Niel (Belgium) – Volunteering from February 2022 to May 2022
Ay ay Caramba! What a rollercoaster of beautiful experiences, friendships, learning, laughing and crying. An experience that blew me away and pulled me back up, just a little bit wiser than before. It was a dream to teach such motivated students. Every class we had I learned from them, a period in which I developed myself greatly. The other teachers created an open-minded, safe and fun atmosphere in the school, which made me feel at home every day. I’ll be back!
Lauren (The U.K.) – Volunteering from February 2022 to May 2022
It has been a real privilege to teach at Habibi Center for the last 3 months. The commitment from the students and other teachers was so inspiring, and it has been incredibly satisfying to see the personal progress and dedication. Each lesson for them was also a chance for me to learn about these incredible young people, and I enjoyed the safe, caring and professional atmosphere where students are so clearly loved, and where they thrive. I would love to return in the near future, it has been a real joy to be part of this incredible charity.
Alex (Spain) – Volunteering from January 2018 to April 2022
After 2 short but intense stays in the Habibi Center in December 2016 and August 2017, I decided to leave everything behind in Scotland, where I used to live, and come permanently to Athens to help in the coordination of the project in January 2018.
I came to give a 100% of myself, to find my way both personally and professionally, to open up and learn from different cultures, to understand the vulnerable situation of people who had fled their countries of origin to find a better and safer place to continue their lives, to witness first-hand the evolution of this hungry youth. All that I’ve lived during these nearly 4 years and a half has totally changed my perspective of life in so many ways.
There is a big rush to choose what to become as soon as possible, get a university degree, find a job related to that and get stuck to it for the rest of our lives, regardless the levels of fulfilment and happiness. That might work for many people, but it didn’t for me as I felt I hadn’t found my purpose in life yet. I feel extremely lucky to have saved some money during my 11 years of career as a draftsman as well as proud of having invested part of it on these intense years as a volunteer in Athens. Thanks to this adventure, I believe I have eventually found my true devotion: social work and teaching.
The responsibility I have felt during this time in Athens has been a huge challenge but also an amazing gift. Although some students only see me as a teacher, the connection with some others has been way more intense and I have become their friend, their older brother, their counsellor and sometimes their only support. I am extremely happy to feel that some of these resilient, loving, and compassionate youngsters will be part of my life forever.
And what can I say about Steph, the crazy and inspiring mother of this beautiful project? Countless moments surrounded by frustration, when things didn’t go the way we wanted; worries and tears, when some of our little brothers and sisters disappeared or set off on dangerous journeys; joy, while witnessing the evolution and successes of our strong students; laughter, when remembering dozens of anecdotes as well as funny misunderstandings with the youth; fatigue, while working really hard day after day to face new challenges; and happiness, when we stop and realise how much we have grown and how many goals we have achieved.
I am very grateful for everything that has happened to me since I came on board of the team. I do feel that this is not the end but the start of a new period that, hopefully, will be forever connected to this needed and special project called Habibi Center.
“But, teacher! Why are you a volunteer and have been helping us for free during all this long time?” I have faced this question so many times and it has never been easy to come up with an answer. That’s why I truly recommend being part of this wonderful project for a few months to understand me a little bit better.
To all the teachers and the unique students I have met, THANKS FOR TEACHING ME!
Joe (The U.S.A) – Volunteering from February 2022 to April 2022
As I reached the end of my time teaching at the Habibi Center I was struck by how opportunities in life are oftentimes not recognized and acted upon, bypassing chances to enhance and improve our experiences as human beings in this world. That being said I am glad that I was offered the chance to work with a remarkable group of colleagues and students from all over the world in Athens, one of the world’s most iconic cities. The staff of the Habibi Center truly work as a team, providing instruction to young refugees, mainly in English as a Second Language, but also in other subjects and life skills as well. The students that I encountered at the Habibi Center were eager to learn, adding the study of English on top classes in Greek schools. My time volunteering at the Habibi Center has encouraged me to return to teaching after having retired several years ago and it is my hope to be able to continue to be a part of the Habibi Center community.
