Study Abroad with Vulnerable Populations in Athens!

Follow nine of the University of Missouri’s Honors students as they volunteer and live in Athens, Greece

Madeline – Athens Blog – 7/15/2022

Hello everyone! My name is Madeline and I will be covering our last week in Athens, Greece. It has been amazing watching the kids at the Ukrainian refugee shelter grow and develop over the course of six weeks. Although there was a constant language barrier, since the children only spoke fluent Russian, it did not hinder the fun we had with them.

We often took the kids to local parks, played volleyball, solved puzzles, practiced writing and more. Most of the refugee children were under the age of eight. Yet, they have learned an impressive amount of English from our conversations. Some of their favorite phrases include “bye bye”, “stand up”, and “I love you”. The kids are also very eager to show off their knowledge of numbers and the ABCs.

As we shared our language with the children, they shared their language with us. With the help of animated hand gestures and Google Translate, the nine of us on the Greece trip adopted a few Russian words into our vocabulary. Within our group, the most popular Russian word is “babushka”, which means grandmother. Additionally, we’ve began calling each other друг (pronounced ‘drook’), which translates to friend.

Today, we said goodbye to the Ukrainian children we’ve played, laughed, and learned with for over a month. It is a bittersweet moment. There were tears on both sides. Even though we all miss our family and friends in the United States, Athens has become a home to us. I am very appreciative of the opportunity to come here and not only further my education, but meet these amazing children who opened their lives up to us.

Paige – Athens Blog – 7/13/2022

My name is Paige Harris and I have the privilege of working with the Home Project through the Mizzou Honors College Study Abroad program. There are many things I have loved about my time in Greece. The food is of course amazing, the history remarkable, and the sights unlike anything I have ever seen before. But what I have loved most about my time in Athens is the very same thing that drew me to join this program, having the opportunity to work with the children that The Home Project shelters.

The shelter I work at is called “Little Pugad.” This translates into “Little Beehive” in Filipino. The name comes from one of the lovely caretakers who has worked at the shelter for years, named Tess, who is originally from the Philippines. All of the children living at this shelter are unaccompanied minors who hold refugee status. They come from all over the Middle East and Asia, Pakistan to Kuwait, and Afghanistan to Syria. For some of the children, circumstances have made it so that they can expect to be with the Home Project for the foreseeable future. For others, they are just days away from being reunified with their families in Europe. But on a day-to-day basis, the children at the shelter act the same as any others. Just like a beehive, they are all constantly on the move — whether it’s swim or gymnastics lessons, playing in the neighborhood square, or asking anyone they can find to give them a piggy-back ride up and down the stairs.

When I was choosing what to do this summer, I knew that I wanted to find a program that would expand my worldview. Working with the children at this shelter has done that in so many ways. While I listen to them tell me the stories of how they came to Greece, I can’t help think about how much these children have had to endure in their short lives. But at the same time, it has been such an amazing experience watching how these children are full of laughter and joy every single day despite the circumstances they have been dealt. I will forever be grateful to Little Pugad and the Honors College for giving me the opportunity to work with such amazing people and shrink the world around me just a little bit more.

Maddie – Athens Blog – 7/11/2022

Yia sou- or, hello in Greek. My name is Maddie Hawes but the other girls call me Dagmar or Dags, Daggy so that’s my new name. We work shifts in refugee homes every day but besides those afternoons or morning hours, we get to experience new foods and sights around Athens. Six weeks gives us ample time to allow ourselves to get comfortable in the culture and indulge in the city life. We are all now masters of the Athenian metro system and just like the locals, we use it for our daily commutes. It’s been a blast so far getting to live in Athens, but we have also explored several areas of Greece.

We took two-weekend trips to tour other areas of Greece. First, we drove North to visit the Oracle at Delphi and see the monasteries in Meteora. Bonus parts of this trip were our stops at family-owned local restaurants offering a variety of traditional Greek cuisine.

For the next trip, we went South towards the Peloponnese to see the sights of the Mycenae civilization and stayed in a hotel along the coast for a few nights. This trip was super fascinating, and it was a treat that we were able to meet up with a Mizzou alum (Dr. Stephanie Kimmey), who received her Ph.D. in archaeology. She gave our group a very informative tour of the Nemean stadium and Zeus’ temple where she actively researches and studies artifacts. 

While I am a lover of the travel aspect, the main draw of this trip for me was the opportunity to interact with refugee children in temporary shelters. It has been a challenge at times interacting with Ukrainian kids and their caregivers because of the language barrier, but it has also taught me to never doubt the power of universal language: body language. And when it comes to kids, you can connect by making an effort to listen and understand. I connected with one little girl when we were coloring together and I noticed she enjoyed connecting the dots in the coloring book. I dotted out the outlines of several shapes, foods, emotions, and objects and soon enough she was tracing and following my lead in speaking these nouns back to me in English.

But it was also a humbling experience when I attempted to teach English for the first time to a few of the caregivers. It was difficult to fight my own anxiety, being a 21-year-old girl raised in America, I thought I had no place teaching a woman, several years older and with a different life experience, anything. It was helpful being on a trip with aspiring educators, their support and guidance were important as we all faced these personal anxieties together. I learned so much about myself and decided I would consider teaching English abroad again, perhaps in the future. 

