Susan (USA) – Volunteering from April to May 2019
When I arrived in Athens on April 9, 2019, my expectations were very simple. I planned to substitute teach for five weeks while one of the full time teachers was away. I thought that I would be teaching beginner classes as I have always done. But I was surprised to see the level of English that is being taught here. They are being prepared to take the Cambridge exams to receive their English certification. I was challenged to step up my game, so to speak.
I learned so much from Stephanie, my daughter. She is an incredible woman, with a very big heart. She has so much to give, and gives it all for these children, most of whom are unaccompanied minors. She has become a mother to many of them, and she demands excellence from each one of them. They all love her.
Alex and Vagelis, who have also given of themselves to serve these children are amazing. They have all given sacrificially to see the children learn and grow, and be prepared to move on to a better life.
During my time there, I fell in love with all of these children, and would have loved to bring them all home with me. I was so blessed to have had the privilege of spending time and learning so much. I would love to go back again, someday.
Marie Claire (Malta) – Volunteering during September 2017
I had met both Stephanie and Toby briefly when I volunteered in Katsikas camp in May 2016. Since then, I followed the journey of Habibi Center, how it developed from an idea to a life changing school for so many. In September 2017, I found out that Habibi Center needed volunteers and since I was unemployed I decided to go and give a helping hand.
What Habibi Center has done is just inspiring. It is not just a school, it has been a second home for both the volunteers and most importantly the students. The impact on the students’ lives was not simply an academical one, they learned that life is not just how they have been taught it is, life is much more! They learned that even when things are very different, you can always find commonalities. They realised that the World is so much bigger than what they thought it was but also that it is all so connected in certain ways.
I remember that I was quite anxious when I was going there, however, seeing the kids making the decision to attend class everyday pushed me in giving my very best during my time with them. Stephanie really managed to gather a diverse group of students with one common goal – education.
Habibi Center has given me so much, both the students and Stephanie have taught me more than the knowledge I shared with them myself. I saw the difference one person can make on other peoples’ lives. I realised that we should not be waiting for the authorities to change the things we do not like; we should be the ones that work for the change we would like the see. This is exactly what I saw happening at the Habibi Center.
Seeing an idea growing big enough to change so many peoples’ lives like Habibi Center should be a motivation to everyone. Thank you Stephanie for the opportunity. Thank you to all the students that I met there! You have given me a different perspective of life and showered me with motivation.
Begoña (Spain) – Volunteering from March to July 2017
In February 2017, after volunteering for a few months in Katsikas and Faneromeni Refugee Camps, I had to say goodbye to the people that everday taught me something new and special: fathers that had to be strong and protect the rest of the family although they run out of energy; courageous mothers that travelled with their children and whose only dream was to reunite with their husbands; children that, despite all what they saw and lived, played and smiled constantly.
I met Stephanie right before my departure. She told me about her educational project and about the educational needs the children had, as some of them could perfectly communicate in English but couldn’t read nor write a single word. I found it really interesting and I decided to stay. I had never thought that Habibi Center could be that magic gate for learning, for self-control, for motivation, and, the most important thing, for a better future!
Every morning, with some laziness, we used to wake up and, as sharp as Swiss watches, the students used to show up with plenty of energy and joy. Children of different ages all with a special charm. They looked like any other children, although they had to live through something different. Despite that, they didn’t lose the smile, the energy to play, the energy for joking. All this is what makes them special. Special also because they are hungry, hungry for knowledge, hungry for becoming a better person, hungry for growing as human beings and helping others, hungry for justice, hungry for improving the World where they live in. That hunger is their motivation and engine which, together with that magic gate that Habibi Center has been for some of them, might help turn them into doctors, lawyers, teachers, interpreters, etc. Because those are their dreams. Dreams which, I’m sure, they won’t stop fighting for.
My role was merely to support them in the learning of the different tasks, help them by solving any doubts and push them to be concentrated in class to be able to do the tasks properly because, as it happens with any child, they didn’t need so much to get distracted.
