  Anna showed hundreds of photos and videos of their work with refugees, hundreds of drawings and other kinds of results of refugee children’s activities.  She has some her favourite.  Look at this image, just only lately, we started piano-lessons for them… They love it, they are so talented…

Look at that… You know, I am teaching kids Greek culture starting with the history of our architecture, this is our YMCA building painted in a colourful Arabic way… To heal them psychologically we used fairy tales (J. Ch. Andersen, brothers Grimm) and classical literature (Ch. Dickens, Greek classics) as a basis for self-expression… Oh, I forgot to tell you, on their request we provide English classes for parents… And do you know that even being Muslim they celebrate Christmas-time? They have “Baba Noel”, gifts, and lot of fun for children. During YMCA Christmas-market they prepared their own traditional food and they enjoyed being with us…

… I love those children and my own children love to play with them as well…

You see, they are often smiling and usually it takes few weeks of being with them and playing with them to see their first smile… But seeing their dramatic drawings, it is understandable, so understandable… And somehow each drawing of a refugee child is for me like discovery of  valuable archaeological artefact…

As archaeologist I love history and working with refugees I understood that I am a part of history, she concludes our conversation.

Afterwards we asked ourselves:  are we all– the whole worldwide YMCA family – ready to be a part of this history?

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