Greece: Men’s Residence

I love Greek food, but I do not like these little cactus fruits someone in our house has picked up from the grocery store. I’m not actually sure they’re Greek, but I’ve never seen them before.

I try one for breakfast, and not only does it taste dry and full of thick seeds, I feel like I have little shards of Glass in my hand afterward. I’m literally convinced I’ve touched some broken glass or something until one of my house mates explains about the fruit. Who eats fruit that stabs you?! Oh well. I tried something new.
The abandoned school residence is coming together more and more every day. More volunteers are rolling in to help, from our organization as well as independent volunteers and other groups, and everyone is Spanish. This isn’t an exaggeration. With the exception of the two Portuguese volunteers who arrived before us, everyone else is Spanish. I knew coming here with Cesc and his Catalan organization would mean all spaniards in my flat, but I never imagined for a minute that every other volunteer in Athens would be Spanish! Where are the French? Italians? Lord knows the English love to travel. Where is the representation from the other 196 countries? It’s not a bad thing of course, it’s good practice for me, but it’s tough. I get the general idea of what’s going on most of the time, but it’s frustrating not being able to really get involved the way I’d like.

Because we got here earlier than the majority of volunteers, we’ve become the core organizers. Kinda the team leaders, if you will. This is great, but again, tough, because Cesc doesn’t really like being a leader, and I love it but can’t communicate enough to do it!!

It’s nice though because whatever we think is most important to be done, gets done. Donation Mountain is totally transformed and will surely be ready for winter, the kids have a more solid schedule of activities throughout the day, we’ve started some groups for adults, and we’ve been organizing the purchase of food for the whole residence.

The kids lessons are getting much better, but my adults lessons have flopped. Not one person has ever turned up. I spend a lot of time with the kids and try to encourage their parents to come when I see them in the halls, but no one ever shows.

Instead, I’ve started giving private lessons at the single men’s residence down the road. I teach a man my age, 25, who had been studying English back in Syria but had to quit his studies in 2011. His level is already pretty high so he just wants practice speaking with a native English speaker, and to go through some grammar points in a work book he picked up. Easy as pie!

Some street art outside the men’s residence

The men’s residence is like a different world. I said before that the government funded refugee camps looked luxurious compared to the old school…well the men’s residence looks like hell.

The outside is painted a vibrant colour of red, which is nice, but the roof is wavy and drooping down over the door frame. Once through the door, there is a small inner courtyard with various mismatched pieces of broken furniture including a sofa and a couple laundry machines. Inside, I walk through a dimly lit hallway, past the kitchen and then the showers, to a winding metal staircase which leads me to the basement. This hallway isn’t just unlit, but entirely dark, but only for a short while before entering the “classroom”, where there is a light switch. The classroom has one large white board at the head of a long table, suitable for about 20 people. Paper and pens are scattered everywhere, as are mattresses on the floor. There are often men sleeping down here, who to my surprise, don’t seem too bothered by the noise. At 7pm when I come to meet my student, there are usually 4 or 5 other private lessons going on simultaneously. The other lessons are taught by Spanish volunteers to absolute beginners, mostly just going over vocabulary and basic conversation like how to introduce yourself.

I’ve come a long way from my awkward tea encounter on my first day, but I still struggle to find appropriate topics of conversation with my student. In Barcelona I’d ask them about their families, what they do for work, where they’d like to travel or live, for their opinions on world events, what they do in their spare time, etc., but it’s more difficult here. I’m never sure what’s an insensitive question. I don’t want to ask about his family and trigger some horrible memory of losing someone. I have no idea what he’s been through. When I ask about what he does in his spare time, he says he drinks all night, sleeps all day, comes to English class, then does it again. He isn’t excited about it, but he says there’s nothing else to do. I ask why he doesn’t join in on some sports activities with his friends, and he lifts his pant leg to show me his misshapen knee. He tells me he injured it and can’t play sports anymore. I don’t ask how.

Later, a younger, maybe 16 year old boy from the school residence is telling me about a recent fight he was in. He talks about a scrape on his back he got as a result, and removes his shirt to show me. The scrape is pretty bad, sure, but I’m more distracted by the collection of scars that cover his entire torso. There’s one in particular that’s so bad I think it might be a bullet wound, but of course I don’t know, and I don’t ask.

Im struck by what incredibly different lives we have lead; reflecting on my 16 year old body and self, how safe I was and have always been, in contrast with this young man and his experiences. My 25 year old student reminds me of how fortunate I am without having to speak a word. I have the luxury to move freely around the world, the luxury to choose to spend my summer here, while my Syrian counterpart looks back at me from across the table, stuck in this house and this country.

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