The OCC: Help Them Help Themselves
The Open Cultural Centre (OCC), based in Polykastro, Greece, is working to assuage these inevitable hardships refugees and asylum seekers face by acting as a community hub and providing the space for growth and personal development which the camps do not. The aim is that the refugees that come into contact with the cultural centre will be better equipped to eventually exercise independence following their relocation from the camps to their final destination.
The UNHCR's policy of ‘Promoting Livelihoods and Self-reliance’ has been heavily criticized. Its aims are to ensure the access of livelihood opportunities for refugees, enhance refugee integration into private and public institutions and, crucially, ensure that ‘cash/food/rental assistance delivered through humanitarian agencies should be short-term and conditional’. One of the major criticisms of the policy is that it does not provide ground-level support nor does it enforce a coherent policy among members to make self-reliance a realistic end. Instead, critics cite the motivation behind the policy of self-reliance as appealing to members of the Convention, alleviating budgetary pressures and general responsibility for the European Migrant Crisis.
A comprehensive criticism of the UNHCR’s approach (prior to the more recent crises) and of the conditions existing in refugee camps can be found in Meredith Hunter’s ‘The Failure of Self-Reliance in Refugee Settlements’. The goal of self-reliance among refugees is by no means a bad one, however the expectations of refugees to exercise it while existing in the confines of a camp comprised of little more than a collection of metal containers that they call ‘home’, or within the remit of a state that actively works to limit their independence is severely misled.
This is where the work of the Open Cultural Centre comes in. 200 refugees live in Polikastro and the number is rising. The projects of alternative housing in Polikastro do not have any educational, cultural, vocational component or any ties to schools or public institutions. The Greek state, currently bearing the major brunt of the crisis, is providing the bare minimum for housing to refugees, however, access to crucial institutions which could facilitate the progress of refugees or provide a semblance of normality is being withheld. The objective of the OCC, as stated on their website, ‘is to focus educational support in urban areas rather than in camps in order to facilitate the integration of refugees and collaborate with the withdrawal of camps where possible.’
The centre focuses mainly on teaching refugees the English language but also navigates the difficult expectations imposed on them. For instance, many refugees vented their frustration at the fact that they had to learn English as the universal language and a basic level of Greek as a requirement to be able to leave the country, as well as the language of their intended destination. A near impossible goal for anyone - particularly those not linguistically inclined - and made doubly arduous by the lack of resources available to them. As well as teaching, the centre provides sewing machines to supply both men and women with a skill that facilitates a degree of independence. Additionally, through the activities held daily for children like outings, games and parties the centre has become a youth club, personal development centre and a community hub all in one.
One of the recent and potentially more widespread projects run by the OCC is the book, ‘My Friend’, written and illustrated by children in the refugee settlements. Abdul, Elaf and Amar, based in Cherso, in Northern Salonica, tell their personal stories in four, very brief, parts. This includes their lives in Syria, before and after the war; their journey to Europe; their life in the camps in Greece and the future.
‘My Friend’ is the name used for European volunteers and the book is a way for the children to communicate directly to European citizens who have physically received them. Currently available in Spanish and Catalan, and available for pre-order in English, the book can be used as an educational tool for European children to understand the Refugee Crisis from their own peers as part of developing values of inclusion respect and tolerance, and allows the contributors like Elaf and Abdul to take control of their own narrative.
It also presents a way of encouraging a culture of self-reliance among refugees which considers the practical necessity of aid and cooperation with local people and volunteers. Moreover, book sales are a way for the cultural centre to continue to finance the activities which have gone a long way in providing opportunities for both the adults and the children, and a semblance of the amusement and ‘fun’ the children would have experienced had their childhoods not been ripped away from them so early in their lives.
The price/donation for a copy of ‘My Friend’ is 10€ and can be pre-ordered here.