Students Experienced Greek Refugee Crisis by Volunteering at Athens Nonprofits
A Greek refugee crisis-oriented study abroad during spring break 2018, developed by Virginia Commonwealth University’s “VCU Globe” and Athena Study Abroad, has been named a finalist for the “Innovation in Cultural Awareness” award from GoAbroad.com.
Nicknamed the “Athena/VCU Globe in Greece,” the program offered its participants a unique opportunity to learn about Greek culture, the refugee situation and responses in Greece, and to serve the refugee populations within Athens. VCU recently decided to schedule this study abroad program again for March 2020.
Students devoted about 20 hours of service, hosted by Athena and its refugee crisis partners in Greece, to volunteering with the Pampiraiki Warehouse and City Plaza Refugee Accommodation. Students also took a close look at the development and organization of responses to the refugee crisis through: visits and discussions with a local nonprofit, The Orange House shelter; lecture-based visits to migrant neighborhoods of Athens; and a visit to the US Embassy. Students’ goal was to understand the culturally specific development of organizations affected by immigrant population needs and local customs, attitudes and values.
City Plaza originated as an abandoned hotel, which was reclaimed by local anarchist groups and converted in to a veritable refugee complex. Volunteers and refugees live together, performing daily chores to operate the facility’s kitchen, non-alcoholic bar and activity space, schools and classrooms, and housing. Students assisted in the kitchen, cleaning and common room areas. The Pampiraiki Warehouse and Distribution Center accepts, sorts and distributes donations from around the world to refugee camps and grassroots houses in Greece. It is the mina center in Athens for donations and aid. Students helped to fill food and clothing orders and to rearrange packing in a more useful way for shipments to camps.
Orange House is a shelter providing housing for women and children in particular. It focuses on services and aid for groups that are less advantaged or traditionally discriminated against, such as LGBTQ refugees. Orange House works predominantly on providing a healthy psychological environment by facilitating learning activities and creative programs. Its director is an American volunteer, Marina Liakis.
Athena/VCU Globe in Greece also included culture trips (including lectures) to ancient Greek sites, modern multicultural market visits, and interaction between students from VCU’s Virginia and Qatar campuses.
VCU faculty, aided by Athena staff, debriefed students to help them approach the challenging questions that the refugee crisis elicits on personal and international levels, and to help them share their different experiences absorbing life abroad. Finally, students were encouraged to reflect on the productive and inspiring efforts of local individuals and groups to uphold the Greek value of hospitality by helping neighbors in need, despite complex political and social tensions at hand.
VCU Globe is a four-year program that includes its own curriculum: a one-credit orientation course, five one-credit globally-focused seminars, a special section of a core course (UNIV 200) or an approved alternative, and one 3-credit course from an approved list. The VCU Globe program also requires students to live for two years in a specified residence hall (West Grace North), complete at least 40 hours of service, demonstrate experience in cultural immersion, attend 10 VCU Globe events, and submit curricular and co-curricular portfolios, and meet minimum GPA requirements.