My experience in Habibi Center was way more than positive. From the youth, I learnt the willingness of learning day after day, their eagerness for overcoming everything and their ability and strength to face any issue. From their families, I learnt the value that life truly has. From Habibi Center, I learnt to realise that everything is possible if you really believe in it. Also, that help is not only to give a fishing rod or a fish to eat, but to learn how to build the fishing rods, show which are their best bait, and, of course, how to properly fish.
Thanks to everybody over there because, once again, I took more than I left. Also, thanks to Stephie and Habibi Center for improving and strengthing the future of the lovely youth. Thanks because you all made me believe again that a better world is possible!!!
Evija (Latvia) – Volunteering from January to March and from May to September 2018
“Hello, my teacher! How are you? I miss you!”
Hello, my Habibi. I miss you too. In fact, I miss you all so much that since I left, a day has not passed by without me thinking of you and remembering how your smiles and that spark in your eyes illuminated every day of every week of my time in Athens. I also have not stopped trying to find ways to come back and commit to the project for longer.
Habibi Center is magical in this word’s purest meaning. It is a school that is not defined by desks and stools, grades and levels but at the same time has the brightest and most hard-working students, healthy competition between them and a high standard, quality study programme provided by international volunteers. We put our hearts in lesson planning, always consider students’ needs prior everything else and use lots of creative methods in our classes with the idea to empower vulnerable youth with practical tools to improve their lives, gain independence and boost their confidence. Even though the center is informal and learning environment is relaxed, it still teaches discipline and allows students familiarize themselves with a feeling of belonging to a school.
Habibi Center made me realise how much can be achieved by putting simple but practical ideas into action and not leaving any space for fear or excuses. How far a project can go with initiative, pure intentions and dedication. And how positively lives of many young people can be affected by providing a safe space for them to study in and perhaps escape from their every day realities for a little while. And sometimes it is that friendly heart-to-heart talk, some culture sharing, fun and laughter together, exchanging experiences and learning about each other that make a huge difference, too.
Early mornings, busy afternoons and late nights – the work was hard but worth every moment of it. And in return I got to know some of the smartest, bravest and most motivated students who despite their circumstances thrive when given the right environment for growth. Who do not allow their backgrounds define them and have strong aspirations for their future and are willing to work as hard as it takes to achieve exactly what they want in life. They already have and I believe they will go very far still!
I wish to thank you all for all the love, trust and belief that I have been shown and given, and for reminding me every day why my decision to return to Greece was worth making.
Katy (England) – Volunteering from May to June 2017
I volunteered at the Habibi Centre from May-June 2017 and assisted the children at the school with their English, Maths and Science. Steph, who runs it, asked me to write a testimony about my time teaching there; and my initial response was to write about the leaps and bounds that I saw the children make.
I began to write how easy it was to tell the difference between the children who came everyday and the ones who didn’t; how their understanding increased each time, how broken sentences in English became whole; and difficult maths problems became simple… and I will write about that, but I think the most important thing to mention is the doorbell.
A doorbell might seem like a strange point to begin with but bear with me. The Habibi Centre is based in a top floor flat in a less desirable part of Athens. School starts at 10 everyday…or at least it is supposed to. As usual some children will stroll in at 10:10 or 10:20 and laugh or smile when you remind them the time that school actually began.
So now, back to the doorbell. It’s a buzzer which rings through the whole flat. It sounds like a very loud and very angry bee. It’s not a pleasant sound. The doorbell would usually begin buzzing at 9:30 – sometimes earlier. One of us would answer and remind the children waiting outside that school doesn’t start until 10am. The area isn’t the nicest so we’d buzz them in and let them wait in the corridor outside. Then five minutes later the buzzer would ring again. Again, another group of children had arrived early. Again we’d buzz them up and they’d wait outside.