Katrina (The U.S.A) – Volunteering from January 2022 to March 2022
Habibi Center was the experience I had dreamed about for half of my life. The program they offer to children-teens is amazing, an extended helping hand where the need is not only desperate but crucial. Habibi provides comfort to so many without parents to help them with structure in their lives (If you can imagine not having parents in your teens) the teens I taught, taught me a lot about resilience. I am grateful for this opportunity and am proud that I now have it as a part of my life. The teachers are so welcoming, they know how to make you feel right at home. Stephanie and Alex have done a fabulous job keeping the program going, constantly adding new elements to branch out into new ways to provide for their students’ future. There are not enough words to put it into how wonderful it feels to be a part of, but in a few words I will say.. they are preparing students for a bright and positive future from the worst of situations and succeeding!!! Katrina
Michael (The U.K.) – Volunteering from January 2022 to March 2022
Volunteering at Habibi the past two months has surpassed all of my expectations. Working with the students has been a real honour and a privilege. Their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn shines through the difficult and challenging situations that they may have recently encountered. It’s been so professionally rewarding to witness the students improve their English language skills in only the few weeks that I’ve been teaching them. The dedication and professionalism of the Habibi organisers and other volunteer teachers has been outstanding. It’s been a life changing experience and an adventure for me too on a personal level. l’ve had an opportunity to experience what it’s like to live in Athens, including its unique cuisine, mountain trekking and even a snowstorm which closed the city for a few days. All in all, I would say that volunteering at Habibi has been a truly humbling, yet remarkable opportunity and a real privilege to develop and support young learners in the next steps of their lives.
Alex (The U.K.) – Volunteering from September 2021 to December 2021
A year after graduating from university in 2020 and working in a job for a year, I started looking for opportunities to volunteer and work with refugees as it is something I would like to do in the future. The Habibi Center immediately jumped out at me as the perfect place to volunteer. I wasn’t sure how good I would be at teaching as this was my first experience of it, however with the support of the other teachers I felt comfortable in the role very quickly. The students are truly inspiring people who are so friendly and eager to learn. They always seemed to understand the importance of school and would often tell me how thankful they were of the opportunity to study at the Habibi Center. They would always keep me on my toes with the questions they would ask, and also asked for lots of different examples of how to use what I was teaching them in real world settings. The relationship with my students wasn’t only based on teaching. We would often have long conversations about everything from life and culture, to music and food, with them teaching me many things about their home countries as well. I also want to thank the amazing teachers that became like a family to me during my time in Athens. Stephanie, Alex, Camille, Mathew, Emily, Gladys, and Alena, thank you for sharing some wonderful experiences with me that I will never forget.
Emily (The U.K.) – Volunteering from September 2021 to November 2021
I came to the Habibi Centre so that I could gain some teaching experience after graduating. However, after volunteering for only ten weeks, I feel as though I have gained so much more. Working at the Habibi Centre has taught me that school provides students with a place to make friends, be safe and learn the importance of structure, discipline and respect as well as just being an institute for academic achievement. The positive impact of the school was regularly explained to me by my students, who felt grateful for such a welcoming space and continued to attend despite the endless spelling tests and worksheets I gave to them. I really didn’t expect to become as attached to my students as I did and as cheesy as it sounds, I really will remember them forever and am so grateful for how welcoming and kind they were to me. So I just want to say a massive thank you to all of the students and other teachers for making my experience so life changing ❤️.
Alena (Russia) – Volunteering from August 2021 to October 2021
I had been looking for a place to volunteer as a teacher for a short period of time. I didn’t plan on spending my time in Greece, but then I found the Habibi Center, and it felt like it was the right place. I stayed there for 8 weeks. At first, I thought that it’d be a long time, but now I wish it had lasted longer.
