Below is Sarah Cornette’s latest blog post chronicling her Fulbright journey in Greece. For more information on what she is doing check out her first blog post and be sure to check back regularly to follow along with us on her incredible journey.
By Sarah Cornette
What Samos looks like to tourists:
What Samos looks like to refugee children:
The triangles represent the tents of a camp where 5,115 refugees (as of March 4) occupy a space intended for 648. The tarp-and-cardboard tents spill down the steep hillside amidst the brush and trash heaps, outside of the containment zone. To these kids the bright buildings, restaurants, and waterfront of the town represent all that is hopeful and beautiful, but their lives in the camp (behind and up the hill) dominate their experience here. I suspect this image would feel more accurate to the locals here as well–many fear both the refugees and what the refugee crisis will do to the economy and demographics of their little island.
I brought my mural project to Samos through an NGO called Still I Rise (yes, from the Maya Angelou poem), known by the locals as Mazí (which in Greek means “together”). Mazí is a school for teenage refugees, serving 150 children with a waitlist whenever spots open up. The camp itself is closed to organizations like this, but the children can walk down from the camp in the mornings. Mazí offers meals, cultural education, emotional support, and a variety of classes for asylum-seekers waiting for refugee status and eventually to be transferred to the mainland.
My daughter and I spent our mornings exploring the island and meeting with our friend Majida (a refugee herself) in the town, learning all we could about the evolution of the camp and the current situation. In the afternoons we worked with students at Mazí, adapting our collaborative process to whatever the circumstances of the day brought us. For example, one day it was cold and rainy, and very few children made the hike into town for school that day. One day we started too late and missed most of the girls, who have to be in their tents before dark. One day the ferry left with ten kids from Mazí who were abruptly being transferred, taking some of our artists and leaving the rest too sad to work that day. We had to shift our expectations rapidly with the unexpected, often multiple times in a day, and learned to simply take whoever showed up as a gift, and whatever happened that day as the best we could do.
Our kids were from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan, mostly. We did not have a translator, but the children have been learning basic English at Mazí to help them in their goal to leave Greece and live elsewhere in the European Union. We made do with what few words we had in common, and usually we had a child with somewhat better English who could translate for others. Sometimes we had to get by with gestures and the universal language of art itself.
We had amazing drawings from the kids to work with, and they voted on their favorite composition, designed by V. from the DRC, who emerged as a natural leader in the group. You may notice that in these photos I have respected the limits recommended by the UNHCR about not showing the faces of minors in photos–giving these children the option as they mature to decide whether or not they want to be associated with this situation in the future. With the assistance and persistence of Ali, a volunteer at Mazí, I was eventually able to get this feedback from some of the children who participated:
E., from the DRC, said he liked that all of his familiar surroundings were included in mural; things he sees every day, tents and mountains for example.
J., from Iraq, enjoyed how the whole process brought back memories of his family’s journey since leaving his home country, the journey by boat, arriving on Samos, etc. From his words and the way he spoke, the process seemed therapeutic for him.
They all feel the mural is important because it shows people in other places what they are going through. They find comfort in knowing that other people will see it and maybe find some way to help or change the situation.
V. also had a more immediate sense of how the mural is important to this group, even though it is now travelling. She said the mural was helpful to make friends. She also said it was good for people who are more shy, as there is no pressure involved- you can be a part of whatever part of the process and input how you want.
I will cherish these words, about children feeling seen, validated, and empowered. But most of all how the process was connective on many levels. For me and for them. I will be writing much more about the mural and my associated thoughts and experiences in a website I am now building. For now, if you would like to see many more photos of the mural and the process in all three locations, visit the Facebook page about it here.