I arrived in Athens knowing nothing. I only had a vague hope of wanting to help someone, in a small way. I had read the news articles and viral social media opinions over and over: there were refugee children dying on boats and our governments were not doing much about it. If I truly cared about the situations of displaced people, I knew I needed to act in a more proactive way than sharing a Facebook article. I was tired of social media masking action. My share made no difference.
I joined a volunteer group called Artists in Transit, founded by Molly Daniel. The purpose of the project was to bring art classes to child refugees, but I soon saw that it was much more than that. It was a resistance to subjecting children to an adult world. It was a declaration of a child’s right to be a child. Such a basic right; but one that these children were being robbed of.
I’ve never seen joy like it. When we arrived at the squat each morning, we soon realized that we needed to stay as quiet as possible so we did not draw attention to ourselves. If the word travelled that we had arrived, a stampede of kids would ensue. Some were two, others, fifteen, all excited at what many children would find in their cupboards: paper, pencils, and paints. Simple things that represented being a child.
The one or two hours that we ran the daily workshops would be intense. We would so easily forget that many of these children were children of war, and occasionally grew impatient, expecting them to behave the same as an eight year old with years of classroom training under their belt. We were later told that many of the children we were teaching had arrived from Mosul, which until recently was under ISIS occupation, and they were some of the most traumatized children that the local volunteers had encountered.
“My friend, gimme!”
We, with naïve but good intentions, requested that they say “please” and “thank you”, forgetting that the only English words that most children knew were “my friend, gimme.” They were apparently the only three words a child needed to survive in an overpopulated art class. They worked.
We underestimated the children’s ability to make any combination of colors an ugly shade of purple-brown. But we also underestimated their ability to observantly create beautiful paintings, to transform from boisterous to tranquil, retreating into their own world so easily within the medium of art.
Beyond the computer screens
I was living in the real world, then. I was not sitting behind a screen, desensitizing myself to what is really happening out there. I met the most wonderful family, a father and two sons. Somehow, the 6 year old and I would talk without a single word successfully exchanged. We would point and motion and laugh together with mutual understanding. Like most refugees, their situation was difficult because they had no sense of permanence: they were “safe” in Athens, yes, but they were living in a squat with no access to education, privacy, security, or work. I wanted to help them get out of this situation but I felt powerless to do so. We said goodbye and keep in touch on facebook.
The path forward
Months later I would be sitting in a car driving through the United States, careless and complacent, as though travel was everybody’s right. I started to think about this family and how their life is now. On a long car ride I entered a deep daydream about ways I could help them. I imagined them going to school, learning new languages, the youngest son smiling and speaking his first words of English to me. I then awoke to the road before me, entering back to the reality of how these simple dreams for them were vastly unrealistic because of the unfairness of this world. Instead of unbounded freedom I felt this sense of hurtling; hurtling away in my privilege from the people that I had left behind.
I don’t know the answers, and I don’t know where this family will be in five years, or twenty. But I know that well-intentioned facebook shares and sympathetic likes don’t do very much in a world that is deprived of action. I am still in my bubble and they are in theirs. I’m not sure if that will ever change. But organizations like Artists in Transit are doing so much to support refugee families. The inequalities that refugee children are currently subject to will have implications for decades. If we can at least help children to be children, give them something more to think of than their troubled past, we can mitigate some of this inequality.
If you would like to support the continuation of Artists in Transit workshops, you can do so here.