Two Weeks in Athens with The Unmentionables

Aoki Lee Simmons, Youth Ambassador

In early June when I arrived in Athens with my family for two weeks of volunteering with The Unmentionables I thought I knew more or less what to expect. Yet, I was quickly relieved of many conscious-and unconscious-assumptions and left touched and surprised by my time with them. When I told family or friends that I planned to spend my summer working with refugees, I know what they pictured, because I pictured it myself. Many of the media images that have come to represent refugee crises around the world; rundown camps, barefoot children playing football in the dust, long and winding assembly lines to dole out the bare essentials. What I did not expect at all was a bright, freshly scrubbed, top floor apartment with a sunny balcony, well organized kitchen and a living room with IKEA furniture, not unlike my own. And people, using smartphones, tending to children, talking over cups of tea, who I found were not very unlike me. This charming, busy space is The Unmentionables Resource Center in Athens. And, I soon learned, representative of the lesser known effects of the Greek refugee crisis.

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What is so wonderful about the Resource Center, is that it is so much more than it appears to be at first glance. When we first walked in, I noticed people talking and drinking tea in the living room, children drawing pictures at a large table, and I could hear the faint mechanic sounds of a laundry machine. I quickly learned that the people in the living room were waiting, for their turn to take a hot shower, bathe their children, or use the laundry machines. The children were participating in art therapy. The instructor explained to me that many of the cheerful kids painting pictures had experienced trauma, hardship and stress. Art therapy presented a non-invasive way to help them recover and simply enjoy being kids. There are other rooms, not visible at first glance: a large, bright classroom where sexual education and health classes are taught, a backroom were free doctors clinics are held, and a shop where material resources are available. I was deeply impressed by the multi-dimensional benefits of the activities at the center. The education classes are taught by members of the forcibly displaced community. They are trained, and then employed by the center to teach others The Unmentionables’ expansive curriculum in their native languages. Therefore, the education program provides not only education, but jobs and job skills.

When you read The Unmentionables’ mission and hear their philosophy of empowerment of refugees, you may think, as I once did, easier said than done. Too often, empowerment gets lost in the abstract, but the activities at the center are carefully set up to support those ideals. The free shop is an example of this. Instead of simply handing out bras, underwear and hygienic products, the Resource Center has a shop where refugees and displaced people can “buy” items using points from taking and teaching classes. In this way, they can choose what they need and also what they like. Restoring dignity through a matter as seemingly simple, yet impactful, as shopping and choosing for oneself, is what I believe The Unmentionables is all about.

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One of my most treasured experiences was my time with the UnExposed photography students. The program teaches young refugees a detailed photography course; helping them to tell their stories, and those of others through art. I was impressed with the program once I read about it, but experiencing it opened my eyes to something more. During my first meeting with the students, at a park in Athens taking pictures, I was surprised by how easily the conversation flowed between us all. Until then, I had felt very nervous speaking to the refugees. Besides the language barriers, I felt I never knew exactly what to say. Our lives and experiences and situations were so different, but I understand now that perhaps focusing on those differences made me nervous, quiet, and reserved the first few days I helped with the activities at the Resource Center. Yet at the photography class, I was drawn so quickly into the conversation that I had no time to worry. We talked about photos, shoes, the weather, school, homework, languages, our hometowns and our hobbies. Anything that came to mind. We joked and laughed and teased. I learned how much I had in common with them. I tried to carry that understanding back with me to the Resource Center.

I made many friends at the Resource Center. A girl in the photography class who shared the same taste in shoes, men who did-and did not- share a love of my favorite soccer team, a Community Educator who spoke very little English but who struck up a friendship with me anyway over google translate.

Yet despite my new friends, and my growing understanding of their lives, there were many things I did not know; things that shocked me. A man, who argued goodnaturedly with me about the superiority of Messi over Ronaldo, I would later find out was homeless. A woman, who cheerfully demonstrated how to make a falafel, was also nervously waiting to hear back about an asylum request. But their strength, their enduring friendliness, and good spirit deeply impacted me. We celebrated their resilience on World Refugee Day at the Resource Center with ping pong tournaments, cookies, henna and plenty of laundry. It was quite possibly the best party I’ve ever attended.

Ping pong tournaments aside, my time in Greece greatly clarified the mission of The Unmentionables’ work for me. The services they provide are not only needed, but unique. Their history–as a nonprofit that began two years ago to provide refugees with clean underwear, and has vastly expanded to provide education, livelihood, empowerment, protection and research– is nothing short of extraordinary. Among nonprofits and charities, it is the only one of its kind. First, they are among a smaller group of nonprofits that seek to provide refugees with resources outside of the camps, in the next stages of their lives. Even then, they stand alone in focusing on the “unmentionable” issues of sexual health, sexual education and hygiene. They wholly embody their philosophy down to their smallest details. Finding innovative ways to incorporate dignity, empowerment and education into everything they do. I’m grateful to work with an organization not only of merit, but of originality and creativity.

I left Greece with a myriad of new friends and the ability to take a semi-decent picture (I wasn’t exactly a gold star-worthy photography student). I learned that a universal hatred of homework in young people can bridge nearly any cultural gap and cure any bout of shyness. I came away with a bit of Farsi, Arabic, and Kurdish under my belt. But perhaps most importantly, I left Greece with an entirely new view of the refugee crisis and what it means to be a refugee.