It was early October when Sofia Kouvelaki, CEO of The Home Project, a nonprofit organization that supports unaccompanied refugee children, connected with Athens College online. That afternoon she was scheduled to speak to a group of sixth graders in a very special presentation. That was not only because she herself had been a pupil at the school, but also because, since September, three of “her children” who are being accommodated at Home Project shelters, a girl from Pakistan and two boys from Afghanistan, were among those sixth graders. The path getting them there was littered with challenges and took more than two years.
That afternoon, the students were already sitting at their desks waiting to listen to her as a part of their social studies course. Kouvelaki started talking about the children she and her colleagues host at the organization’s 14 shelters. Children their age, whose parents are being persecuted in their homelands and who set off on a difficult journey all by themselves. Children who often overcome difficulties not even the bravest adults have ever faced. “Three of these brave children are among you right now, you know,” she told them. She later heard the children proudly saying to their classmates that she was talking about them. Relieved, she was at last starting to see for herself what the people at Athens College and the shelters had been saying every day: that their adjustment was going well.
The first contacts with the school took place in 2018. They had created, together with Richard Jackson, at that time president of the nonprofit, “The School Project,” in which 25 children from the shelters attended a series of classes on Saturdays with a few teachers and 45 students from Athens College as mentors. At some point in 2019, Jackson and Kouvelaki discussed the possibility that some of these children might enroll in the school as students.
Kouvelaki turned to Ed Shapiro, trustee for The Shapiro Foundation and a contributor to The Home Project. He immediately volunteered not only to financially support the children’s preparation for the entrance exams but also to pay their tuition fees. Meanwhile, they selected five children from the shelters who were going to stay in Greece, were of the right age (to join the first grade of middle school), and, most importantly, who loved school and were good students. The children studied for the exams but didn’t manage to pass them.
At The Home Project, they thought that they’d missed their chance, but a few months later they received another call from the school. Professor Costas Synolakis, who had just become the school’s new president, had been informed by his predecessor about the project and was determined to go on with it. “Because this is exactly what Athens College is,” he explained to Kathimerini. “Our basic principle and goal is that the school represents the whole of Greek society. This has always been the case with the scholarship program, which has been giving children from families with limited financial means the chance to study at Athens College. So we felt that the time had come to include these unaccompanied children that have been living in our country in recent years,” he stresses.
Synolakis managed to secure a scholarship from a donor for this attempt and the school undertook the preparation of three children from The Home Project. At the shelters, nobody could believe how goal-oriented the children were. And the result? They took the exams and all of them passed. Not wanting to have to choose one child who would have the opportunity to study at the top-class school using the scholarship, which had already been secured, Kouvelaki turned to the friends of The Home Project. On the same day, two of the school’s alumni, who wish to remain anonymous, offered to cover the fees for the other two children.
The next morning they called the three youngsters to tell them the good news. The children stared at them, shocked. The girl teared up but one of the boys remained in a thoughtful silence for a while. “The way you are helping us, this is how we’re going to help others in the future. That’s the way the world moves,” he told them as he was leaving.
Of course, everybody knew that the project would run into difficulties. It needed coordination and a lot of effort, not only from the children – who had never even been to a school before coming to Greece a few years ago – but also from the team which was established to support them, with members both from The Home Project and Athens College, by staying constantly in touch regarding every issue that might arise. “It’s important that these children be successful – important for them but also for our school. Our goal is that they become flag-bearers of this project, which we hope will continue,” explains Synolakis.
During their first days at school, the children didn’t say much about their experience, but the staff and youngsters at The Home Project understood they were excited. One day staff from the shelter called the school asking for more school uniforms, because they didn’t have time to wash them. The children wouldn’t take them off, even on weekends. As the weeks went by and after entering the afternoon program of remedial teaching, their progress was amazing. They were covering their educational gaps, one boy found out that he liked Ancient Greek, the other that he liked mathematics.
Soccer and athletics
The real progress, however, was happening at the social level. The girl, who had always dreamed about playing soccer, is now part of the Athens College soccer team and has made friends that she meets even outside school. At first the boys were shy and used to play only with each another at recess, but they have now joined the athletics and soccer teams and have made friends there too. All three are proud they got into Athens College and are determined to make a success of it.
Back at the shelter, they had to find a new balance: “It’s important that none of the other children feels that we’re treating these three any differently, and at the same time that none of these particular children feels inferior at school,” they explain. They faced this problem when they had to help them with their homework, despite the fact that other children at the shelter needed help as well, and when they had to buy some rather expensive sports equipment, especially since some of the children that have recently arrived at the shelters have not managed to enroll in a public school because of the bureaucracy.
“But these three children remain down to earth, they understand the chance that they’ve been given and they have become role models for the others at the shelters,” they explain from The Home Project. They are helping the other children with their homework, while three more children are preparing to take the entrance exams for Athens College next year.
Synolakis underlines that these three children are positive role models at Athens College too. As is natural, they have started sharing stories about their lives, and this is a priceless life lesson for their classmates. “They are learning actively about coexistence and solidarity, religious and racial differentiations,” he stresses. Himself a graduate of the school, he knows that this is the College’s soul: being open to a society which is constantly changing. “By giving the chance to these three children and later on to others, we hope that Athens College will show the way. That we have to embrace them, to include them, and to acculturate them into the Greek society. And we, as a school, we will be very proud when we will see them making progress in our country,” he concludes.