Volunteers bring hope to children in a disadvantaged Athenian neighborhood

Fancy restaurants and cars alongside simple houses. Apartment blocks with penthouses that break up the fabric of the neighborhood. Around 150 families who came to Athens years ago from Komotini live in Gazi, Metaxourgeio, Votanikos and Kato Petralona. Among the conditions of life are a high level of absenteeism from school, marriage at as young as 13-14 for girls and 18 for boys, a certain incidence of domestic violence and high unemployment. These could be a recipe for delinquency and social marginalization, but the local children do go to school and sit for university entrance examinations. That is thanks to the Roads of Life volunteer organization, which undertook in 1996 to educate the children. At first they offered tuition at home, then they set up an informal school, which Costas and Mata Varla have made their life’s work. The primary objective of their work is that children must be educated and socialized and get some organization into their lives. They need to learn that there is more to life than their neighborhood or Komotini (where conditions are even more difficult). They need to look at an atlas and learn about other places. They need to learn the history of times past and learn to dream about the future. When one of the few young mothers who went to Roads of Life to learn to read and write left the neighborhood, she returned to express her surprise, «I didn’t know the roads have so much to say.» Dreams are missing from the lives of the young children in the neighborhood. The majority are Muslims, but there is a girl from Albania, two Greek teenagers, and boys from Poland and Romania. Some of them bring along their parents now. Eleven years ago, Mata used to chase some of the Muslim children down the alleyways to grab them and take them back to the school. At that time the parents were non-committal. They assumed that Roads of Life was another harsh school that would tell them they were bad parents and that their children couldn’t manage. Besides, they could see no financial benefit. But gradually they began to trust the school, especially the mothers, who work as rag collectors and cleaners. They could see how learning to read and write could save their children from a fate of unemployment and social exclusion. One of the children set up his own webpage, downloaded songs from the Internet and became an electronic DJ, sending music to his friends in Komotini. One year at Christmas he came to Athens with his family. He went downtown, but found it frightening because he didn’t speak Greek. The Varlas remember fondly how they spent months helping him with the language. In September that year they enrolled him in primary school, the last year, because of his age. The following year, when he had to repeat the first year of junior high school, he sought out volunteers who could help him. He commented that he liked Homer, to the amazement of Mata, who remembered that only two years earlier he had learnt the alphabet. At the end of each school year, the volunteers from Roads of Life take the children on an excursion to the seaside. That summer they took them to Varkiza, next to the private beach, sectioned off by a rope. That boy didn’t have a swimsuit; he hadn’t even seen the sea before, and he was trembling with fear. But he grasped the rope and by the end of the excursion had managed to walk into the water with the help of the rope. «That boy will get ahead,» Mata thought at the time, and she announced proudly that he is now studying at the Sivitanideio Technical College. Around 80 volunteers not only help the children with their schoolwork, but also teach them handcrafts, pottery, theater and music. Their recompense is being significant in those children’s lives. Recently, when Roads of Life acquired a new space, a 16-year-old boy who works at a metalwork shop on Athinas Street and attends night school asked what he could do to help. Help and love come from hundreds of other people. As volunteer Tina Stavrou explained: «We don’t want philanthropy but social solidarity. When you become aware of what is inside you, you can give and feel happy.» That is what has kept the organization going for 11 years. Money to cover the rent comes from the Christmas bazaar, where they sell everything from homemade pasta and tsipouro from Crete and Thessaloniki to carobs from Cyprus. One Greek woman comes every year from the Netherlands to shop at the bazaar, which has become known through Tina’s blog. Others undertake to pay for the music school, where the children, many of whom have a talent for music, can learn violin and drums. A girl of 14 who left primary school after the third year, started doing lessons at Roads of Life and later went back to school. At the end of the year there is a party where the children put on a play. This year, actor-director Giorgos Kimoulis gave them the use of a theater and the children performed five Eastern fairy stories. They made their own costumes and sets. The girls sang and one thrilled the audience with her voice; now she wants to study at the music school. Her community has other expectations – two friends of hers are already married with children – but she has her own dream.

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