The origins of Open Cultural Center (OCC) go back to the refugee camp of Idomeni, in Greece, at the height of the refugee crisis in 2016. OCC started giving classes and creating a safe environment for children and adults, to learn and take part in cultural activities. After working in several refugee camps, it was in February 2017 that the organisation moved to Polykastro, near Nea Kavala refugee camp in Northern Greece. Later on, OCC also opened a location in Barcelona, growing into the relatively large organisation that it is today.
Over the years, OCC has developed different projects tailored to the needs of the migrant and refugee communities in both locations. For example, in Barcelona, OCC carries out MigraCode, the Language Lab, or Youth 4 All. By contrast, in Polykastro, the main projects are the Kindergarten, the Women Space, or the English classes, all of them working closely with the residents of Nea Kavala. The realities in Spain and Greece are anything but similar and therefore, so are the experiences of volunteering in one country or another.
Our ESC trainee Maria José has been able to volunteer in both locations. She started before the pandemic as an intern in OCC Spain, and then she continued collaborating with the organisation as an ESC volunteer. In Barcelona, she was supporting ongoing projects of social inclusion, as well as being a Spanish teacher at the Language Lab. On the other hand, she has been volunteering in Polykastro for the last three months, teaching English to children from 8 to 13, and working at the Women Space and the Kindergarten.
When being asked about how different are the contexts in both countries for the migrant and refugee communities, she says that “for the beneficiaries, the country is the starting point for their new life and it is also a transit place” from where try to reach Europe. “The families I met were struggling to get their documents for months or even years, and they were looking forward to a new start”. By contrast, in Barcelona, the refugee community is “somehow already settled and their struggle is the recognition of the academic degrees acquired in their home countries or to find job opportunities that match their skills”.
Thus, being a volunteer in Greece was “challenging”, especially regarding the activities with kids. One of the things that impressed Maria José the most is that she was actually teaching the alphabet to the kids from the English classes. “Understanding their difficulties in learning a completely different alphabet made even more evident what a challenge was for them to arrive in a different country, language and culture”, she says. “That is why is so important to have resident volunteers with you during the class, as they can explain directly to children in Farsi or Arabic whatever we are trying to communicate”, she explains.
When being asked for advice to give to people interested in volunteering, Maria José considers it essential to minimize culture and language barriers as much as possible in order to engage with the beneficiaries. “In Barcelona, our target groups come from Latin America and some regions in Africa, while in Polykastro they come from the Middle East, mainly from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. So I would advise when planning to go volunteering in Greece to have some basic knowledge of Farsi or Arabic”, she explains.
Last but not least, she also emphasizes the need of prioritizing oneself. “Being in a High-Priority Area can be overwhelming, so it was important for me to prioritize how I was feeling and also remember that I was supporting within my possibilities”. This is also the advice she received from other people.
In any case, she takes with her good memories from both destinations. In Barcelona, “one of the most memorable moments was definitely the team-building activities in Catalonia like Gran Fondo in Ripoll supporting Migracode, or hiking to the Tibidabo”. In Polykastro, she remembers one activity she did with a resident volunteer, Hussein, and the Eagles class, which consisted of drawing what came to the children’s mind when hearing the word ‘Happiness’. “A lot of the kids drew their flags and they also asked how to spell our names which melted my heart”.