Thessaloniki: the great Macedonian capital, a prominent hub for the Balkans, a large hive, where a huge crowd is constantly buzzing. A crowd that hosts so many ethnic and religious minorities, a crowd that welcomes newcomers, a crowd that has a huge story to tell. Nevertheless, a crowd that prevented our group from flying (and especially landing…) to Thessaloniki last March when a massive protest following a bloody rail disaster occupied the city’s main airport. Exactly, we couldn’t fly and that decision disappointed all of our students and our partners...
Finally, after long planning meeting online, we could postpone our trip to May. We would have been the only ones there, but we got support. Our Greek partners paved our roads and welcomed us in a joyful and surprising way. Our students could catch up with the Greek students, and at the same time, continue the collaboration with the German students in Munich who needed our “help” for their exhibition on minorities. The spirit of Europe was (and is) still alive – and kicking! The late trip gave us the opportunity to meet our Greek partners in many occasions: at school, for lunch/dinner, during our visits to some landmark museums (Pella and Vergina over all!), and – why not? – for funny moments, in which friendships could be established. It was a pleasure to observe our students work in groups with the Greek students, and to see how little is needed to have youth coming together. Our trip became a journey to Europe’s Jerusalem when we visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage and we discovered that this city in Macedonian used to host a “million souls” of the most diverse origin. For 500 years, Thessaloniki hosted a huge minority of Jewish, a minority that had reached 50,000 people up to World War II when their deportation to the Nazi concentration camps of Dachau, Birkenau and Auschwitz and the harsh living conditions they had to face reduced their numbers to only 1,300 people. Today, Thessaloniki hosts around 2,000 Jewish people, but their community is still very strong…Again the concept of (un)recognized minority played a role in our visit to Macedonia! (Un)recognized minority with a tragic end, unfortunately! Nevertheless, the real highlight of the project was still ahead of us when we visited the ancient royal tombs in Vergina and Alexander the Great’s settlement in Pella. What did it mean to be a minority back then? It meant recognition by Alexander. We know that from history; Alexander gave a social status to the people he conquered – the defeated populations would love him and celebrate him with all honors, even for his concept of democracy. On the last day, a new “Alexander”, a different one, invited us to his “Lighthouse”. That was really THE highlight of our trip: the visit to Dendropotamos, Thessaloniki’s Roma ghetto. We had expected something totally different, but the visit resulted in an unbelievable success. Students and teachers had the opportunity to enter the ghetto and really see it from the inside. We took a ride through its narrow streets and observed the people living there being embarrassed on one hand and surprised on the other. An area that hosts criminality and illegal trafficking of any kind was opening its doors to us to show the beautiful aspects of integration and “knowledge,” as one of our hosts said: “Only knowledge can break the ghetto!” Exactly, knowledge and education, sending children to school, granting them and their families a future – this is what we need to reach everywhere for a better Europe. And the example of the “Lighthouse”, the name given to this project led by Father Athenagoras, should really cast a light over all minorities just to tell them that in the light everything is possible. For us that visit was possible because we were a small group and because we had the time to do it. For us it was a huge enrichment! We took pictures and forwarded them to our partners in Munich, we sent them our stories, our surprises and really tried to share our emotions with them. Again paraphrasing, because “knowledge breaks the ghettos of ignorance.” (Ivan Bortolotti, Bolzano)
Here are some of our students’ impressions:
On our last official day in Thessaloniki our group had planned a visit to Dendropotamos, a ghetto where the (local) Roma-community lives. We arrived there by bus, and even had the opportunity to take a look at the insides of Dendropotamos, its living facilities and residents. It allowed us to understand what life inside such a ghetto might look like; the people’s reactions and the looks they shot at us as we passed by were a mix of confusion and distrust, which made us realize how rare it is for them to have visitors. The bus tour was for some of us a very embarrassing moment – it felt weird to look out of the bus windows and watch a living community. While for some people having guests might be annoying, for others it certainly isn’t. Once we got off the bus we were warmly welcomed by the collaborators of ‘The Lighthouse of the World’, an independent, non-profit organisation, dedicated to help Roma-people break free from their living conditions in Dendropotamos. They greeted us enthusiastically and proudly invited us to their home. Shortly after, Stavros, a young, clever and enthralling member of the organisation introduced us to the Roma culture and traditions and to the organisation ‘The Lighthouse of the World’. In an incredibly captivating way, he told us the story of its foundation, how it all started from a religious man, Father Athenagoras, whose aim was to help as well as to protect children and young people. The goal was, and is still to this day, to keep them from dropping out of school by offering numerous activities, whether educational, creative, or sportive. They also provide food and shelter for the children in desperate need. One of the core beliefs of this organisation