I am so fortunate to be on this trip with a mixed bag of students, each of us contributing from various disciplines, but we all connect and volunteer with refugees and explore Greece together. As a student in the Journalism school, I am always observing my surroundings and talking with others to hear and consider their takes. These eight other women have inspired me so much, since I not only got to experience this trip and all of its trials from my own eyes but also from the comments and interpretations of theirs. Everyone in the Athens 9 will always have a special place in my heart. I’m so happy I took a leap as a student new to the Honors College and applied to this trip. 

If you are reading this and considering applying, go for it. If you have even half of the amazing experience I have had, it will be well worth it. When I applied to study abroad I knew I needed to find an opportunity where I could grow from a personal and academic standpoint. This trip was exactly what I was looking for and the many challenges and lessons along the way were what made it the enriching experience I will always cherish. This was by no means an easy trip at all times, but no study abroad should be. Going abroad gives you the chance to face entirely new challenges you may have never encountered before, and it’s even better when you have friends to go through it all with. I will never forget the times we cried, laughed, screamed, sang, and explored together. I will “still recall our last summer” Athens 9, for the rest of my life and I know that for a fact. Thank you, Athens 9, for making my study abroad all I wished for and more. I couldn’t imagine my first time working with refugees and exploring Greece without you. 

Yia mas, 

(Cheers to us,)

Dags, Dag, Dagmina, Daggy Daddy, Daggy, Dagmar

Shannon – Athens Blog – 7/7/2022

Hello! My name is Shannon Martin, a rising junior Music Education major, and I’m currently studying abroad in sunny Athens, Greece! Throughout our stay in Athens, we have had the opportunity to work with unaccompanied youth refugees in a couple of different shelters run by the HOME Project.

I’ve been working in a shelter with young Middle Eastern children. I’ve had a wonderful time talking and playing with them over the weeks! I’ve learned a lot about their experiences and each of them as individuals. We’ve also been able to answer their questions and tell them about the United States.

Each child at the shelter has the opportunity to choose an activity outside of school to take part in; some of the kids have chosen soccer, swimming lessons, gymnastics, or musical ensembles to name a few. This past week was particularly special as I got to attend one of the children’s youth orchestra concerts. It was amazing to see so many young musicians of Athens, especially the child from the shelter, have so much fun performing!

Outside of the shelter, we’ve had time to explore various places around Athens and Greece. All around this city are ancient archaeological sites that we’ve stumbled across. A few of my favorites have been the Acropolis, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Hadrian’s Arch, and the Olympieion Temple.

Athens is full of cultural events and fine arts, too. One evening, we had the opportunity to watch the opera Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi performed by the Greek National Opera in the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus theater on the slopes of the Acropolis under the stars; it was quite the experience!

On the daily as you walk through the city, lots of musicians play on the sidewalk, artists create artwork, and people hustle along the narrow streets making for a really lively city. I’ve loved my time in Athens and am sad to leave, but it’s been an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel here, do the meaningful work we’ve been doing, and see all the fascinating sights and history that surround us.

Claire – Athens Blog – 7/5/2022

It is my 6th week in Athens, and I have had an amazing experience so far! Working at the Home Project has been such a fulfilling and unique experience and I am so grateful to have embarked on this journey. There are about thirteen children in the shelter I work at, called the Little Pugad. Pugad means beehive, and there is another shelter which has older kids, called the “Pugad” or “Big Pugad”. The residents in the Little Pugad have kids ranging from grade school to pre-teen ages. The Little Pugad houses both boys and girls, with three sets of siblings, all of whom are from Middle Eastern Countries. 

I feel connected to this shelter particularly because of my Middle-Eastern heritage. My dad’s side of the family has taught me Arabic phrases and has assisted in interpretation to communicate with some of the kids that speak strictly Arabic. It’s been very rewarding to be able to utilize components of both sides of my family’s culture in an experiential environment.

All of the kids in the home have different interests: gymnastics, swimming, futbol, music, drawing and more! I’ve been able to utilize my background in competitive gymnastics to connect with one of the girls who is currently enrolled in gymnastics classes and help her improve outside of the gym. The girls love to do Henna, hair, and paint nails. While the boys love basketball, futbol, and Uno. Of course, all the kids love TikTok as well! 

Our day-to-day schedule is always a little different. Sometimes we do English lessons, other days we draw and make cards for donors, or we just do activities the kids are interested in! We also take excursions to museums, parks, recitals, and more. I feel so grateful to have learned a great deal from these kids as well: about their routine, their stories, as well as their languages. Over time I have learned some Greek, Arabic, and Farsi from the kids! They share their culture with me, as much as I get to share mine and it is a symbiotic experience. 

During my time here, I witnessed a new child enter the shelter, and was able to play a part in welcoming her on her first day. In contrast, I have also witnessed one of the kids’ last days at the shelter before he was reunited with his brother in Germany; he had spent several years in the shelter. I attended his farewell party and brought him several packs of ‘chicle’ (gum), which all the kids are obsessed with! This experience emphasized the mission of the Home Project: to care for unaccompanied youth, and work to reunite them with their families. 