To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect and what was waiting for me there, I just wanted to teach. What I found at the Habibi Center was so much more than just a teaching experience. I found a little family.
I started off by teaching three classes and I was nervous about it. I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle 4,5 hours of teaching per day, I doubted I’d have enough energy for that. After my first day teaching, however, all my fears disappeared, as I got to teach the most incredible students. Every day they’d give me tons of positive emotions, their motivation to study sparked my motivation to teach. And no matter how hard my day was, my students would always light it up for me. It wasn’t always easy, but it was worth it. Sometimes we’d stay and chat after the classes, talking about everything in the world. I got to learn more about their cultures, I even tried several national dishes my wonderful students cooked for me. I’m so thankful to my students for everything I’ve learned from them.
Not only the student, but also the teachers are extraordinary people. We’ve done so much together; I can definitely say I’ve learned a lot from them. Stephanie, Alex, Camille, Matthew, Steven, Gladys, Emily and Al, thank you for all the support and comfort you gave me, for the incredible days I got to share with you and unforgettable experiences.
I hope to get back one day and hear my students calling me “teacher” again.
Chloe (The U.K.) – Volunteering from July 2021 to August 2021
I was lucky to find myself with a free summer in between leaving my previous job and going back into education and I wanted to use that time wisely. At home in the UK I volunteer as a teacher for refugees and I had always been interested in working with unaccompanied refugee youth, so when I found the Habibi Center online and interviewed with the lovely Steph- I knew it was the perfect organisation for me!
I had an incredible time working at the Habibi Center and only wish I could have stayed longer. The students are extraordinary individuals. I expected there would be teething issues, there always are when working with teenagers, but I was pleasantly surprised by the way I was warmly welcomed and respected straight away. My students were curious, enthusiastic and disciplined. I’ve never taught students with such commitment to their learning or determination to succeed- it was incredible. None of my students saw themselves as victims, their maturity and resilience was mind-blowing and I found this perhaps the most humbling thing of all.
The Habibi Center is unique in that it is not only a school but it is a family. Students are taught to love and respect one and other regardless of background and this really demonstrates itself in the classes. I loved watched friendships develop between my new students! I was also surprised with how strong a bond I personally created with my students in such a short space of time, I know we will stay in touch and I hope to see many of them in the future!
If you want to make a difference, join the Habibi Center. It won’t always be easy and you may experience emotional challenges along the way, but it will be an experience like no other and impact your life and the lives of the students forever. Steph and Alex are amazing people and I have the utmost respect for the work they do! This is not the end of my journey with the Habibi Center, it is only the beginning and I hope to return again next summer.
Steven (U.S.A) – Volunteering from July 2021 to September 2021
Shortly after leaving my job, I had an “itch” to combine my love for world exploration and my ongoing desire to engage in meaningful community work. Habibi Center was the first organization that I found on my search, and I felt an immediate connection with its mission and vision for refugee youth. While I have prior teaching experience with both youth and young adults, I had never worked with refugees before, let alone volunteered abroad. Neither held me back in reaching out and expressing my interest in the opportunity. Within days of connecting with Stephanie over Skype, I was booking my flight to Athens and preparing for what would soon be a life-changing experience.
My first day at Habibi Center was eye-opening and set the tone for the duration of my time there. At first, I was nervous. It was a new environment for me with unfamiliar people. The moment that the students walked through the door, though, an incredible amount of excitement, humbleness, and hopefulness overwhelmed my heart and mind. The students expressed an immeasurable commitment to their learning, and the teachers empowered their students to work hard, challenge themselves, laugh, and be part of the Habibi Center family. Soon enough, I felt that I had become a part of a family here, too.