Sometimes by the time 10am rolled around, the corridor outside would be packed with children chatting away, sat on the floor and each other’s laps. They’d cheerfully walk in with ‘hello teacher,’ – the go to greeting of any of them who couldn’t remember my name.
The point about the buzzer and the children arriving early for school is that, having volunteered in Greece previously, I’ve seen how many educational projects struggle to get regular attendance. I heard of schools with just two children in attendance even though there were hundreds in the actual camp. So many children turn up to the Habibi Centre it’s often bursting at the seams.
The strength of the school is that children want to come because they have been shown that that they belong there. The children would wake up early of their own accord, often unprompted by parents (I know this because so many of them told me) and would wake up their other siblings to come to school. I point this out because so many children in the UK would not wake up of their own accord to go to school.
I saw how the three rooms of the apartment provided a space for them to learn and grow. I saw children grapple with science questions in English, which was often their second or third language (after Arabic, Kurdish etc.) and which many had only been speaking for a matter of months. The children are exceptional and this is down to them for the most part, but they were shown a place where they could be normal children at a school by Steph and those who support her work at the Habibi Centre.
This isn’t to say things were always perfect. It’s a school and these are teenagers. I often had to remind specific kids that watching cartoons on YouTube would not supplement their learning; and others who dramatically lay down on the floor when they couldn’t do a Maths problem that it was a school and not a theatre performance.
And yes…the buzzer got on my nerves but I made my peace with it. Every time it buzzed, it meant another child had turned up. Many of the children at the Habibi Centre have been through trauma that is unimaginable to most grown adults; and many in attendance right now will be living in a situation that is less than desirable, often waiting to hear if their asylum will be processed and unsure of what country they will end up in and what new language they will have to learn next. But still they get up every morning and walk through the streets of Athens to a school on the 7th floor. They will press that buzzer until their fingers get sore.
And that is something quite amazing in my opinion.
Mark (England) – Volunteering from November to December 2017
I’d never volunteered for anything like the Habibi Centre before and so I was at a total loss on what to expect. The things that really struck and stayed with me were the following:
It’s hard work. Despite being a native English speaker to be engaged for 7 hours (no breaks) then marking homework and planning the next day’s session is fulfilling but demanding work. Your days will be full.
The students. Not for one minute during the day did it ever come across that they were victims of a crisis. They were intelligent and eager students. Each one had such character. They were all hard working, humorous and inspirational they were truly a pleasure to know and teach.
Steph. I knew of Steph’s story and was very impressed by her incredibly generous and caring character. What surprised me was just how successfully she does what she does. How personal and versatile the school is, how she gets the students to be so motivated and eager and just how pragmatic and driven she is. She’s a rare human with such an abundance of great characteristics. She’s also great company.
My role. Unconsciously I believe I went there with the idea I would be caring for, cheering up, entertaining and in other ways providing instant gratification to these young victims of the refugee crisis. I very quickly realised that is not the role at all and that role would benefit my own needs much greater than theirs. They are students and not victims. The role as I later understood it was to provide them with the order and discipline of a school environment. Provide them with the resource and motivation to work hard and drive their own education and future, and just to listen to and discuss with them your views and beliefs can make such a positive impact even if given a short time frame.
I enjoyed every element of every day there. Its challenging, its engaging, it’s fulfilling, I found it very educational and it was simply a brilliant experience.
Laura (Spain) – Volunteering from February to December 2017
I first heard about Habibi Center in December 2016 when my brother travelled to the north west of Greece for volunteering in the area. At the time, I was in Spain and it was difficult for me to travel over there. However, his testimony stirred something inside me and I became determinate to help somehow. After asking and knowing Habibi Center’s new needs, my husband and I happily helped organising the Habibi Center Virtual School and the official website. Since then, we collaborate in the distance.
Last summer, I finally managed to briefly travel to Athens and meet the wonderful Habibi family. I enjoyed some time with them and learnt more about their cultures and ways of life. And, I deeply fell in love with children’s laughs and spontaneity.
