With art and sport, young refugees build new lives in Greece

Marina RAFENBERG
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Going for goal: Jawad Ahmadi takes a penalty kick during a tournament with teams composed of refugees and European volunteers in Athens

Jawad Ahmadi, an 18-year-old Afghan, reached the island of Lesbos a year ago with his older brother and cousin, believing Greece would be just a temporary stop on his way to Germany.

But just as he arrived, Europe's borders were shut, leaving him stuck in Greece and curtailing his European dream.

"For eight months, every day, I woke up without knowing what I was going to do that day," Ahmadi says. "I was going crazy."

But four months ago, Ahmadi made his way to the Athens offices of the Greek Forum of Migrants and began Greek language lessons.

Now, in addition to the language classes, he is preparing for a football tournament, part of an effort by aid groups to help young refugees find a place in their new home.

"I decided to take charge and start building my future. I want to study computers and keep playing football, my passion," says Ahmadi.

"In the end, it's probably a good thing that I stayed in Greece. Here, the government doesn't give any help to refugees: You have to work harder than in Germany, where refugees are pampered."

With the support of Mercy Corps, the US-based humanitarian group, Ahmadi has formed his own football team. It competes in a tournament launched by the group in January for teams composed of refugees as well as volunteers from Greece, Spain and other European countries.

"We've noticed that a lot of activities were being offered for children, but there were few for teenagers and young adults," says Mercy Corps' Monica Rabii.

"But they are very nervous because they don't know what their future holds."

"That's why, thanks to donations from large international companies, we decided to finance projects for young refugees, in partnership with local players."

- 'Like a normal citizen' -

For Ahmadi, the tournament is the best way for migrants to mix with Greeks and other Europeans, "and to show that refugees are just like any other youths".

Each morning he leaves a camp in Oinofita, an industrial zone about an hour north of Athens, to attend his language classes and football practice.

"I only come back to the camp to sleep," he says. "I feel more and more like a normal citizen, and less like a migrant stuck in Greece," he said.

Iman al-Bohtori, a 22-year-old Syrian who also arrived last March, is also looking forward to recovering "a normal life".

She is hoping to be allowed to join family members in Sweden, where her sister recently went to be with her husband and their brother.

"When my sister left, I was very depressed, I felt paralysed," says Bohtori, who has an economics degree from the University of Damascus.

But after meeting a worker at Mercy Corps, she began attending activities organised by Melissa, an association that helps migrant women by putting them in touch with former refugees.

There, she plays the guitar and makes origami, activities that help her to "stay positive, and not think about the past or the uncertainties of the future."

Melissa recently held a sculpture class where participants began by carving dolls out of potatoes -- eliciting peals of laughter around the room.

"It is meant for every single one of them to feel some worth, to create, to have creativity, to not just sit and wait," said Brumilda Mustafa Guda, an Albanian artist who led the class.

For Zozen Daoud, a 26-year-old Syrian mother of two, the class offers a chance to "relax, and forget that I'm stuck in Greece with no job and far from the ones I love".

"I spent eight months at Idomeni," a migrant camp on the closed border with Macedonia, "where I only thought about my survival," she said.

"Now, even if Greece wasn't my first choice, I have to think about settling here, learning the language and finding a job."