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Welcome Notes program manager Anna Swinkels wrote about her experiences during one of our workshops in Greece, last April. Consider listening to the moving results of these workshops during or after reading: ‘This is My Life‘ and ‘Be Strong, Feel Free‘.

The stark, barren, grayness of it all hits you like a brick. The camp, about an hour’s travel from the center of Athens, is in an industrial area surrounded by trash. The sensation it gives off is one that says: ‘you are not welcome here’.

Walking into a camp for the first time is daunting. Through the gate, after passing security, are rows of grey housing containers and tents, recently added as more people were placed here, exceeding the camp’s capacity. It’s dusty. Dogs are asleep in the middle of the road, cats scurry away behind containers. A few children play outside and chase one of the cats. It’s very quiet, until suddenly an announcement in Greek bursts through crackling speakers throughout the camp. There seems little to no reaction to the message.

We’re shown to the workshop space: a tiny, gray container with a couple of ramshackle chairs and school tables for small children. There are some children’s books and the gray walls are masked by drawings of houses with rainbows and posters of puppies and kittens. There’s only one window, but the pane is broken. With that one window all taped up, the space is stuffy and dark, so in order to keep some air flowing, we continually have to kick the door of the container back open.

Crammed into the tiny space, we start the workshop with 15 young boys. It’s chaotic, and they’re having a hard time focusing. Luckily, we have help from a “cultural mediator,” a camp resident who supports with translations where needed. The boys are shy at first, but the walls crumble bit by bit, as the sheer energy of the rappers pulls them into the flow of the beat.

I find myself questioning what we’re offering – there is so much more that should and could be done, if only the political will and support was there. The bare essentials are met, but there’s a huge need for more structure, to give these boys any real chance at building a future.

The reality is that when these boys turn 18, most of them will likely end up alone in the center of Athens, struggling to survive. In Greece, there is no overarching policy, no political will and no capacity to tackle the larger issues of inclusion, education and long-term integration. The sense of not feeling welcome or supported is felt throughout the camp, and also sensed by the people  working hard every day to offer the best support they can under these harrowing circumstances. 

This country, battling economic problems since the crash, has been left to deal with huge numbers of people seeking refuge over the last few years. But in all this chaos, I have yet to meet people who don’t want to offer support. Most of them give their all, day after day, trying to make a difference, often themselves on the edge of being unable to continue.

For the final day of this workshop, we’ve built a makeshift home studio in the container so we can record the song. The change in the group is palpable. The young boys, who have worked on their own lyrics and practiced the chorus, are focused and taking this exciting process very seriously.

The final part of the recording is the chorus, rapped in unison by the whole group. The energy in the room suddenly lifts, and the little container feels electrified. Our team put together a first version of the song on the spot.

When we listen back to the recording, most of the boys try to keep their cool. But when they actually hear the lyrics they wrote and recorded themselves, their eyes light up and big smiles creep up on their faces. I can suddenly see how young they actually are. Just a group of kids, proud to have made something real and tangible! Their thoughts and dreams captured in a recording. Their voices heard. And my question– about the value of our work here– answered.