I would like to congratulate the Habibi family for all what they are doing, specially to all the extraordinary people that visit the center every day: youth, families and volunteers, who taught me important life lessons in these hard times. I am so proud of them. And I would also like to send a big hug to those who have already moved to other countries. My best wishes!
Even if you are far away from Greece, you can still collaborate with Habibi Center in some way.
Emilio, Cristina and Miguel (Spain) – Volunteering during summer 2017
It has been a lovely pleasure for us to do our bit in Habibi Center one more summer. What Steph and Toby started a year and a half ago has become a reality thanks to them and all the volunteers who have contributed with their work and support.
In a little over a year, the project has achieved to have young people with official certificates in English, Maths exams successfully passed, and being nearly ready for the upcoming Science exam they all will have to face. All that hugely helping to show their increasing knowledge. The most important thing here is not the aptitude, which is up to a point too, but the attitude with which these young people are facing their future. Nowadays, human resource departments of large companies speak so much about terms such as adaptation to ‘disruptive changes’ and ‘resilience’. What change can be more disruptive than having to flee your country leaving behind your home, studies, friends and even your parents or siblings, in some cases? Who does it dare to question the ability of these young people to keep fighting to be able to get back and have the sort of life that corresponds to someone who is not yet in their adult age and is still in the training stage?
For all the above, the most important thing these young people show us everyday is the huge determination they have to study and learn, and to face with courage the uncertain future they are facing since they left their homes, but with no hesitation nor giving up feeling, at all. We cannot find enough words to thank Steph for her dedicated life to the service of those who are struggling for one or another reason, as well as her affection and her honesty for the invaluable work she does. We also thank Alex for the warm welcome he gave us this summer in Athens.
The boys will eventually leave Athens little by little and Habibi Center will have to readapt to the new times. There might be no more classes, the project might be relocated to another place or maybe only running classes through Habibi Center Virtual School. Who knows what the future holds for all of us! In any case, all the shared experiences lived by people who have supported the project will always remain.
We only wish these young people not to lose their desire to be trained and to keep building up a future wherever they go so they can live happily. Unfortunately, the previous is uncertain and it only depends on them. What is unquestionable is the love they showed us from the very first day: That’s simply the way they are.
Anne (Finland) – Volunteering during January 2017, during April 2017, and during June 2018
I volunteered at Habibi Center during January 2017 teaching art. It was an experience that I enjoyed very much! Though it wasn’t always easy, I needed to do lot of planning and preparations for the classes and had to use lot of creativity to come up with good exercises for the kids. But it was absolutely worth it!
Besides teaching art I think my main job was to encourage the kids. I loved seeing them gain more confidence and to get excited about learning new things. Also when thinking about life in Greece in general, who wouldn’t enjoy Greek food and appreciate the friendliness of the Greek people??!!
Magdalena (USA) – Volunteering from December 2016 to January 2017
In December of 2016 I had the opportunity to volunteer as an English teacher for Habibi Center, when it was located in Eleousa, Greece. Having very little experience with victims of war, I really didn’t know what to expect. What was revealed during my time there was a fantastic group of people, both students, teachers and locals. It was very inspiring to be part of a grassroots organization that was independently funded and run by the love that everyday people had for humanity.
Looking back on the experience I believe that I learned just as much if not more from the kids than what I imparted. Their resilience and triumph over on going challenges just to survive day in and day out was something very inspiring and humbling for me. Their drive to learn and live life to the fullest in the face of adversity is something that I have taken with me since returning to the States.
In a period of such darkness it is hard sometimes to see the light. For me, these children are that light, they’re the future and we need to invest in them. If we hope to break the cycle of war, violence and poverty, education is our best bet. That is why I believe so strongly in the Habibi Center and what they are trying to accomplish.