In addition to my time at the Home Project, I have been able to explore Athens and other parts of Greece and have loved every minute! I am sad to be leaving but am so thankful to have these memories and experiences to look back on! 

Channing – Athens Blog – 6/30/2022
Student stands on sidewalk above the city of Athens.

Hi, my name is Channing and I am studying abroad in Athens, Greece with the Honors College. Along the way, we have traveled to several different parts of Greece including Mykonos, Delphi, Nafplio and more. We have had the opportunity to learn about the history and culture of Greece and enjoy the beautiful historical sites. I have really enjoyed going swimming in our free time because the beaches are beautiful.

While I have been in Greece, I have been volunteering with unaccompanied Ukrainian refugee children. They came from an orphanage outside of Kyiv when the war began. Although they do not speak any English, I have been able to teach them a few words and phrases. I love that instead of taking classes in the US, I am able to volunteer and travel. I feel that I am learning more directly working with these children than I ever would taking a class. It has been incredible to work hands on with refugees because there is not much we can do to help from the United States.

I have always been a huge fan of music, so I have been working on incorporating music into their learning. Even simple songs like the ABCs are a useful tool when helping young children learn English. As a psychology major one thing that I have learned is that your experiences as a child shapes your adult behavior, which is why having positive interactions with adults is so important for future development, especially after trauma. One thing I have noticed is that despite being from a completely different country and despite being displaced from their home, they are still just kids who want to play and connect. They love volleyball, animals, music, video games and everything else children enjoy.

I am lucky to not only love the children and staff of The Home Project, but the other Mizzou students I am experiencing this journey with as well including my longtime friend and travel buddy, Paige. Although it would be nice to be able to communicate with them in English or their native language, it has not stopped us from forming a relationship with them. I am so thankful that I have been able to meet and work with these very special children. I have no doubt that they will continue to thrive and learn long after we leave Athens. I am proud of the progress they made, and I hope they can continue living their lives in peace in the comfort of their country once it is safe for them to return. 

Quinn – Athens Blog – 6/27/2022

Hello everyone! My name is Quinn, and first, I wanted to talk about some of the work that we’ve been doing with The Home Project, the NGO that we’re volunteering with while we’re here in Athens. Although it can be difficult at times with language barriers, we’ve had a great time making meaningful connections with such kind, smart, and funny kids! We watch TV, make crafts, and play throughout the day. 

Four names appear drawn on a page

The kids love going to the park, and even though it results in some sweaty metro rides back home, we love it too. Having fun together is such a good way to create a bond even if you don’t necessarily speak the same language. We’ve loved having the opportunity to spend time with everyone at The Home Project, and are looking forward to doing it for four more weeks!

Outside of our work, like at home, we’ve been having a great time exploring Athens. This week, we spent some time at the beach, went to coffee shops, and ate some delicious dinners. Of course, we also had to navigate some less-fun tasks, like laundry and grocery shopping. Our neighborhood isn’t very touristy, so we’re getting a very authentic, everyday Athenian experience whenever we leave our apartment. 

All in all, my study abroad experience has been very eye-opening. There are definite ups and downs to getting to know a new city and work environment, especially when you don’t speak the language, but I feel that it has definitely encouraged a lot of growth. I’m excited to continue to learn more about Athens, and to travel to other places in Greece during our upcoming weekend excursions!

Rosie – Athens Blog- 6/17/2022

Hello everyone! My name is Rosie and while in Athens this summer, I have been working with Ukrainian refugee youth through The Home Project. The opportunity to come to Greece and work with this community has been absolutely amazing, and it has been so wonderful getting to know the children at the shelter along with their caregivers.

This week, I had the opportunity to accompany the older kids and their caregivers from the shelter while we visited the Athens National Observatory.

I was extremely excited to go with the group because it is very rare for us to do outings that involve a lot of travel outside of the park and shelter. I soon realized that this was also the case for the group themselves. Since coming to Athens, the children have not seen much of the city besides school and home, so this trip was very important for all of us!

As we traveled closer to the city center and towards the Acropolis, I could see the excitement building in the children. The group was blown away by the beauty of these historic sites and they took pictures every opportunity they could get. It was beautiful to experience this with them!

Once we arrived at the observatory, the view was magnificent. It was a joy watching the awe in their eyes as they viewed the city through a new lens. During the tour of the observatory, one of the caregivers translated everything from Greek to Ukrainian so that the kids could have the full experience. While I could not understand either language, I enjoyed being in their presence, experiencing this moment with them, and seeing their reactions to this new knowledge.

After touring the observatory museum, everyone had a chance to look through the giant telescope! The kids and caregivers alike were very excited about this (as was I). Each person had a turn to look at “the blue star.” Some of the children even took a second round to see it again.

After viewing the star, it was time to head home. The love and joy that each child encompasses fills my heart every day. I’m so thankful that I was able to have this experience with them and see part of Athens through new eyes!