Open Schools Program Builds Bridges for Syrian Teenagers

Twice a week, 15 teenage refugees make their way to Athens’ historic neighborhood of Plaka to attend the Open Schools course English Through Comic Books” offered at the 1st Experimental High School.

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“We consciously targeted this age group [13-18] because teenagers are the most neglected group – the lost generation,” said Mara Vandorou, one of the four teachers of the course. “We had specific goals: to create an inviting, safe environment and develop a framework where, on specific days and times they had a commitment to honor and, of course, enhance language skills.” The course was also co-created and taught by Dimitra Adamopoulou, Sofia Berlis, Georgia Oikonomidou and Lida Tsene.

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The City of Athens Development and Destination Management Agency’s Accommodation and Social Services Scheme for Asylum Seekers, part of ESTIA, partnered with Comicdom press to co-create a program addressed to young refugees from vastly different backgrounds, to help bridge their learning gaps as they learn to live in a new city.

The aim is to not only boost reading and comprehension skills, but also to improve emotional intelligence, offering a safe, welcoming environment outside of their homes in local Greek society. The Open Schools program helps to remove barriers and offer opportunities for teenagers to interact with one another, share in new experiences and discover connections.

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“Getting out and walking through Plaka’s streets to the school gives me such a warm feeling because the area is like being home for a bit,” says 17-year old Emad, as he describes the similarities between his former home in the the Souq Al-Hamidiya area of Damascus and the Athens neighborhood. Since arriving in Greece his only activities have been the Open Schools program and meeting with his friends from the class once a week to play football.

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More than 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers currently live in the Attica region, with an additional 7,500 living in cities in the rest of Greece, as a part of the UN’s ESTIA housing program. In April 2018, Open Schools was recognized by the Council of Europe as a best practice for integration, while, along with other Athens Partnership initiatives such as the Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee Issues, it was also acknowledged in the City’s recognition as the “2018 European Capital of Innovation”.

Rami, a 16-year old participant in the course says, “Language is a tool and I have seen how it makes me richer. I now use it to interact with Greeks with more confidence.” He added that the lesson is as much about learning as it is about a chance to meet up with new friends and hang out in different parts of the city. When asked if there was anything he disliked about the class, he said: “The idea that it may not continue to be offered once this round of activities ends.”

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Children’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.