is knowledge, as revealed to us by Stavros, who said: ‘Knowledge breaks the ghetto’. It symbolizes the hope of breaking free from the ghetto and the prejudices that come with it, to prove how everyone should always have a chance in life. This is also the reason why the organization is called ‘the Lighthouse of the World’, given how we all seek light in the darkest moments, and once we see light, we see hope, which shines stronger than anything else. The results of all the sacrifices taken by the young and the workers of the organisation are sensational: over the span of five years, Roma children have received a proper and complete education, crowned by their admissions to universities in the US and other countries worldwide. Their robotics team even won international competitions, earning themselves a ticket to the finals in the US, where they managed to succeed. Not only did they bring home the prize, but they also gained unbelievable life experiences, showing just how far one can go with determination and good will, and especially with knowledge. At the end of Stavros’ speech, we, the audience, exploded in a thunderous applause, so incredibly amazed by these people, by Stavros, who just bared his real self to us, his reality had become so tangible for us, so real we didn’t need pictures too see it. He spoke genuinely, transmitting every emotion he was feeling to us, never letting that beaming smile disappear. His story, Father Athenagora’s story, the Roma children’s stories were relived by everyone who was in that room, bringing them to life again and, most importantly, reminding everyone of the importance of the organisation’s mission and beliefs. I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity of visiting what we might consider an unusual place but still represents a further and still present issue in our society. Taking part in this project made me aware of new issues but at the same time it has made me look at my life with a more positive point of view. (Ludovica)
After the bus tour through the area: When we arrived at the Lighthouse, we were very nicely welcomed by Staphros, a Roma guy. The Lighthouse is the name of the structure that hosts the Roma children, and which after its symbolic name should cast the light to a world of darkness and criminality. We sat down around a big table and he introduced himself, and his partners. He told us the stories of the children that live in the ghetto, we got to know about their troubled infancies, their missing parents, their strong bonds to the Roma culture. He proudly told us about the projects of the organization, about the robotics competition (which gave a start and a new hope to the children who took part in it), and how they managed to live out their dreams, like going to St Louis, Missouri, USA after qualifying for an international robotics competition. He spoke and spoke showing some unbelievably contagious motivation and joy - you could tell that preserving this area (the “ghetto”) is incredibly important to him. He convinced me, and I think many others, that you can get out of any difficult situation if you put enough effort into your actions. His presentation was very informative about the lives of the children who live at the Lighthouse. One phrase that stuck in my mind that he said was, "We laugh when we're doing well, we laugh when we're doing badly. We always laugh." Visiting this ghetto made me realize how much we need to appreciate our safe and protected environment. This visit represented a huge opportunity – something that was granted to us especially because we were alone, and despite the fact that we were the only students visiting Greece and attending the Erasmus+ Project in those days. Being a small group made this visit possible! (Caroline)
The Roma Ghetto: The Experience in the Roma ghetto was really inspiring. As soon as we arrived at the Lighthouse, where the meeting was held, we thought that our bus ride had ended but it kept on going and none of us expected any of what we saw next. We experienced a small part of the ghetto as we drove through the small streets in our big and extremely noticeable bus. Young moms, drug users/ addicts, small homes mostly built out of cheap and shanty materials next to rich Villas – later on we discovered/were told that villas are mostly built by and belong to drug dealers and smugglers that want to show their power and wealth: those representing their medieval towers! We saw 4/5-year-old children showing us the middle finger and pointing game guns at us as we drove past them. Roma people in the ghetto are not used to visitors as everyone is scared of ghettos. It is “knowledge that breaks the ghetto!” All in all it looked like a normal (poor) neighbourhood: Families, children playing, people meeting to drink coffee… The small things were the ones standing out. Our tour through the ghetto ended as we returned to the Lighthouse. The lighthouse is home to children and generally people without accommodation which was founded by Father Athenagoras. His goal is to give hope/ light to Roma people as everyone can achieve any goal if they believe in themselves, and have the discipline and will to work for their dreams. A young boy, who thanks to father Athenagoras is part of the 1st Roma generation to study and to gain knowledge, told us about his experience with the association that they have founded. His story was very inspiring, young children without any knowledge that took part in a robotics competition and won it. They got to the next round and got to fly to the USA. They won scholarships which made them able to study on and attend universities. They inspired all of us, made us feel grateful for what we have. They used a quote which sums up their presentation: ”Choose to love the responsibility Say I, I by my own, I will save the world. If it’s lost I’ll be to blame” -Nikos Kazantzakis (Zoe)