Resilient Refugee Adolescents in Athens, Greece, finding hope and restoring their lives

A Model of Care for the World: Irida, one of the HOME Project Shelters, is a Humanitarian Shelter helping resourceful boys heal their wounds in an environment of love and respect.

By Martha L Vallejo

During the fall of 2015 while attending the Harvard Global Mental Health Trauma and Recovery Program in Orvieto, a few miles from Rome, I was touched by Sofia Kouvelaki’ s talk on the impact of the Refugee Crisis in her native country, Greece. Her compassion and clear vision about the needs of unaccompanied refugee children reflects my own quest as a Clinical Social Worker to continue my mission toward helping unaccompanied immigrant minors in the United States.

Sofia Kouvelaki is one of Greece’s most outstanding leaders working to alleviate the suffering of refugees arriving in her country. She is committed to the plight of unaccompanied minors, among other groups of refugees. In August 2016, The Home Project via its partners on the ground Medical Intervention, ARSIS and Together for Children began the operation of IRIS, a shelter for unaccompanied refugee minors.

Unaccompanied refugee children account for a high percentage of refugees arriving in Greece after a perilous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea.  The HOME Project professionals provide a safe environment, protection, social inclusion and support to these resilient and open-hearted adolescents fleeing violence from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries.

Neuroscience researchers have confirmed that early and repeated exposure to violence impacts brain development and maintains children in a state of emotional deregulation, making it difficult for them to respond in a calm manner to life stimuli, learning and social environment challenges. Parallel to this impact, Bruce Perry, MD and Neuroscience expert who has specialized in children exposed to violence, gives us hope when he concludes that the brain also can adapt and improve quickly when children are given the support they need. He stated “I’ve seen many instances in which children with extreme trauma stories and seemingly insurmountable deficits catch up to their chronological age remarkably fast” when caring human support is provided.

The HOME Project cares about the children it hosts. Its professionals are committed to cutting-edge neuroscience principles of providing safety and human connection and developing values of dignity and respect that help these children heal at their own pace.  The Irida shelter staff provides a loving home environment that allows unaccompanied refugee children to integrate into Greek society and its diverse community, while aspiring with them for a safe future and guiding them toward the goal of becoming productive members of our global community.

Seventeen boys ages 12-17, from different countries live together in a comfortable two-story house in the middle of bustling and diverse Athens. The boys use public transportation to attend school daily; their difficult process of learning a new language and adapting to school is supported by tutors at the home who regularly teach the refugee children English and Greek.

It is also widely understood by human development experts that human connection heals and makes individuals believe and trust others. This trust helps these young victims of violence reconnect with themselves and creatively develop life paths. The unaccompanied refugee children at the HOME Project face daily uncertainties due to laws, the impossibility of leaving Greece and family separation. The HOME Project professionals and staff are masters at deep listening and respect for the normal individual processes of frustration these children experience.  Their consistent respectful response to the refugee children facilitates predictable safe relationships that promote self-regulating emotional skills, giving the children space to calm their minds and strengthen their spirits. Every child distresses about asylum appointments, communication with family members in other countries, health issues and recreational desires, among many other needs, and they all receive caring guidance and attention.  

The freedom these boys experience traveling around the city and engaging with friends in their free time also helps these adolescent boys develop responsible behavior regarding curfews and daily schedules. 

The HOME Project staff members are consistently developing creative ways of connecting the boys to different community activities.  The boys play soccer with teams in different fields throughout the city, facilitating intercultural integration. They also attend educational and art gallery activities and develop intercultural and guided healing events that connect them with a diverse world.

This respectful and dignified human model of providing a caring home for refugee adolescents needs to be divulged and emulated around the world.  It follows a humanitarian perspective of the dignity and care all human beings deserve. Contrary to this model, refugee and immigrant children are criminalized and detained after crossing borders in many countries, including the United States.

My life and clinical social work experience, providing social services to unaccompanied immigrant minors in the southeastern United States, was positively impacted and enriched.  The countless lessons of human kindness and commitment I learned from the selfless and giving professionals, I worked with for 17 rewarding days, when I visited the HOME Project shelter, have given me great hope for the future.

Moreover, these outstanding professionals are touching the lives of these amazing refugee boys by creating an oasis for peace and healing, following the outstanding principles of human rights once developed by ancient Greek philosophers. The stories of survival and hope these children exhibit are true examples of courage that illuminate our lives and roles as social workers and agents of change in this turbulent world.

Martha L Vallejo is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Florida.  She has provided social work services for unaccompanied minors in Florida, US, for the last 12 years.

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