Each day, I looked forward to waking up, preparing my lessons, and learning with my students. Some lessons were easier, while others were more challenging. I learned very quickly, though, that I did not need to settle for easy with my students. They were fully capable of being challenged in their learning, and they were ready for the challenge. I recall my second day as a teacher, after our first lesson about parts of the body, I challenged my students to “teach” and “quiz” each other on what we had learned the day before. One at a time, I asked them to come to the front of the class and teach. They were shocked at first, asking themselves, We’re students, why are we teaching? Soon enough, they found a love in learning not only from their teacher, but from each other, too.
Fast forward to my sixth week at Habibi Center, one of my classes was learning to write short stories. Their first stories were rough around the edges and showed so much potential, and the improvement in their story writing after just a couple of weeks was truly incredible and a testament to the students and their eagerness to learn. One day, I assigned them a series of pictures to write their story about, and they were challenged to write a story with someone else in the class. As I observed my students writing their stories together — learning, laughing, and growing with each other — I experienced a personally profound moment; I love Habibi Center, I love my students, I love the teachers who I work with, and the thought of leaving them in a couple of weeks pulled at my heartstrings in a way that I had never felt before. I was going to miss it all, so much.
While I am writing this from the U.S.A., I am grateful that my time with Habibi Center is not coming to an end. I look forward to continuing to support Habibi Center from abroad, until I am able to return to Athens. Stephanie, Alex, and Camille — Thank you for welcoming me into Habibi Center. Your leadership and selflessness are the reason why so many refugee youth are able to have a safe and welcoming home at Habibi Center to learn, grow, and thrive. You have become lifelong friends of mine. Anita, Matthew, Chloe, Alëna, and Gladys — It is a privilege to be able to teach alongside such passionate and devoted individuals. Your leadership inside the classroom is the reason why our students will be able to reach their fullest potential. You, too, have become lifelong friends of mine. To my students — Thank you. I hope you learned as much from me as I learned from you. You truly changed the course of my life forever. Your resilience is unmatched, your curiosity is admirable, and your strength to turn your dreams into reality will take you wherever you want to go and be in this lifetime. I love you all so much.
Best wishes, always and forever.
Anita (The U.K.) – Volunteering from April 2021 to July 2021
I was fortunate enough to arrive in Athens as months of strict lockdown restrictions were coming to an end – and the Habibi Center was finally able to open its doors again. My first day of teaching was also many of my students’ first time coming to the ‘physical’ Habibi Center, having only met their classmates on screen up to that point. So in a way, we were all in the same boat – nervous, excited, but above all grateful to be in the same room together after the isolation of lockdown. And what a lovely room it was! Steph and Alex have created an amazing space, transforming an Airbnb apartment into a welcoming and inspiring learning environment. From the very first day it was a pleasure to teach the students, who are in some ways ordinary teenagers but in many other ways extraordinary people. I was constantly impressed by their maturity, generosity and commitment to learning, all in spite of the injustices they’ve faced at such a young age. It was also really nice to see the students come together and find common ground in spite of their differences in language and culture – even if it was often through a shared love of TikTok… I’d like to thank Steph, Alex and Camille for making my experience such a positive one. As someone new to teaching, I was a little daunted by the prospect of taking two classes every day. However, with their constant support and the wealth of resources available, I was quickly put at ease. Nearly three months on and I’m planning to continue teaching back home in the UK. I will miss my Habibi students and hearing “teacher, teacher” every day, but I wish everyone the best and hope to see you all again soon!
Tim (Australia) – Volunteering from January 2021 to March 2021
Locked down in Athens during COVID with time on my hands, I was looking for a project that would keep me productive and help make a difference. I knew of the Habibi Center through Camille, one of the teachers there and decided to volunteer. Initially I was expecting to just help with some support projects, but Steph encouraged me to take on a class and I have had a very rewarding experience helping a beginning student learn English. Everyone was incredibly supportive in helping me get started despite my lack of background in teaching. The more I learn about Habibi Center, the more impressed I am with the organization, but more importantly, the community of students and teachers that they have built.
