The HOME project

I find myself at a loss writing about the refugee crisis, which might be taking a backseat to the pandemic in the public eye at the moment, but is far from over. I know both of these emergencies are very difficult to deal with, but I feel that the authorities are not making a very good job of managing either. Everyone has become quite weary of the constant stream of bad news, so I was glad to come upon the work of a wonderful young woman whose dedication and positive attitude have resulted in the foundation of the HOME Project, a non-profit organization set up to address the needs of unaccompanied minors in Greece.



Sofia Kouvelaki is the CEO of the HOME Project, and she very kindly agreed to answer my questions:

Tell us a little about your story and your engagement with unaccompanied refugee children.

My engagement with lone refugee children began when I went to Lesvos for a documentary on unaccompanied children in detention for the Bodossaki Foundation just as the refugee crisis was beginning in November 2014. At the time, there were only a few, self-organized volunteers in addition to the coast guard who were helping people out of the water. The situation was unprecedented.

During this time at Lesvos, I was thinking about my path in life and the great inequalities this world contained. I witnessed first-hand a situation in which many of the children had been dressed by their parents as the opposite gender in order to protect them from various dangers during their journey. Having to negate one’s whole being in order to save one’s life was very shocking to me.

It was at this point when I began to recognize the need for a support channel to bring aid to the most vulnerable, especially children who were travelling alone and were exposed to all sorts of threats.


Could you give us some details on the issue of unaccompanied refugee children in Greece?

In Greece, there are more than 4,100 unaccompanied children, of whom more than 2,020 are outside a system of protection (according to the latest data of National Center of Social Solidarity). This means that at the moment there are children in the streets, in camps, and exposed to all kinds of exploitation such as abuse, violence, drugs, organ trafficking and more. If these children are not placed in a safe shelter, they cannot and will not receive any information on their rights or have access to any appropriate services. Furthermore, they are missing crucial aspects of their development as they grow; such as access to education, access to mental and physical health services, and social inclusion.

The HOME Project addresses this issue by receiving children from camps, police stations, and detention centers and welcoming them in the safety of our homes in Athens, where we provide a holistic network of child protection services through an individual development plan for each child that we care for. This plan addresses the general and particular needs of each child, including physical and mental health, educational, social, life skills, and legal support with the ultimate aim of social inclusion.

From a broader perspective, we would like to change the way people perceive the refugee crisis, especially regarding minors. Integrating these children and youths into society can only have a positive effect, as long as their marginalization is eliminated and replaced with social inclusion and equal access to opportunities.

 



So, what was the next step—and how was The HOME Project founded? What organizations do you have supporting you?

The HOME Project began as a targeted intervention of child protection for unaccompanied refugee children in Greece. It was founded in response to the call made by President Obama to the private sector to help in addressing the refugee crisis in 2016. Our partners are people and organizations who truly care about children and believe in our model of child protection.

We started with the opening of the first shelters in 2016. Soon after, the IKEA Foundation and the Shapiro Foundation supported us to scale up our operations, reaching 11 shelters. Recently, with the support of the Dutch Government we managed to open 3 more shelters in collaboration with a Dutch NGO Movement on the Ground.

Currently, we operate 14 shelters and we have offered child protection services to more than 570 children since 2016. One shelter is for young children, from 5 to 12 years old; three are for underage girls including underage mothers with their babies and nine are for teenage boys 13 to 17 years old. There is also one shelter for the children who turn 18 and are supported in their step toward autonomous life.

Equally important are several private partners and foundations that have supported smaller scale projects, especially during the lockdown in Athens. Due to these latest public health developments, other donors covered the emergency budget needed to cope with the challenges of Covid-19 pandemic.

 

What is the action plan for THP beyond the infrastructure?

