Tavros is a working-class neighborhood of Athens that is home to many immigrants from different countries for the past twenty years. It was a natural choice for a school immersion program for refugee children living in the nearby Eleona camp. The program runs every afternoon after the Greek students finish their school day. Refugee children are bussed in from the camp to spend a year learning the Greek language to prepare them for mainstream schooling next year. For many of these children, it is their first school experience and love and hugs are the largest component of the program for these often traumatized children.
The principal is the wonderful Dimitris Fileles, who has been at Tavro for thirty years, most of them as a teacher. We interviewed him as well as a parent volunteer, Geli Vlahopoulou, who had been one of his students years ago. She told us of the efforts the local community has undertaken to make the children feel welcome. We spent time in several classrooms, as well as filming interviews with two teachers, the warm and remarkable Vanessa Livani and Adriana Gkota. We also watched Teti Nikopoulou, a dancer, lead the students in gymnastics.
A week before our shoot, Mr. Fileles sent permission forms home with the students and we filmed those students whose parents returned signed forms. Because we did’t want to take them from their classes, we did not interview any of the students. We are looking forward to our next shoot, when we will talk with refugees, as well as the Greeks who are working with them
We were moved by the special comfort given to all the children by the entire staff of the school.
At the beginning of February I got a phone call from my friend Bill Megalos in Los Angeles, asking me if I would like to make a documentary with him, about the refugees in Greece. I’ve known Bill since 1989, when I worked as his assistant for four years. We’ve stayed close friends and have worked on a number of projects around the world. We had had our first contact with the refugee crisis in 2015 when we covered it in Lesvos, for the International Rescue Committee.
Being in Greece gave me an advantage. I said yes right away and started to prep by calling friends.
The first was Matoula Papadimitriou, senior investigator for the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights in Greece. She started feeding me with information: the number of refugees, where they are located, what the situation is today and pointed me to the three sites we decided to visit. They are City Plaza in Athens, Thermopyles, and Hotel Rovies in Evia.
I visited City Plaza, a squatted abandoned hotel in downtown Athens, first and got the green light.
The second resource was Vicky Liondou, a journalist who helped open the door to the camp in central Greece located in Thermopyles. She introduced us to Ioanni Mouzala, the Minister of Immigration Policy. At that point, I started to believe that we might actually pull off this project.
The third location, Hotel Rovies, I found on my own and went to visit.
We decided to bring as part of our team Michel Bolsey, a journalist friend of Bill’s who had lived in Lebanon, travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic. When Bill and Michel had booked their tickets, I started the scouting trip.
In Thermopyles, a camp administered by the prefecture of Central Greece, located in an old abandoned resort next to hot springs I found George Palamioti and Ari Soho running the show. On their desks were the nameplates Baba George, with a picture of a bear and Uncle Aris, with a picture of a dog, gifts of the 400 refugees living in the camp.
People were living 4-5 in a room in bunk beds, where they cooked their meals, passing their days in boredom waiting for their papers to move to the next country.
I drove next to Hotel Rovies, located in Rovies in northern Evia, a hotel that was rented by UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) to house Syrian families on programs for relocation and reunification. There I met Antoni Grigorako from Solidarity Now, the NGO that administered the hotel. Previously he had been a volunteer in Piraeus in 2015 and 2016, when there were more than 5,000 people living in the port. Together with Andrea Vasiliou, the owner of the hotel, he works around the clock helping 100 refugees have a close to normal life in a safe environment.
We immediately clicked and I saw what a great job they were doing over the next two days.
Driving back to Athens, with these prime locations in my pocket, I realized that I had taken on the task of being a producer for a big project and actually was delivering what I had promised to the rest of the team. I was excited to share my scout experiences in our first skype conference call where I met Michel, whom I liked immediately.
Christos Stefanou, a coordinator of the educational program of Eleonas, a large refugee camp in Athens, with 2,000 inhabitants pointed us to the Tavros elementary school. Some children from the camp attend this school. Vicky again proved her value when she got the permit for us to visit Tavros from the Ministry of Education. Doors continued to open that I could not have imagined when we started.
George Moschos, the deputy ombudsman for children’s rights, agreed to give us an interview, along with Philippe Leclerc, the representative of UNHCR in Greece.
The day after the team arrived in Athens in the middle of May, the telephone rang. It was Katerina Poutou, the head of Arsis, an association for the social support of youth. I had been trying to get in contact with her for two months. We rushed to her office where we had a three-hour meeting with her and her staff and they promised to help us.
Tomorrow our journey begins without us knowing where it will end.