Jake (U.K.) – Volunteering from October 2020 to March 2021
I would usually start by talking about how I found the Habibi Center, but in actual fact it found me. The welcoming world of volunteering Facebook groups allows for spontaneous connections and as soon as Steph popped up in my messages, it felt like fate. The friendly skype call included a tour of the school with the fabulous artwork scattered across the walls and heart-warming decorative messages. I was enticed and booked my flight instantly. My first team meeting introduced me to the professional but flexible process of the teaching schedule. It was the perfect balance between experienced structure and the freedom to direct lessons in the best way a teacher sees fit. As a relatively unqualified teacher I never felt uncomfortable or out of place due to the astonishing support from all the team. The Center lies in the bustling heart of Athens with an environment of warmth, history, culture, and an exciting unique way of life. The predominant aspect that I take away from my experience is the marvellous nature of the students. You will never have been in a classroom with such energy, enthusiasm, focus and determination to learn. Steph and Alex’s phenomenal method of organising classes depending on language levels and student’s personality means every class is perfect for each individual students’ development. However, after a week of teaching, Greece was thrown into a second lockdown and our teaching moved online. But, apart from the nature of the classes, nothing else changed. The eagerness of the students endured, and I received vast assistance and help adjusting to this new way of education. After nearly 5 months of online lessons, I have developed a durable bond with my students that is unbreakable. Thanks to the Habibi Center I have more substantial knowledge into teaching, the complexity of running an NGO, and a general awareness of myself. I am in debt to Steph, Alex, Camille, Israe, Edward, Ester, and Tim for joining me throughout my journey, and providing vital friendships during the challenges of the pandemic. There is no doubt I will reunite with the Habibi Center in the near future and re-join the family I’ve sadly left.
Ester (Spain) – Volunteering from January to March 2021
After some time thinking about doing something to contribute in some way to the refugees’ situation, I found Habibi Center through a friend of my family, who knew the project first-hand. I really liked the idea of teaching English, as it is something that I’ve been doing for years in my own country. When I arrived in Greece, the country was under lockdown but expecting to reopen in a few weeks as the covid cases were decreasing. Schools like Habibi Center were closed and we only could teach online. Teaching this way was quite challenging as the students have many difficulties (lack of good Internet connection, a lot of noise coming from their rooms…) but Alex and Stephie always tried to find a solution by buying SIM cards for them or speaking to the students’ social workers to improve the learning environment. I was surprised to see how motivated the students were and how they really want to learn. There were many issues during the lessons but still, they were trying to join the class again and again. Covid cases in Greece got worse so, unfortunately, I was never able to teach my students face-to-face. Even though it wasn’t the experience I had imagined, I don’t regret having travelled to Greece to teach online because at least, I could meet amazing volunteers like Jake, Camille and Tim. I also witnessed all the difficulties around the students and, in some way, I tried to do my bit. I could realise that far from my home and far from my daily life, there are people who really need our help and who can’t be ignored anymore. Thank you for this opportunity that has changed a part of me. Ester 🙂
Israe (France) – Volunteering from october to December 2020
I had the opportunity to have three free months during my studies, and I knew I wanted to use them to contribute to a social project. I contacted lots of non-profit organizations around the world. But as soon as I had my interview with Steph and Alex, I knew it was the perfect project. If you’re searching for a serious teaching place with an extraordinary environment, it is HABIBI CENTER ! The day I arrived in Athens, I felt already at home surrounded by friendly and really helpful people. I had no experience in teaching English, and especially in a class. I assisted Steph for one week in her classes to feel more confident and learn more about the way of teaching in the center. Actually, there is no rule, you can approach each class differently using all the material and resources provided. The students’ motivation to learn English was beyond all my expectations. It was a real pleasure to teach them, and to see their English improving each day. I had two classes, so I met my students for one hour and a half every day. That made me have such a strong link with each one of them. You learn so much with the teacher but even more next to the students. I am impressed by all of the work, the personal investment and sacrifices made by Steph and Alex to create a welcoming and unique atmosphere where all the parts can grow and evolve together. I am so grateful for this opportunity, and so honored to be part of the HABIBI CENTER family. Thanks to Steph, Alex, Camille, Edward and Jake in HABIBI CENTER.