The Home Project shelter model is based on three pillars:

1. Provision of holistic network of child protection covering food, shelter, material, medical provision, social, legal and mental health support with the ultimate goal of social inclusion.
2. Job creation. We have created 170 jobs for refugees as well as for Greeks. In order to integrate into any society, people need a HOME but they also need a job. Half of our shelter staff is comprised of refugees who become role models for the children, demonstrating a better future is achievable.
3. Adding value to the local economy. We create value for the local economy by renting unused buildings—victims of the financial crisis—and we empower the engagement of local communities via community building events. The development of healthy relationships in the shelter and with the local community, as well as enhancing participation and social inclusion, are equally important. Specifically, we actively seek to collaborate with the neighborhoods in which the shelters are located. For example, we supply our shelters with everything needed from local grocers, butchers, supermarkets, and pharmacies. Through this practice, we aim to create a support system around each home and fight xenophobia and stereotypes.


How are the HOMES organized?

At the core of our model is child protection. Our Child Protection Unit consists of professional social workers, psychologists, lawyers, psychiatrists, and an implementation model, which concludes in an Individual Development Plan for every child we care for. The Individual Development Plan represents a complete framework of child protection and is an ongoing process, aligned with the development of a child in five main areas: a) Mental Health, b) Education, c) Life Skills and Socialization, d) Social Support, e) Legal Support. The HOME Project recognizes and addresses the reality of the needs of each child, which go beyond just nourishment and housing.
The staff in the shelters attend weekly supervision by external mental health professionals and receive monthly training from our Child Protection Unit in child protection protocols, in order to be prepared to take on the responsibility of replicating the parental environment as well as providing a system of social welfare and support that is nonexistent for these children in society.




You insist a lot on education as well?

Education is vital to the development of children, and all children under our care attend school. In addition to public schools, we have partnerships with two of the biggest private schools in Athens.

43 children have received full time scholarships at ACS Athens with the support of Shapiro Foundation and over 210 children have participated in the innovative, educational “Youth to Youth” Program in collaboration with ACS Athens and supported by IKEA Foundation; Similarly, more than 70 children participated in the innovative program “School Project” in collaboration with Athens College. As part of these programs every Saturday, by physical presence and/or online children of The HOME Project “buddy up” with students from these schools and are taught Greek, English, art, math, music, and sports. This initiative aims to create a space of interaction where youths from the school have the opportunity to socialize with refugee children as a way to fight xenophobia, break stereotypes, and bring the two communities closer.

I heard you’ve had a big success story regarding educational achievements?

We have one case of a young adult who had been accepted to Science Po in Paris. Though he was initially denied asylum and wasn’t able to travel, we began a large public campaign to push the authorities to review his application. His asylum request was subsequently granted by the minister himself along with the asylum of two other children under our care. He is now living in Paris and receiving an exceptional education. We are very proud of his success.

How do children arrive at The HOME Project and how long do the children stay with you?

The children we accommodate are being referred to The HOME Project from all sites, camps, detention centers and homelessness, through national authorities. The authority of the referrals recently moved to the office of the Special Secretary for the Protection for unaccompanied Minors at the Ministry of Migration and Asylum with a Ministerial decision from the National Center of Social Solidarity (EKKA). The Public Prosecutor for Minors in Athens remains the legal guardian of all minors referred to our shelters.

The length of the stay for each child depends on the individual case. We have children who with our support apply for asylum and stay until their adulthood, while we have cases able to reunite with their families in other EU countries and who stay with us until our legal team completes their process.

Do the children eventually reunite with their families? How does this process work?

Since the beginning we have already managed to help 130 children reunite with their families. However, this process can take more than a year, as we need to prove they are indeed part of the same family. This length of time can take an immense toll on the children. In one case, a girl under our care suffered from eating disorders for a year because she couldn’t join her mother in Germany. After receiving multiple unlawful rejections, the decision was challenged at a court in Germany and she finally received a positive answer. Though this process is often arduous, family reunification is a necessity for each child if possible.

 


Are there children who arrive in Greece without having other family members with whom they can be reunited? What happens to these children in the future?

There are children who do not have families to reunite with. These children have left their homes for various reasons such as war, persecution, or poverty. Other times they have been separated during the journey or the parents have passed away.

With our support these children apply for asylum in Greece and stay in our shelter until they reach 18. However, no child leaves the shelter until they are ready for the next step. Some of the children who remain under our care after their 18th birthday stay in the 18+ shelter; others move into their own apartment and find their own job with the help of The HOME Project. Many go into technical fields; becoming plumbers, electricians, tailors, and chefs.

