"My child is happier, calmer, and more involved in everyday life"

Mothers of children with special needs talk about  Athens Open Schools

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A significant portion of the 500 free Athens Partnership Open Schools activities, offered in 20 neighborhoods, are targeted to disconnected residents. Creative activities for children with autism and pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) include sports, painting, music and storytelling, aimed at children ages 7 to 14. At the 9th Special Primary School in Goudi, these activities are facilitated by special instructors from the Epilogi social enterprise.

We spoke with a newly formed group of 7 mothers from different neighborhoods in Athens, who bring their children each week to Goudi. Here are some words they shared over coffee in a neighboring café about their experiences.

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AP: What brought you to Athens Open Schools?

Katerina:  Before my experience at Athens Open Schools, I had not come in contact with other parents of children with autism, despite the fact that my child attends a special school. As a result, I usually felt lonely and marginalized associating with other parents. Through my son's involvement in this activity, I have now met parents who face the same daily challenges as I do and, most importantly, my child is happier, calmer, and more involved in everyday life.

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Anna: There are not many organizations that offer free activities for children with special needs, and it is difficult for parents to always pay for something that should be provided free of charge, such as Athens Open Schools. It is not easy for me to travel here from home, which is in another part of Athens, but honestly, this is of no importance, when I see my child enjoying himself, socializing and making new friends.

AP: What has your child gained from this activity?

Maralenda: My son is more tranquil, his obsessions and stereotypical behaviours have receded. He functions better within a team and has more appetite for play. As for myself, I also came out of my shell, because I had closed up a lot; I have met other moms and started socializing again.

Violetta: It is the third year that my child has taken part in this program and during that time he has opened up socially- he is trying new activities, such as exercise. I have also met other people and made new friends.

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Christina: Through this activity, my son now expresses himself more with me as well as other people. In addition, I have gained some free time for myself.

AP: What else has the Athens Open Schools program brought to the neighborhood?

Aspasia: Because the school remains open late, there is a guard and the courtyard is filled with people, it’s safer for all of us walk around the neighborhood.

To support these families through Open Schools and other AP public programs, please donate now.

 

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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“English Through Comic Books” is the result of a cooperation between the Accommodation and Social Services Scheme for Asylum Seekers, part of ESTIA, which is realized through the City of Athens’ Development and Destination Management Agency and Comicdom press, with the aim of cocreating 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.

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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 through 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. 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. 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.

The Athens Open Schools program of the City of Athens operates with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation as founding donor, with the coordination of the Athens Partnership and the John S. Latsis Public Benefit Foundation as Activities Donor, under the Vice Mayor for the Child.

The action is an initiative of the Accommodation and Social Services Scheme for Asylum Seekers, with the collaboration of Comicdom Press, and was implemented within the framework of Athens Open Schools.

The course was co-organized and taught by Dimitra Adamopoulou (Comicdom Press), Sophia Berli (EATA), Georgia Economou (EATA), Mara Vandorou (EATA) and Leda Tsene (Comicdom Press). The action was supported by the Interpreters of the Accommodation and Services Program for Asylum Seekers, Nabil Papadopoulos, Reem Jayusi, Elena Chatilari and Amgad Faik.

European distinction for AP-coordinated Open Schools program

The Council of Europe’s latest handbook on “Promoting Human Rights at the Local and Regional Level” includes the City of Athens’ Open Schools, a program coordinated by the Athens Partnership based on an exclusive grant by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, as a best-practice example for promoting the smooth integration of refugee children. The Handbook presents 65 good practices implemented in over 25 countries all over Europe, aiming at showing how Local and Regional Authorities can implement initiatives that make human rights a tangible reality at the grassroots level.

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The Council of Europe’s handbook states:

"By transforming 25 public schools into centres for scientific, creative and sports activities, as well as for language courses for Athenians and refugees, the city of Athens managed to bring together refugee and Greek children, increase the involvement and interaction of neighbourhoods and local schools in the refugee integration process and offer refugee children a safe environment where they can learn and spend time outside of their accommodation centres.

In 2015, the city of Athens launched the initiative “Open schools”, a programme aiming to transform the local public schools in the municipality of Athens into centres for sports, creative learning, language courses and other activities for all Athenians and refugees. With this initiative, the school buildings remain open from the end of school hours until 9:30 p.m. on weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends. Not only do the workshops enhance language skills and cultural understanding of refugee children, but they also contribute to a direct exchange among newcomers and resident population at all age levels. Using the school buildings to host creative workshops for all ages, revitalises the spaces and brings the local community together in an effort to increase the involvement and interaction between neighbourhoods and local schools. The programme is led by the city of Athens and financed by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

During the summer of 2016, 450 out of the 1,250 participants in activities of the open schools were refugees. Today the initiative comprises 25 public schools in the municipality of Athens and numbers 170 courses with a total of 10,184 participants.”