Edward (U.K.) – Volunteering from August to December 2020
I feel very grateful for the opportunity to volunteer at the Habibi Center – and I maintain such admiration for the wonderful organisation that Stephanie and Alex have developed over the past few years. The school is exceptionally well-organised and maintains an extremely friendly and welcoming environment, which is highly conducive to learning. At the heart of all this are the students, who were always a joy to teach: kind, dedicated and full of energy. Perhaps what struck me most throughout my time teaching was the incredible maturity of these children; inevitably a product of exceptionally demanding life circumstances, yet channeled so positively in their exemplary behaviour and efforts to learn English. I found this dedication to their studies, in spite of life’s challenges, both inspiring and heart-warming. Fellow teachers were equally committed to the work, perpetually enthusiastic, and always a source of great company. I will miss everyone dearly. I intend to stay in close contact with the Habibi Center going forward, and I wish everyone associated with this fantastic project the greatest of success in the future. Good luck!
Adrielle (U.S.A.) – Volunteering from March to June 2020
I interacted with a few non-profits in Greece before I found Habibi Center. Right away, I was impressed with how organized and purposeful this organization is. It is a wonderful teaching space full of resources and materials, and the main coordinators Steph and Alex were always so delightful to work alongside. The students are wonderful humans whom I feel so lucky to have met and taught for a few months. This is a truly meaningful experience for those that are able to partner with Habibi Center! With gratitude, Adrielle 🙂
Carol (U.S.A.) – Volunteering from April to May 2018 and from January to March 2020
I have had the joy of volunteering twice at Habibi Center. There is nothing ordinary about this place. It shines! No one is left out! The walls speak with poignant refugee self-portraits and the hallway echoes with laughter. Students and staff are all one family!! Volunteers receive thoughtful instruction on how to present learning materials in a structured and creative way. There is a positive learning environment within the Habibi Center which includes a welcoming atmosphere and sequential curriculum with clear objective goals. And not to be forgotten is Greece, itself! What an amazing country and kaleidoscope of cultures!! The center is in the heart of Athens within walking distance of bustling shops, historic Greek ruins and a cool “pigeon park”. My only regret in volunteering at Habibi is drinking way too much coffee!! Oh well, it was worth the caffeine overload!!
If you yearn to help young refugees move forward in their dreams, enjoy teaching and value relationship building I highly recommend this non-formal educational center. Just don’t forget to bring your favourite coffee cup!!
Evangelos (Greece) – Volunteering from February to September 2019
I met Stephany when I was doing my CELTA course in Athens. As I got to know her better, I learned about the amazing work that she had been doing at Habibi Center. I was truly touched and astonished by her drive and sense of self-denial.
I began volunteering at the Center shortly after I finished the course. During the six months that were to follow I was exposed to a reality that exceeded my expectations. I soon realized that what Stephany was offering to her students transcended the notion of mere English lessons. She was providing a sense of much needed structure and normality for the lives of so many students who had these taken away from them at such a young age.
Habibi Center serves as a refuge in its own right. A place where refugee youth can feel at home and are encouraged to express themselves through language and various art forms. For many students it has been a point of reference from which they were able look towards the future with purpose and ambition.
Stephany and Alex have been teachers as well as mentors for their students. At the Center, I have seen firsthand the transformative and empowering effects of being treated not as a victim but as an equal. Students are respected but not coddled. They are expected to put in their work just like any other student.
Volunteering at Habibi Center has been a humbling and inspirational experience. I feel grateful and honored to have been part of the Habibi Center family.
Perhaps this is the most valuable lesson to take from Habibi Center: A relearning of one’s own potential. A leap from powerlessness to accountability.
Thank you Habibi.
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.