During the last four years, 45 of our children have been integrated into the labor market with permanent or seasonal jobs after turning 18 years old. Additionally, several of the children formerly under our care are hired as cooks, cleaners, and caretakers in the shelters upon reaching adulthood. Having been given these jobs in the shelters, the new staff members serve as role models for the children they are caring for. In this sense, they instill hope in the minds of the children.


How has THP dealt with issues presented by the pandemic?

The pandemic has made operations more difficult. The complications mostly stem from the lockdown: employees cannot move efficiently from shelter to shelter. Asylum service offices have suspended operations and affect our lawyers who are working on important issues regarding the children. Moreover, we hired more staff to temporarily take the place of those who have a higher health risk and to ensure that the needs of all children were being met.

Despite the recent COVID-19 pandemic, we have successfully managed to support the community building aspect of our model through projects such as the WWF Shelter-Greening project, which included the offering of plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables to the neighboring local community as well as a mask creation project in which the children of The Home Project in collaboration with WWF Hellas and WaterMasks designed and produced protective masks for the homeless people of Shedia Street Paper. The project aimed to raise children’s awareness on environmental and social issues, while giving them the opportunity to give back to the community and express their solidarity amidst these challenging times.

Recently, during the holiday season, children created greeting cards which they shared in the neighborhoods and send by post to our friends and supporters in order to thank them. In this way they can learn universal human values that will accompany them throughout their lives.

In terms of the risk directly posed by COVID-19, testing is the most effective way in which we can combat the virus. There has only been one positive, asymptomatic case in the shelters from a child who got it at school, and the entire shelter underwent a 2-week isolation period. While no more cases were recorded anywhere in The HOME Project network, the pandemic has taken an emotional and financial toll.


What can people do to help?

People can help in three ways
• Financial support: The HOME Project welcomes donations from individuals or organizations – either single gifts or regular contributions.
• Time: Join our team as a volunteer
• Resources: All forms of support (e.g. materials, food, clothing, services, internships, job opportunities, etc.) can make a big difference in our work

People could also spread the word about our work towards the most vulnerable children and help us raise awareness on our initiatives. Europe of 2021 has to ensure that no child can be allowed to remain invisible or alone.

Let us talk of something frivolous

Life under the present conditions has become very monotonous. It’s impossible to plan anything and, although I’m never bored—having access to books, paint and nature helps—I must confess I find it hard to come upon interesting subjects to write about. There are no cultural outings or trips to be had, and I do miss dinner with friends in a restaurant (oh, the luxury!) and occasional evenings at the cinema, theatre or a concert.

Books aside, we’ve been obliged to fall back on Netflix for entertainment and the really good films or series are few and far between. Thus I have found myself watching the extremely popular series, Brigerton, which has managed to accrue over 80 million viewers—and one can see why: a steamy romance set in Regency England, full of family secrets and racy subplots. Pure froth and escapism, just right for this dreary winter.
Those of you who have not watched this extravaganza, or are planning to watch it and want to avoid spoilers, switch your laptops off now. Anyone else who feels like a trivia-fest, feel free to weigh in.


I greatly enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek look at the racially-mixed high society, the—at least partial—disregard for historical fact, the anachronistic musical scores, the petulant character and gravity-defying wigs of the Queen (see above), the lovely settings, the exquisite clothes and especially the beautifully choreographed ballroom scenes.
However, even more gravity-defying than the Queen’s wigs was the plot, or absence of it: instead of being a skeleton on which to hang the different parts of the story, it seemed to have been cobbled together with the sole purpose of taking the viewer from one set piece to another, necessitating a major suspense of disbelief.



