The summer school “Beyond the Refugee Crisis – Studying in Europe” was held in Olympia on 18-28 August and saw Greek university students and young refugees come together. The initiative was supported by Sia Anagnostopoulou, Greek deputy minister for education, in partnership with the European Council and with the support of the Faculty of Philosophy of Athens University.
The location of the summer school was no coincidence. Through her choice of location for the lessons, the minister wanted to make a symbolic point about the importance of peace. She did so by choosing Olympia, where the Olympic Games were held in ancient times and for which any ongoing wars were halted. Even the dates of the event coincided with this year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where for the first time asylum-seekers and refugees were represented by a team of refugee Olympic athletes.
The courses, which were held at the International Olympic Academy, were attended by 29 students, aged between 18 and 30, from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Mali and Greece. To qualify for participation the students had to speak English and be resident in the Attica area; the gender balance was also taken into account in the allocation of places.
The migrants who participated in the initiative came from facilities just outside of Athens. For them, it was an opportunity to shake off the one-dimensional identity of ‘refugee’ and return to a student life.
The courses were led by tutors sent by the European Council, who held sessions on human rights and citizenship, and by lecturers from Greek universities, who volunteered their services to hold courses on the Greek and English languages, European history and culture and, in honour of the venue, even sports lessons.
In addition to the educational aspect, the days were an opportunity for meeting and integration, going beyond the themes of learning and bringing together the students and their teachers – in some cases not much older – on a human level. The dinners and evening entertainment where the traditional dances of the various countries were demonstrated by the students themselves helped to break the language and cultural barriers.
The Greek Ministry for Education has made an impressive commitment to set up schools for children under the age of six in all refugee centres and to run classes for children over that age in the schools closest to each centre. Of course, we all know – the Greek government best of all – that the refugee crisis in Greece calls for a more wholesale approach and economic and social measures that go beyond what Greece alone can implement. However, this ‘small’ gesture certainly has a very clear political message: investing in culture, education and training allows us to bring about the citizenship and social advancement to which everyone is entitled.
Greece’s Minister Anagnostopoulou, in recognition of the work that the transform! europe foundation has carried out in recent years in the struggle for a Europe based on rights, invited us to participate in this initiative and in the final debate. She also values our input into creating and rolling out this experience.
The closing ceremony was attended by a number of notable figures, including: the deputy minister for education, the general secretary for migrants, the chancellors of the universities of Thessaloniki, Patras and Thessaly, the vice chancellor of Athens University, the vice chancellor of the Free University of Greece, the president of the Scientific Committee for the Education of Refugees, representatives from the ministry, university lecturers and a representative from the European Council. This final session was an opportunity to explain to the young attendees how the Greek university system works and how foreign students can access it.
The transform! session was an opportunity to show appreciation for an initiative that takes a different approach to refugees but, above all, an opportunity to thank the Greek people who, in spite of their own very difficult circumstances, have nevertheless made refugees feel welcome, showing a capacity for humanity that today’s Europe seems to lack.
The Mediterranean, the cradle of our civilisation, has long been a cultural melting pot and today is no different. Different cultures have mixed in the past and still do today as people cross the sea and borders either for trade or through necessity. Europe, which has been a force for stability in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean for decades, no longer plays that role. If it wants to survive, it must take up its central position once more, putting an emphasis on the human relations that this mutual influence creates.
We live in strange times, where money and the markets can cross borders and move around easily, yet people are constrained and limited to their current circumstances, with no opportunity to create a better future for themselves or their family. The European Union finances research and exchange projects through the universities of member states with one hand, while with the other it refuses the opportunity of entry and integration to young people who have left the universities of their countries for political or economic reasons.
The pilot of this summer school project opens up the way to overcoming this hypocrisy and acknowledging the value that can be gained through including these young people in our university systems. In real terms, this contact also creates a direct relationship with their countries of origin. We have seen this happen in the past when emigrants who had left Europe in search of a brighter future established a direct link with their home countries which, both then and now, brings financial remittance and the benefit of mutual cultural exchange.
Culture, school and university play an important role in this process of integration. Hence the Greek ministry’s commitment, supported by transform!, to support this practice, and to roll it out to other European universities, increasing participation by both young migrants and European students.
Having also attended history lessons on Ancient Greece, I am now even more convinced that genuine European citizenship is gained through awareness of the history and culture that each country brings with it – a heritage that combines to enrich a collective identity. An identity that needs young people to build a model that provides an alternative on both the cultural and economic levels. Changing the circumstances of migrants and of European citizens means taking profit out of the equation and replacing it with human relations. To do this, we need to build an alliance with those who, when escaping from war and hunger, ‘choose’ Europe as a place where they can reach fulfilment. Antonio Gramsci’s words are just as relevant to today’s struggle to create a better world as they were when he addressed encouragement during difficult times to the young people of his day: ‘study, because we will need all your intelligence.’