Katerina (Greece) – Volunteering from August to October 2016
All the goals and the dreams of one year, fitted in two months of ‘fast forward’ teach and learn procedure. I remember myself being in a multicultural environment one year ago, then suddenly deciding I want to keep that feeling of interaction with people from different parts of the world, by doing what I am able of, in the same time feeling useful both for myself and for them. I decided to teach the only foreign language I knew and was barely proud I could speak, English. It’s the moment when I note that I’m a student of Russian language and literature department in Greek University. The reason I note that is because not of a need to show my educational background, because at this point would be none of use, but because I want to share that I’m still a student and especially of a foreign language. I realized that this title brought me closer to people I tried to teach, not because of a silly title but through the same need we felt for learning as much. I and the people I taught had one thing in common. The thirst to speak a language, even if it was not 100% our choice to do so. But because we had to, and because we shared that need in a certain level. Every day in Habibi Center was special. Every tired cell of our bodies was resurrected by one single laugh or hug and every difficulty seemed funny in front of the big dream: Learn, Have fun, and LIVE. I could easily describe that school’s overall purpose with those 5 words. English, Computer Basics and Drama and…. So many people…such a big party of willingness and of hunger for life. They say kids are the future, I only had met present and past in my life. They showed me how to picture future by saying only one typical phrase: “See you tomorrow”. My heartbeat is still the same fast as it was when I heard it first time. I feel a nostalgia in my mind and I wish for the best. Only if I could teach them that word! Like they could teach me how to write my name in their language or how to respond when one of them called me ‘TEACHER’.
Alex (Spain) – Volunteering from December 2016 to January 2017, during August 2018, and from January 2018 to present
I was volunteering in Habibi Center in Eleousa last December 2016, being in charge of the Maths class.
Life there was very easy. On the one side, the students. It’s not easy for them to say goodbye to the volunteer who they had been sharing a lot of time with and suddenly have to welcome a completely unknown person and getting some confidence again from scratch, but I quickly got very close to all the students who attended my class. To see their evolution and their hungry for learning and reaching new goals was something magic. We both had a reciprocal relationship as they also had a lot to offer me: humbleness, ambition, kindness, generosity, humanity.
On the other side, my fellow volunteers. I did enjoy the time with them. We all created a really healthy and positive environment & I learnt a lot from their cultures, different points of view about many discussed topics and varied principles.
Finally, I’d like to say THANK YOU to the Greek neighbours in Eleousa who also were an important part of this project for giving and supporting us in every aspect. Σας ευχαριστώ πάρα πολύ!!!
I will definitely go back, sooner or later. These youth and their families deserve it. These youth and their families need us. The beautiful experience I lived will never vanish from my memory.
Manuel (Spain) – Volunteering during September 2016
I went to Ioannina last September. During the mornings I help as a teacher in the Habibi Center. I taught computer to young boys and girls. It was a great experience because all of them where very nice. Most of them like learning English and computer very much, so they work hard and with great interest in class.
I remember the first day, when I arrived to Eleousa, where the classes took place, they all ask my name and thanked me for being there.
During my days in Eleousa it called my attention that they were most of the time smiling, despite what they had lived.
I believe that these classes are very useful for them, not only for the things that they learn there, but also for opportunity to have a peaceful place to share with other boys and to believe in a better future.
Definitely, it was a very good experience, very positive for the boys and I am very grateful to have been able to participate in it. Many thanks to those who make it possible!!
Inés (Spain) – Volunteering from September to December 2016
I’d like to thank all the students I met at Habibi Center and all of the ones who I could luckily share quite a long time with as a Computer’s teacher.
I’d also like to thank Stephie and Toby for their dedication, sacrifice and commitment to run this different and needed school and for overcoming every possible obstacle.
Also thanks to all the people who supports this project.
My experience at Habibi Center was very positive and rewarding, both with lights and shadows, that I’ll always carry with myself.
I wish that all the boys and girls I met are able to keep growing up and learning, have a life full of opportunities and that everyone makes their dreams come true, away from the pain and suffering that they should never have lived.