Tell me, dear reader,

Why would the Queen be so determined that her nephew, who surely must have had a bevy of princesses and duchesses at his disposal, should marry the daughter of a minor lord?
Why was the Duke of Hastings’s vow to his father such a big secret? Couldn’t Daphne have asked her mother to find out, or asked Lady Danbury directly? (Well, I suppose that if she had, the story would have been over by Episode 2…) 
What happened to the Prince’s necklace? Daphne can hardly have just dumped it in the shrubbery.
How does Penelope, who is meant to be penniless and, surely, chaperoned, have access to a printing press and a horse and carriage in which she is seen gallivanting by herself in the middle of the night? (spoiler alert, in the ultimate twist she is revealed to be gossip columnist Lady Whistledown).
How does a ball held outdoors, which ends with the guests being soaked by a sudden shower, have chandeliers hanging above the dancers? (See below)

And what the hell is ratafia? (I admit I looked this one up—it is a kind of sweet wine, much favored by the ladies at the time. Also, I should have known this: my mother was a fan of the Georgette Heyer books, which I devoured at the age of around twelve—too long ago to remember…)



Lastly, all the male characters strut around in calf length riding boots, which seem to just …vanish (melt away?) when they decide to get naked with their love interest. In my experience, however, this kind of boot takes ages to pull off, or necessitates a boot-pull or a third party to help. That’s why modern riding boots have a zipper down the back of the leg…

I can hear you saying, who cares? No one, it’s just a bit of fun. But please, Shondaland, pull yourself , and the plot, together  before season 2!

The women’s gowns were ‘exquisite’ but I’d kill for that waistcoat



And just so you don’t think I’ve gone completely daft, I have two new recommendations for you: I greatly enjoyed Girl, Woman, Other by Booker Prize winner Bernadine Evaristo—a very shrewd look at human relationships via some avant-garde writing. Also a quietly elegant film called The Dig, about the pre-war archaeological discoveries at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, starring Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes and Lily James (new on Netflix).

Random thoughts (and drawings)

January and February have never been my favorite months—it’s still SO DARK! Usually I’m a morning person, but I find myself feigning sleep so the dog doesn’t ask to be let out at 7 a.m. She also has to be dressed, alas. See below the latest in dachshund winter fashion…


We have been deprived of many little pleasures of normal life: sharing a bottle of wine and a nice meal with friends (preferably prepared and served by someone else!), wandering around an art exhibition, taking in a show…Moreover, in any wanderings we are surrounded by people wearing masks, so even exchanging a smile is not the same.

We are lucky at least that we can enjoy some entertainment at home. I really enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit (about chess) and Dickinson (a very amusing takeoff on the poet’s early life), and a wonderful documentary called My Octopus Teacher. Remember I wrote about An Octopus in my House (A strange Pet)?Well, this one is even more remarkable, since it is filmed in the wild, underwater, in a kelp forest. Highly recommended. Unfortunately, it has quite put me off eating octopus, which I used to love. But, it inspired me to make an ink drawing.



There is only so much screen time I can take, but I’m a bookworm, so I’ve devoured some of my TBR pile: Where the Crawdads Sing,  by Delia Owens, about a girl growing up in a swamp—wonderful), two cozy mysteries: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Oscan (very entertaining) and The Guest List by Lucy Foley (a page-turner), a thriller called Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins (another page-turner). On a totally different note, Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin (about a woman caretaker of a cemetery). And finally a memoir called The Lightless Sky, by Gulwali Passarlay, describing his journey, as a twelve-year-old boy, from Afganistan to the UK (mind-boggling). 

I do love to have a couple of books on the go, so now I’ve started Girl, Woman, Other, which won the Booker Prize for writer Bernadine Evaristo, together with The Mirror and the Light, the last in the Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel (a huge slab, but I loved the first two, so I will persevere). I’m also dipping into The Lemon Table, short stories by Julian Barnes. Hope this list will inspire some of you.

Apart from chilly walks wrapped up in layers like an onion, I’ve also been drawing. I finished up a few Christmas present comissions.



The ones above inspired me to make a large elephant pencil drawing.

 



I find I’m more in the mood for drawing than painting at the moment. I added a couple of drawings to my ‘Travelers’ series.

 



My resolution for this year is to include more human figures in my work, and even, dare I say it, some portraits. I find I always collect portrait photos because I so admire the capability of artists to reproduce likeness and expression. I’m also drawn to portraits in museums because they show so much about each era. So perhaps it’s time to try for myself.



