“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” Socrates famously wrote. Greece holds a rich history that can be recalled as a source of inspiration for the present. Socrates words were a fitting phrase for the UF Malmö seven-day visit to Athens, Greece during October. Eighteen students from the Association embarked to visit Athens. Even now, Athens is a bastion of knowledge and a reflection of humanity’s greatest trials. This visit was timely as the group had the rare opportunity to actively engage in political issues with a wide variety of people at the forefront of Greek politics, humanitarian aid and the Greek economy. Visiting these officials and volunteers, one could not ignore how they are dealing with their financial crisis and the ongoing refugee crisis. Indeed, both crises are a hard battle. The serious agenda for the week was impressive and well-organised by the travel committee.
The week started with a prestigious visit to the Hellenic Parliament. It was not surprising that this former Royal Palace was impressive inside with exhibits depicting some highlights of the formation of the nation. The guided tour of this building was historically rich and culminated at the seats of Parliament with an explanation of how it is organised in Greece. This was a familiar structure of any nation where Parliament is run by a democratically elected body of Members of Parliament (MPs). In Greece there are 300 members, who are elected for a term of 4 years. This was a good introduction prior to our meeting with some members of the Syriza political party, which is the largest party in the Hellenic Parliament, with their party chairman Alexis Tsipras serving as Prime Minister of Greece. Once the UF group had a firm grasp of the political situation in Greece, the meeting with the European commission and the Swedish Embassy outlined the international community’s involvement in the recent political and economic developments in Greece.
All meetings emphasised the need to improve the economic and refugee crisis. Every meeting made sure to say that 60% of Greek youth are unemployed. The visit to Athens University of Economics and Business was a highlight as the UF Students met with Greek students studying their Masters in Finance. The Greek students were of similar ages to the UF students, which made the Greek economic crisis even more relatable and almost personal. Hearing the perspective of these Masters students and their concerns for their own professional futures was sobering as all acknowledged that they would most likely need to leave Greece if they were to have a career in their field of study. When considering the number of refugees currently entering Greece as their first step towards a new life while the Greek youth plan to leave their own country’s troubles, it is ironic.
The refugee crisis was on everybody’s minds when thousands of refugees are entering Athens everyday. The meeting with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) was hopeful but unpromising. Statistics and stories of the 3,840 recent refugee deaths at sea illustrated the crisis. It is imperative that Greece is given the help it needs when facing this immense challenge. IOM is looking for donations, especially of warm equipment, regularly.
The UF group also had an informal visit to Victoria Square in Athens where refugees from various countries, such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, wait for buses to take them onward throughout Europe. There are many organisations and volunteer groups working tirelessly with the refugees. One specialist volunteer group from the Netherlands, the Boat Refugee Foundation, focuses on the needs of the most vulnerable demographic, such as women, children (including unaccompanied children) and pregnant women. The Dutch organiser of this group took the time to talk about their involvement as her team were packing up from their 15 hour day. Her main message was the same as the IOM – these refugees need donations of tents, sleeping bags, shoes and warm clothes as winter has befallen the country.
The UF Malmö trips are designed to be a healthy mix of political discussions and cultural appreciation. This UF trip was deeply impactful for all participants and, although the information from the meetings can be shared with anyone who would like to have copies of the slides, the personal perspectives and emotional connections that were developed first-hand are essential in understanding Greece. For the UF students, there was enough free time to fully explore the ancient sites and to discover the amazing food, music and dancing of Greece. It was a full immersion into the country. What was most significant was the kindness of the Greek people and refugees. If you are able to participate in a UF travel experience in the future, grab the opportunity with both hands because it is a trip that would be hard to replicate on your own.
By Suzanne Snowden
Picture 1-3: Carolin Jamusch for UF Malmö