CONNECTIONS BEYOND LANGUAGE
Written February 22nd
When I first visited the church in Katerini in august 2016 to volunteer, Alexandra was working with a team of five other people to do everything. Now, her team numbers almost fifty. The operation quickly outgrew the congregation in which it began, and has since become recognized as an NGO called Perichoresis. This morning began with a staff meeting at their new headquarters where I got to see first-hand just how much the team has grown in the six months since I was last here. The staff is now divided into teams that specialize in various things, like drivers, social workers, and administrative staff. It was an amazing sight to behold.
Following the meeting, Dia and I went to work in the nursery – held in the ECG’s congregational office building, where the service work was centered when I visited. There were around twenty children total there for the morning, though I was told that the number fluctuates as families come and go. The program was started just a month ago with only eight children and it keeps growing. Almost every day new children come while others move on to other countries with their families. Staff at the nursery consisted of a Greek man who previously worked with the UNHCR, two Syrian women who volunteer their time, and a local woman who lives in Katerini and has a gift for languages – plus Dia and I.
For the first hour or two we simply played with the children, building forts out of blocs, coloring, reading stories, cooking in the play kitchen, and dancing. The children were then given a snack and a lesson followed. Today, the children worked on the Arabic alphabet, which we did our best to learn as well. Dia and I worked hard to follow along as one of the young Syrian women stood at the front of the room pointing to the characters and slowly pronouncing them for us. The children were delighted that we were attempting it and seemed quite amused when we stumbled on some of the more guttural sounds. After that was craft time and I worked closely with two siblings, and older boy and his little sister. I had played with them during the early morning and so they both gravitated towards me during the artsy activity. We spent the next half hour drawing, coloring, gluing, and creating – it was bliss. hardly any of the children spoke English, a few knew some basics and could introduce themselves and say simple things, but, just as in my work with Roma children, I’m realizing that language barriers tend to bother adults much more than children.
For the early afternoon we joined two English lessons with the teacher from yesterday. This time they were held on the first floor of the church offices for local refugee families there in Katerini. The first class was a group of thirteen teens who were able to speak the basics well, but were in need of practice. The following class was for younger children who were still learning the alphabet and there were around sixteen in attendance for that one, mostly elementary school aged. Sitting in on these classes and being welcomed by the students is truly a beautiful experience. I feel so honored to be a part of the educational development of these youth.
By the time we were done for the day it was three in the afternoon and we still hadn’t eaten. Dia and I strolled our way back into town and grabbed take-out to eat in the main square. We sat on a cheerfully painted bench in the sun and processed all that had happened in the day. When we were done we, of course, decided that we needed some ice cream in our life so we set off again. After getting our desserts we walked to another park in the center of town that was filled with fountains and other gorgeous water features.
As we continued our discussions we started to people watch and noticed that we knew some of the people walking past. Some of the children that we had worked with in the morning had come to the park with their parents in the afternoon to enjoy the sunshine and spend family time outdoors. I saw the siblings from craft time walking around with their mother and they both grinned and jumped up and down when they saw me. Dia and I said hello to the children and greeted their mother warmly – it turned out that she spoke English! We had a short exchange and I took a photo of the three of them together in front of a fountain before the kids giggled with delight and ran over to continue feeding the ducks in a small pond. The mother looked through the photos I had taken and smiled appreciatively at us as we walked away. I’ll never forget how close she held them when I took those pictures.