Laughing into the New Year

As we march, or slither, into an uncertain future, I thought what better way to convey my somewhat belated good wishes than by trying to amuse you. It is a well-known fact that laughter is the best medicine.

So here’s a selection from some of my favorite comic strips and New Yorker cartoons: 

🔸For those who never make to midnight

🔸For parents of annoying teenagers

🔸For doggy people

🔸For cat lovers

🔸For those who aren’t sick of politics yet

🔸For ladies who lunch

🔸For optimists

🔸And pessimists

Hope that’s got you smiling at least.  Happy New Year!

And may it be less bizarre than the last one.

 

Celebrating Christmas

This year’s celebrations will be difficult if not nonexistent for a lot of people. Yesterday my thoughts were with the hundreds of truckers blocked on each side of the Channel who will not make it home to their families for Christmas. But it’s not only them: so many elderly persons living alone and unable to see family, so many families divided, so many displaced and homeless people. Those of us who have a roof over our heads and food in our plates already have a lot to be thankful for.

At a time when the news is relentlessly bad and the future is uncertain, what better way to celebrate than by listening to children’s voices, joyful and pure.

 



El Sistema is a social education program founded in Venezuela in 1975 by Dr. José Antonio Abreu, which aims to provide inspiration through music. It has expanded to more than 60 countries and, since 2016, El Sistema Greece has the goal of bringing music education to children and young people, including those in refugee camps in Athens and on the island of Lesvos. Thanks to music, these kids are given a platform for dialogue and togetherness across diverse communities.


One of the most fervent ambassadors of El Sistema Greece, world-famous Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has visited Athens many times, for performances and workshops. Now she joins her voice once again with the members of the El Sistema Greece Youth Orchestra and the El Sistema Greece Youth Choir, who come from 30 different countries, in a virtual concert hosted by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

I give you The First Noel, and wish you all a very happy Christmas!

https://youtu.be/ilqrly3FBWo






Saying it with flowers

Life seems to be getting more and more weird each day—with new lockdowns everywhere, people are forced to exist in a sort of limbo. We’re waiting—for what? To be free to return to our previous existence? But when? Meanwhile the virus in Denmark has mutated and is spreading via mink farms. They’re planning on culling 17 million animals to try and stop it. What next? Hopefully we won’t have to cull our dogs and cats. That would be too horrible to even contemplate.

 

In every way, we’re trying to adapt to a new reality, and make the best of things. I love going to the theatre, but sadly that’s out, so I took the opportunity to watch a play online. What a Carve Up is adapted from a satirical novel by Jonathan Coe. It is an ingenious play about the venality of the Thatcher era, a murder mystery with an extra twist. I enjoyed it: the actors were excellent, the plot was developed in original and interesting ways. Well worth it and a change from Netflix. A ticket costs £12, and you get a link to watch in the 48 hours following your chosen date. You can watch on a laptop or, better still, connect to Apple TV, in which case you can make a family evening of it, with drinks and popcorn. For anyone interested, you can get a ticket here: https://www.whatacarveup.com/

This cultural foray made me mull things over. Art depicts life in many ways—if this pandemic carries on, will people in new films be shown wearing masks, and staying away from each other? If I write a short story, do my characters need to wear masks and keep washing their hands? I continued wondering about this while watching a film set in the fifties, where the actors smoked non-stop, and nobody wore a seatbelt. Now characters in films are constantly peering at some kind of screen, and if they smoke, it’s something stronger—but more tolerated nowadays—than nicotine.

 

I digress, but there doesn’t seem to be much to write about these days (I refuse to dwell upon the American Elections). So I will try and lift your spirits by posting some pictures taken a few months ago, when we managed to squeeze in a visit to Monet’s garden at Giverny. There were not many people around, which was just as well, because Giverny is not a public park, but a private garden, with narrow paths between the flower beds. I dread to think what it would be like to visit when they have their usual 4000 people per day—shuffling along in a queue behind a coach group led by a guide, I suppose.

 

As it were, we wandered about happily. The place is beautifully kept up, and we were told it’s worth visiting at different times of the year: in May it’s covered with different types of iris, and in late August it’s full of sunflowers.

