Youth Rapid Integration: Protection, psychosocial support and education for unaccompanied refugee children that become adults in Greece
1st Quarter Activities (November 2017 – January 2018)
The start of the project journey began in October 2017 with the rental and renovation of the protective apartment; a single floor space located at the heart of Thessaloniki, that was transformed into a fully functional living space including six bedrooms, two bathrooms, a very large kitchen and a common area for shared activities. With support from volunteers and in-kind donations from friends and like-minded projects and organisations, the apartment was furnished (desks, drawers, beds & mattresses, fridges, washing machine, oven) and equipped with basic supplies (kitchen utensils, bedsheets, towels, hygiene products, etc.) We still rely to a great extent on donations for food and general consumables, as well as for the household supplies that are progressively required as the occupancy of the apartment increases.
The first young person entered our apartment in the beginning of December. Currently the project hosts 6 young boys, all unaccompanied minors that have recently turned 18 years old. Full capacity (12 people) is expected to be reached gradually in the coming months.
Our integration team consists of one social worker and a caretaker who, in cooperation with two psychologists from Refugee Trauma Initiative, provide psychosocial support through regular meetings as well as weekly group counselling sessions. Additional group activities such as cooking, cleaning, exploring the city etc. are regularly maintained in order to identify daily emotional difficulties, encourage expression and empower the young people in their next steps in life. Social integration activities are further fostered by 3 long-term local volunteers and 2 intern social workers on secondment until June from the University of Thrace (ΔΗΜΟΚΡΙΤΕΙΟ ΠΑΝΕΠΙΣΤΗΜΙΟ).
Individualised Education Plan
During the first month of their stay, each young person develops together with our integration team their personal educational/vocational plan. They commit to activities and personal set of goals, while those enrolled previously in public school are transferred to nearby schools within the neighborhood. As the language barrier is a crucial limiting factor to their integration, special language development support is given by our volunteer teachers that provide language after-school classes at the apartment two times per week. This includes intensive preparation for certified Greek language competency exams.
Currently, three out of the six young people have basic knowledge of Greek and all of them can communicate in basic English. Several young people have applied for vocational seminars and some have been registered with organisations that provide educational services. The table below outlines case by case, the activity plan developed together with each participant.
Food and Cash Management
All our participants that are entitled to receive cash assistance, are able to register an address and receive their monthly support. Our social worker sends the referral for the cash assistance programme to Red Cross/UNHCR upon the first days of their arrival. It can take from one week to one month for the cash card to be received. Until then, basic food is provided (rice, pasta, vegetables, oil etc.) and a fixed weekly amount per person is allocated, which is always spent under the supervision of a team member to ensure cost-efficiency and complete coverage of food needs. For the entire period of their stay, the young adults are assisted by our team in planning food consumption and shopping lists, prioritising nutritious products and finding best deals in order to develop an economic awareness on how to manage their small income in the most efficient way.
Unaccompanied children have been exposed to multiple potentially traumatic events that challenge their transition into adulthood. Ensuring them access to specialised support is critical for their social and psychological wellbeing and integration. To facilitate this, we run group sessions and individual counselling on a weekly basis by an Arabic speaking counsellor and an English/Greek speaking psychologist who work closely with our social worker on supporting emotional wellbeing. Our participants can also access and talk to a member of our team at all times, while our caretaker resides in the area and can reach the apartment within 5 minutes. We are able to respond quickly and effectively to any emergency need and to accompany our guests to the hospital, while regular doctor appointments are facilitated through public healthcare services. If required, we refer and accompany them to specialised healthcare and psychological support services that are provided by governmental and humanitarian actors.
Unfortunately, unaccompanied minors do not always have all their legal papers in order, and very often their asylum registration is still pending when they turn 18. Currently 2 of our participants are in need of legal support and it remains their first priority and concern before thinking of their future. Together with our volunteer legal consultant, both are accompanied to the asylum service and receive all possible support with their case. Those participants who succeeded in requesting asylum are further assisted with their AFM/AMKA/OAED registration processes.
Our integration team, with the support of the project coordinator, delivers CV preparation workshops and facilitates registration to vocational training courses as well as links with employment services and recruitment agencies. One young person so far has successfully registered with unemployment services (OAED) giving him access to free public transportation, certified seminars and subsidised employment possibilities. Furthermore, all young people are supported to attend employability readiness seminars, to attend job festivals and recruitment events and to connect with possible employers.
Our volunteers commit on a daily basis together with our integration team to empower the young boys with life skills, such as cooking, housekeeping and home economics. For example, they learn how to prepare a monthly food consumption plan and how to minimise food waste. Another example of an ongoing activity that promotes shared responsibility, is the weekly cleaning schedule that needs to be well maintained and respected by all. Cooking activities are much appreciated as everybody loves to share new tastes and recipes and to sit together around a jointly prepared fresh meal. Many times, cooking activities are combined with introducing new team members or visitors. On top of all group activities, our weekly residents meeting is our common space for sharing thoughts, challenges, resolving issues and discussing emerging needs. Some of the frequent topics during these meetings relate to housekeeping costs, ways to save energy, improvement of our space and plan future activities. Such ongoing group activities are inspiring a spirit of solidarity and cooperation and create bonding between our young participants.
Recreational Integration Activities
From the first days of a young person’s arrival, our team tries to ensure their participation in recreational activities of their choice and assist them in joining local teams, sports clubs and dancing schools. Special attention is also given to the time spent outside the apartment, exploring public facilities and spaces as well as different neighbourhoods and events around the city. Our volunteers help the boys learn to use public transport and how to plan short trips and visits to their friends and other places of interest. Furthermore, we motivate and facilitate their participation in cultural and artistic events (i.e. the New Year philharmonic orchestra concert in Megaro Mousikis).
The challenges we are facing as a programme are primarily the same challenges being faced by the young people we are hosting i.e. bureaucracy and the lengthy processes and waiting times between different services. Similarly, we share their concern about finding employment and securing their personal income in the near future, so they can grow confident and financially independent enough to exit our program and follow their personal dreams.
Despite the small size of our team (1 Social Worker + 1 Caretaker + 1 part-time Project Coordinator) and the fact that the protective apartment is unattended after working hours, there have been no serious safety or security incidents so far. However, we have recognised that in order to maintain peaceful cohabitation and the ability to provide equally high-quality psychosocial support and services to 12 young people (double the current occupancy of our protective apartment), it would be necessary to increase the size of our team.
Overall, the project is moving forward smoothly and according to plan concerning the level of occupancy and service provision expected to be achieved in the first 3 months. Our apartment’s occupancy will continue to increase gradually and in relation to the capacity of our team to support equally well all the young participants in our project. We are confident that by the end of this year, there will be sufficient evidence to allow the progressive development of our approach into a model of youth integration that can be easily replicated in other areas.
As our project has not yet secured core funding, we are not able to confidently scale up and allow our protective apartment to reach maximum occupancy. Core funding is absolutely essential for the provision of high quality support to our participants, and for documenting and developing our approach into a well-grounded model of youth integration. Securing stable funds to cover the monthly expenses for the protective apartment and our team’s salaries remains our most urgent need.