Virva Muotka, Training Manager at the Axxell Multicultural Centre, was one of the participants in the trip to Thessaloniki. She describes the current situation in voluntary work in Greece and at a refugee camp in the country’s second largest city.
The Kotoverkon Laatuhaavi project was coordinated by Axxell, an educational institution specialising in training provided in Swedish, and charted new pedagogic models that could improve the quality of integration training provided to adult immigrants and consequently improve learning results. This was done both by expanding the international co-operation network and by making study trips to different European countries. Destinations included, for instance, the Netherlands and England.
However, one of the latest study trips in the project was to Greece. The purpose of the trip was to offer teaching personnel from organisations that arrange immigrant education and training in Finland the chance to learn more about volunteering in the field of integration training, at the invitation of the municipality of Thessaloniki and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
One of the participants was Virva Muotka, Training Manager at the Axxell Multicultural Centre, who tells us that, from the outset, the trip turned into a true adventure.
“Our project received the invitation from eminent parties in Greece: the municipality of Thessaloniki and UNHCR. However, when we arrived at the destination we found out that the person who was supposed to host our visit had mixed up the weeks and was on holiday. In a sense, we were left to our own devices,” says Muotka.
“I had done some advance investigation myself and knew, for instance, that there are refugee camps in the Thessaloniki region. So, we took the initiative into our own hands, contacted the UNHCR camp in Anagnostopoulou and local voluntary organisations and arranged meetings.”
Wars also destroy countries’ education and training structures
According to Virva Muotka, one of the themes of the trip was to seek an answer as to why malaise seems to have clearly increased among immigrants. She says that during the past few years, many integration training professionals have noticed that restlessness in learning situations has increased: managerial work has become more educational and disciplinary in nature, more about teaching basic things to adults. Professionals have not seen anything like this before.
“We realised something about why the people in the target group of our activities feel so bad and why they do not remain seated and have energy for studying, for instance. They come from countries where the education and training structure has been destroyed by war. This situation may already have produced several age groups without any education or training. It takes time to get back into the rhythm of studies.”
“In addition, we had the shared realisation that here in Europe, we still have thousands and thousands of people in tents behind fences. This kind of treatment does not do good to anyone. There is a lot of talk about there being no money for helping refugees, but what is truly expensive is to let them become anxious and embittered in tents around the year,” comments Muotka.
Muotka also describes their visit to the UNHCR refugee camp in Thessaloniki. During the visit, there was a demonstration at the camp due to substandard conditions and bed bug infestations affecting children, for instance.
“A total of 45,000 people are stuck in Greece, the majority of them still at camps. However, this is not Greece’s fault. The solidarity and willingness to help we witnessed there was simply incredible, but Greece cannot accomplish everything alone. It’s more about Europe’s lack of political will to do something about this. We will never get over that visit.”
In Greece, help is based on voluntary work
Although the experiences that Virva Muotka and the other participants of the Kotoverkon Laatuhaavi trip had of the refugee situation in Greece were extremely alarming, they also witnessed a lot of unselfish willingness to help during the trip.
Greece does not have a ministry of immigration or any social system that would look after refugees arriving in the country and needing help. Legislation to facilitate the situation is only being drafted. As official resources are insufficient, a great deal of help is provided by volunteers.
“In Thessaloniki, food is delivered by bike to hundreds of people daily. Gardens have been established on the outskirts of the city for growing berries for sandwich marmalade, for instance. And I saw myself how an old lady walking with a stick brought a pot of meat stew to the square every day and distributed food for as long as there was any,” says Muotka.
A solution for refugee accommodation has been sought by assigning empty apartments to asylum seekers and paying compensation to Greeks who take asylum seekers as their subtenants but there is no money for food as structures are missing. For this reason, volunteers have become organised in particular in the field of food services.
“In addition, we visited the City Plaza luxury hotel at the heart of the city. Leftist radicals occupied the vacant hotel in 2015 and turned it into a refugee centre run by volunteers. They said that if there are people in distress, they need to be helped respectfully and not left out in the rain in tents. Now the hotel is full of refugees and they are also provided with education and training there”
We all can do something
According to Virva Muotka, encountering people respectfully is the key. Education and training are crucial as they help people to achieve at least some kind of a daily rhythm. They also get a chance to feel that they are treated as human beings, respectfully.
“It is about providing opportunities and about all of us having both rights and obligations. The significance of education and training does not consist of just some abstract learning objectives but respect for the individual. If we Europeans believed that those people living in tents were future taxpayers, we would certainly provide them with something to do.”
“Our trip also yielded the insight that we all can do something. For instance, everyone can check their cupboards for extra clothes and toys and send them to where no one has anything. We teachers could apply for ESF funding for training volunteers to teach language, culture and the Latin alphabet. Education and training play a key role.”
“And money is not the decisive factor. The one who claims that the rich Europe cannot afford to help those in need talks nonsense,” summarises Virva Muotka.
text: Juha Wakonen