 

The famous lily pond lived up to expectations—it’s a magical spot. Apparently the water lilies tend to take over, so they are carefully pruned back to resemble the patches Monet painted over and over (he made a series of about 250 Nymphéas, as they’re called in France).

The inside of the house is very pleasant, with a collection of lovely Japanese etchings on the walls and a sunny yellow kitchen. Monet had a complicated personal life, reading about which gives a little extra spice to the surroundings.

 

All For Blue

Having spent many summer days snorkelling, and thus having witnessed, over the years, the deterioration of the Mediterranean sea floor—while also being an obsessive collector of beach trash—I was interested to come upon a woman who is dedicating her life to the solution of these problems. Meet Katerina Topouzoglou, founder of the organization ALL FOR BLUE.

Photo credit: Alex Suh

Katerina grew up in Greece and spent a lot of her time in the water, becoming in the process a world class underwater target shooting champion, freediving and scuba instructor. She also has a thing for sharks.

What Katerina saw on her ocean adventures inspired her to dedicate her life to ocean conservation. She was kind enough to answer my questions:

Tell us a little about your story. What was your initial involvement with the sea?

K: I was an athletic child, and practiced many different sports from a young age. Finally, I realized my element was water. I was competitive, and my dream was to compete for Greece. I took up underwater target shooting, which is a swimming pool sport that combines apnea with shooting at a target with a speargun. In 2014 the Greek team went to Italy to compete and I totally messed up—I was so anxious! I came back determined to work at it, I practiced as much as I could, entered any swimming pool competition going; and in 2016 I went back to Italy, as Captain of the Greek team, and this time I won three medals in the European Championship, and two medals in the International Championship.

You have many strings to your bow: shark protection, ocean conservation, educating the new generations. What motivated you to make this your life’s work?

K: I watched a video of Cristina Zenato, who is famous for her technique for removing hooks out of the mouths of sharks, and I was fascinated. I emailed her, and managed to get on one of the courses that she runs at a diving centre in Freeport, in the Bahamas. She’s a great instructor, and I loved her approach to things. We got on really well, we became friends, and I went back several times. I also got my scuba diving certifications there. She was my inspiration, not only for my organization, but for the necessity of educating the world about sharks.

Aren’t sharks prehistoric creatures?

K: Of course they are; they evolved before dinosaurs. They’ve been on this earth 450 million years. Only for that, they deserve our respect. They are very misunderstood creatures, and—something I didn’t know at first—they are extremely important for the equilibrium of the eco-system. The fact is, we only get 50% of our oxygen from trees—the rest we get from plankton. Sharks keep the ocean clean by eating dead and wounded fish; where there are sharks, the sea floor is alive and wealthy with all sorts of creatures—fish, turtles, dolphins. In the Mediterranan, in many places you see few fish and a sea floor full of rubbish.

How does the Zenato shark technique of ‘tonic immobility’ work?

K: You get the animals to come close and touch their noses, and that induces a state of tranquillity which allows you to relax them, and get the hooks out of their mouth. Different species of shark behave in different ways. I’ve practiced mostly with Caribbean Reef Sharks. Sharks in general like fish blood, not human blood. Generally attacks are rare—there are 5-8 fatal shark attacks per year, whereas humans kill 100 million sharks each year.

 

Photo credit: Noel Lopez Fernandez


Do sharks realize you’re trying to help them?

K: Again, it depends on the species of shark. For example, whale sharks entangled in nets will go near divers, as if they understand they will get help.

How did ALL FOR BLUE come about?

K: All the ideas come to me while I’m in the water. In 2015, I went to Mexico on a project to measure microplastics in the sea. We collected water 600 miles from shore—it took days to reach the spot—and it was full of microplastics. That’s when I decided to quit spearfishing and devote myself to conservation. My initial interest with keeping the sea clean came from my parents, as a child—so I thought it would be a good idea to connect with the younger generations, and that could best be done through the schools.­­

I started by myself, and now, after four years, All For Blue has  a team of 20 volunteers. We organize seminars in schools, where we give out diplomas, that the children can use later in their college applications and CVs. We also do research with the data we keep from the marine debris, keep records of all trash removed, organize exhibitions, and, of course, beach and underwater  cleanups.

