By Naomi Marroquin
As I walked up the steps of The Imagine Project center entrance, it is the last day of fasting before Ramadan. The white plastered walls are painted with the phrase “you are safe here” in many different languages and colors. Tamar, who is the founder and the heart and soul of the organization, led us to the computer room where we would be receiving our orientation. Here she gave us the run down of what The Imagine Project is all about. Her natural red hair and her freckled ivory skin were commanding, but not compared to her clear devotion to helping asylum seekers. If you’re not paying attention, her seriousness might overshadow her big and humble heart. However, the intensity of her eyes and the tone with which she was talking to us made it clear that this organization is no joke, this work is no joke, and that we better be prepared to be useful, or to leave.
They are very strict here when it comes to fostering a safe environment for learning, and their ethos is to treat the asylum seekers they work with like the adults that they are. Everything here is earned through action and progress. The Imagine Project is an education center for adult asylum seekers and occasionally for minors. They focus on education and community, meaning they teach English and Greek, in addition to skills like computers and sewing. Often they support asylum seekers to use the skills and talents they bring with them.
In my first hour of volunteering here, I had the privilege of attending the Greek class along with several asylum seekers. Here, I learned alongside them, even as I did my best to help. I was fascinated as I watched them work to learn this language completely new to them. As a fully developed adult, learning a new language can be hard to do, and to see these adult learners repeat the Greek alphabet and beginner phrases with their teacher Sophia made me realize how hard they have to work to adapt to a whole new language, culture and system away from their family and home. I saw the uphill battle first hand. At first, I was surprised by how some asylum seekers were treated like high school students when they had their cell phones taken away because they were watching videos on youtube during lecture time, but then I remembered what Tamar said, Wifi is a rare commodity for an asylum seeker who has none in the Vial Refugee Camp located approximately 6 km outside of Chios Town, making it a 12 km round trip. Most of the adults who come to this center catch the Imagine Project bus to and from the camp 5-6 times per week in order to spend the day here before going back to the camp at night, but some walk the entire 12 km. A few come from within the town itself.
After class, I went up to Kellis* to introduce myself. Her skin was smooth and dark and her smile shy. She was beautiful. After introducing myself, she said, “I wish you could pack me in your suitcase so I could go with you to America.” She tried to make it sound like a joke, but this seemed to be a trend among the asylum seekers. Another refugee named Thomas* asked me for my phone number and said that he needed an American girlfriend that could help him have a better life. The power dynamics overwhelmed me.
Asylum seekers come from Turkey (about 10 miles away) by boats at night. Though the flow of asylum seekers has slowed since 2017, the Greek island of Chios still gets 4-6 boats (most about the size of the computer lab in the center, which is small) a week with 45-65 people on board each one, despite the fact that crossing is dangerous and many of them get stopped by military forces and never reach Greece. In the summer months, the military presence is dialed back so it doesn’t negatively impact tourism, so more asylum seekers take their chance to cross the Aegean Sea, and some asylum seekers facing deportation (they have been denied refugee status, and have lost their appeal) risk trying to exit Chios for Athens illegally.
Asylum seekers that work with The Imagine Project seem to appreciate the colorful, clean, and organized center, which from what Tamar describes, is the opposite of the camp, which can be violent, and a terrifying place, especially for women and children. Here, they believe in education as a means to a future. The asylum seekers I meet are mainly from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, and the Congo. Most are men. Their ages range from 18 all the way up to 70 years old, but most are in their high 20s or early 30s. Gloria* is a 22 year old female from the Congo. As I washed dishes and cleaned the kitchen after lunch, Sophia called me over to the staircase to see Gloria* and others from the Congo sing and play their traditional songs. I sat down on a step behind Sophia as I watched Gloria* sing in her native language, as the others played the guitar and sang along with her. How could I not get teary-eyed as I watched them sing, dance, and laugh? The beauty of their voices and guitar playing echoed throughout the small staircase as the sun shone through the front door. I was trying so hard to hold back the tears. I did not want to cry in front of them because I do not pity them. I am in awe of their resilience. I kept a big smile on my face as they sang because it was such an honor that they shared their talents and culture with me.
The Imagine Project provided me with an opportunity to personally interact and volunteer with asylum seekers, even though I was not one of their regular staff. I appreciate the opportunity and recognize that I am the one who learned lessons here today. I learned that supporting progress and human rights is hard work and often selfless. I can also share that these men and women are incredibly courageous and strong human beings. They work hard. They are skilled. They deserve dignity and opportunity. I will never forget Gloria’s* beautiful voice and how she danced with her friends. Despite hardships and injustice, people must love one another and never lose hope. There is always a reason to sing, dance, smile and laugh.
If you would like, please feel free to make a donation to The Imagine Project.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned.