Victims of Hurricane Katrina being hosted at the American College of Thessaloniki
«Oh, we’re used to hurricanes,» says Kristen Camp, a second-year geology student at the University of New Orleans and one of five displaced Americans now spending a semester abroad at the American College of Thessaloniki (ACT, a division of Anatolia), «but Katrina was different.» At Tulane University, near downtown New Orleans, the freshman class had just arrived and were moving into their dorms, and junior Aiesha Volow was one of those in charge of welcoming them. As weather conditions worsened, the evacuation order came. «We had 12 hours to be out of our rooms. We helped the freshmen leave, then we quickly packed ourselves.» Tulane escaped the worst of the flooding, but sustained considerable damage and is closed for the semester. Nursing undergraduate Alicia Honomichl, 41, was also a student at UNO and a longtime local resident. She was among the last to leave the city and the first to return, as she and her fellow students were needed to assist at St Tammany’s Hospital, which was treating emergency cases. One of the storm victims she helped was a Greek study-abroad student who was severely hurt when the house in which he was staying was crushed by a huge oak tree. Little did she know that a month later she would be invited by that student’s grateful parents to come to Thessaloniki for a visit. The Wylie sisters, Sharon and Carole, were attending Loyola and the University of Mississippi at Oxford, respectively. Katrina struck on freshman Sharon’s first day of college. They evacuated to Jackson and Memphis to stay with friends, where they were not surprised to learn that their schools too would be closed for the semester. «There were 75,000 extra people in Jackson, it was 95 degrees, and there was not much gasoline,» says Carole. «In Memphis, the public schools immediately opened their doors to students from the Coast. But I was disappointed in the response of the government.» Some 72,000 students had been attending New Orleans colleges and universities, and they could not be so readily absorbed by regional institutions. As colleges throughout the country began to admit displaced students, in Thessaloniki Anatolia and ACT President Richard Jackson had an idea. «I thought we too could help. ACT is a US-accredited institution with plenty of experience in providing for study-abroad students. All we needed was funding and a means of identifying suitable students.» The Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation was already responding to the needs of victims of Hurricane Katrina through the Red Cross. When President Jackson proposed bringing some displaced students to Greece, the foundation, already a strong supporter of ACT, immediately agreed to provide three scholarships. Funds for two additional scholarships came from sources in Greece and the USA, including Anatolia trustees, the Malliotis Foundation, and the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But how to find students at universities that had shut down? New Orleans’s communication infrastructure had failed during the storm and was still in sorry shape. Internet search engines and numbers stored on a UNO dean’s cell phone provided the essential links. Anatolia’s Boston office posted news of the scholarships and soon had inquiries. Aiesha Volow of Tulane, an anthropology and theater major who had returned to her family home in California and found the courses at her local college of limited use, was in despair. She responded to the ACT notice on the Internet and was told that it had been posted only minutes before: «When people ask me how I found out about ACT, I reply ‘divine providence.’» The Wylie sisters also learned of the opportunity through the Net. As for the UNO students, they were reached by their dean, Dr Linda Blanton, who had in turn been contacted by Eva Kanellis, Anatolia director of US College Counseling. The «Katrina students» arrived in Greece the last day of September and enrolled in classes that had begun 10 days before. Visas, housing, and academic arrangements were taken care of. Soon the new arrivals were college students again – albeit in Greece, where only one of them had been before. Carole Wylie comments: «I have been studying classical art, history, and literature since the seventh grade, but I had never had a chance to come to Greece and actually see and feel the ancient world. And here I am, drinking coffee next to the Arch of Galerius in downtown Thessaloniki.» Reaction to ACT classes is enthusiastic. «My Anthropology of Tourism class is wonderful, with a great professor [Dr Aigli Brouskou],» volunteers Alicia Honomichl. «New Orleans and Greece have so much in common when it comes to tourism.» For Aiesha Volow, her courses in Macroeconomics, Psychology, and Ethnographic Accounts of Greek Culture are «right in line with my major, plus I’m in Greece, home of Western theater.» The students are also getting a feel for contemporary Greek language and life. They love Thessaloniki (a port city like the one they left) and are looking forward to getting to know their Greek and Balkan fellow students better. As for the weather, it has been mostly sunny – and dry. Kristen Camp expresses the thoughts of all five Katrina refugees: «When I think of our extraordinary good fortune in being here, and how it came out of so much misfortune for so many, I am amazed, and I feel moved. So many people in America and Greece have reached out to help us. I know we all feel very lucky and very grateful to be here.» (1) Philip Holland is chairman of the English Department at Anatolia College in Thessaloniki.