It’s difficult to keep an organization like this alive, because in Greece, especially in the last few years, it’s been hard to get funding. We collaborate a lot with local communities, setting up programs in the areas of interest of the relevant authorities, who can then cover our costs; and also with companies. 

So, this has become your career;

K: No, this is my life purpose. For my day job I’m a real estate agent in Cyclades. But nothing gives me as much pleasure as talking to kids in schools, sharing my knowledge. I’m touched by the response of the people who follow my seminars. The see videos of the sea and they have so much enthusiasm to help and join in. All the medals I’ve won in my life cannot compare with this joy; this is my life’s aim and I feel driven from above.

Do you usually get a positive response from local authorities?

K: Not always. Some are not convinced: they deny there’s any rubbish, don’t see the necessity for seminars or diplomas. What is fantastic is the reaction of the children themselves. Even in the technical colleges, where kids are quite street-wise, they become riveted. On some islands they have started their own teams, and are doing great work. There are now 20  such teams, the most active of which is in Kalymnos. We did two seminars there, and we send them reusable equipment—all plastic free, of course. We’re all very proud of them.

How do you choose the venues you visit? Are you proactive, or do they contact you? Are they mostly Greek?

K: Increasingly we have companies contacting us, in the framework of CSR. They ask us to give seminars to their staff, or they subsidize programs for their company. However, we contact the schools ourselves. This year we got a contract for a yearly project in Cyclades called #KeepMykonosBlue. The program included beach and underwater cleanups, and from this year all plastic removed during our cleanups are turned into trash cans, by using a special procedure. These are now on the island in central areas, such as the stadium etc. 

 

Wherever I travel, I contact the schools. Apart from Greece, we’ve done seminars in the Bahamas, Miami, Djibouti, South Africa and others. Once I went with a group to Cuba for a diving project. We had a free afternoon, so we just walked into the nearest school; we didn’t even speak Spanish. I was very impressed by how knowledgeable the kids were about the sea. They still send us emails about beach cleanups they organize. 

When talking to kids, how do you combine sharks (cool) with trash (potentially boring)?

K: Of course we start with the sharks! But we are passionate about what we do, so we have developed a seminar that is fast—we try to keep a momentum going, with plenty of brief videos and not much lecturing. We show the kids shark teeth we’ve found underwater, and talk about that. Before I start talking, I show little videos of various projects, to get their attention: research projects, freeing mammals (turtles, dolphins, etc) from nets, how hard it is for a diver to get a plastic bag out of the bottom. A dolphin trying to free itself from a plastic bag. I also talk about bio-degradables, and how they’re not as green as advertised, because in the water there’s not enough oxygen; so they break up into little pieces and the fish eat them.

 

What are some of the weirdest things you have removed out of the sea?

K: The first thing I found that shocked me was a shopping trolley stuck in some rocks. Thankfully I had help from other divers, but it still took us 45 minutes to get it out. The list is endless: washing machines, a radiator, 4 scooters, tables, chairs, champagne buckets…

I want the kids to still be shocked. I want our actions to inspire, and have a return to the local community. I insist on education before the cleanup, but I especially insist about the underwater cleanups; because there might be somebody to pick trash off the beach, but few people dive and do cleanups.

We have now collected more than 220 tons of rubbish and given out 55.000 diplomas. In three years, 30.000 of those only in the Cyclades and the Dodecanese. It’s lovely to return to the same places when we can. 

How is the organization coping with the present restrictions?

K: We’ve replaced school visits with Webinars. And outdoor events are held with limited numbers of participants, who wear masks and practice social distancing. Here I would also like to point out that all the equipment we use—gloves, bags, etc—is  plastic free.

Do you have a motto or catchphrase?

K: All for Blue and Blue for All!

Also:

The sea needs allies. Are you with us?

 

Athina Koutsokosta and her daughter, volunteers in All For Blue cleanups

What can people do to help?

K: Lots of things: even making a small donation or buying reusable products from our e-shop, such as stainless steel reusable straws or thermos reusable cups. You can volunteer, join clean-ups, invite us to your country (if you are a relevant organism), invite us to talk in a school. Make your company plastic free.

Where can people follow you on social media?

K: All For Blue has a site, (www.allforblue.org) where you can see exactly who we are and what we do. We’re also on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter, (https://twitter.com/allforblueorg ), as well as posting videos on YouTube. You can link to all of these via our site, too; we’d love it if you followed us!

Footnote: According to new estimates by Australia’s government science agency, CSIRO, at least 14 million tons of plastic pieces less than 5mm wide are sitting at the bottom of the world’s oceans; more than 30 times as much as is floating on the surface. Also microplastic has been found in the actual flesh of fish. Finally, Western countries such as England export millions of tons of their rubbish to Third World countries, instead of processing it themselves. Scary, isn’t it?

September light

The world around us feels extremely weird at the moment: people wandering around in masks, unreliable information buzzing about our ears, uncertainty about the future. Political leadership is underwhelming, to say the least, and crime has increased, sometimes taking on strange manifestations: all over France, horses are being maimed and killed in their fields, for no discernible reason; in Canada, a cable was cut, sending numerous gondolas plunging into the forest below. What can possibly possess people to think of doing such things? 

The news in general makes for uncomfortable reading.


Due to the circumstances, I have not been gadding about to art shows or going on road trips—thus I have been uninspired to write. I took a break and just enjoyed other people’s posts; lazy, I know—but, after all, it’s not homework!


My refuge, as always, is nature. In Greece the light has subtly changed, heralding the coming of autumn, although the temperature is still high: it’s yellow and mellow. The pomegranates are ripening on the trees, so are the olives. The bougainvillea is blazing.  The house is full of baby geckos. I will try to capture some of this with paint and paper
; meanwhile, enjoy these few photos.

 

Listening to bees buzzing around I thought what fascinating creatures they are: I recently read an article describing how scientists are “scent training” honeybees like search dogs. They believe establishing long-term memory scents in bees could help boost crops like almonds, pears and apples.

Honeybees were given food scented with odours that mimicked sunflowers which then altered their choices about which plants to visit. Isn’t that amazing?


Also, I find the scent of jasmine irresistible—so subtle but bewitching. I’m digressing, I know, but I just wanted to reconnect: a few people have told me off for the radio silence. I’ve got a couple more interesting posts on the boil, so stay tuned! 

Liminal time

Here’s a wonderful post from my friend Anne Lawson, about the strange times we live in. Anne is an artist so have a look at the work on her blog, too!

Anne Lawson Art

Melbourne has been in Stage 4 lockdown for a few weeks now. Exercise once a day for a maximum of an hour; shopping for essentials once a day and only one person; only within a 5 km radius. And a curfew from 8:00 at night to 5:00 in the morning. Businesses have been severely curtailed, with only essential work to be carried out and workers needing a permit to show they are essential.

Mask-wearing has been mandatory for about a month, and most people are complying.

Our borders with NSW and South Australia are closed.

Fortunately these very strict measures seem to be bringing the numbers down, although our elderly in residential care have had a very tragic time. You might like to read my last post about our Elders.

And me? Thank you for asking! I feel that I have been doing this for ever, and indeed it has…

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Wednesday Wander Revisited – Panathenaic Olympic Stadium, Greece

You might like to read about this wonderful stadium, made out of white marble and blessed with great acoustics. At the 2004 Olympics, I went there to watch the archery competition.

Helen Glynn Jones

I originally posted this Wander almost exactly four years ago, when the Olympics were in full swing in Rio, the world celebrating together as it usually does. However, although the 2020 Olympics were scheduled to take place this month, things are much different. The Tokyo Olympics have been postponed until next year, but even that hasn’t been confirmed, as we live in such uncertain times. It’s such a shame, and I really feel for the athletes who have been working towards this for so long. I’m not much of a watcher of sport, but there is something about the Olympic Games that captures my imagination, and I find myself caught up in the atmosphere and excitement of it all. Therefore, as we have no Olympics to celebrate this year, I thought I might revisit a Wander that takes us to where the modern Olympics began…

Olympic Stadium 2I thought it might be…

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