Healing, Learning, and Shining: Two Leaders Lighting the Way for Young Refugees in Greece

Wael Habbal and Sofia Kouvelaki

Wael and Sofia look to camera.

When Wael Habbal arrived in Greece from Syria in 2015, he had to overcome tremendous obstacles, including healing from his own trauma, transitioning to a new home, and mastering a new language. But through the struggles, he found ways to help others on similar paths.

Around the same time, Sofia Kouvelaki was helping make a documentary about unaccompanied minor refugees on a nearby island. After witnessing refugee children fleeing to safety and almost dying from hypothermia, she knew she had to move away from capturing the story and start helping fix the problem.

Despite tirelessly working to address the same challenges in their community, Wael and Sofia had never crossed paths. Not until they both found themselves in the Obama Leaders: Europe program last fall. Around World Refugee Day, they came together to talk about what it means to provide dignified support to refugees in Greece, and how being part of the Obama Foundation’s network of leaders has helped them expand their work.

WAEL: This year’s World Refugees Day theme is: “Together we heal, learn and shine.” For me, the theme is really connected with my personal story and to the work I do now.

In 2015, when I came to Greece as a refugee from Syria, I didn’t know what I was going to do. To my surprise, there was no national integration plan. There was no connection between the locals and the newcomers. There was also no representation for those who were arriving in a new country. But despite my own obstacles, I felt like I could do something to help others.

When I started getting involved in different communities and groups, I started the process of my own healing. That’s what eventually led me to launch the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum.

Sofia, what does this year’s theme mean to you and the work you are doing at your organization?

SOFIA: Healing is probably the most important theme in our work. I started The HOME Project five years ago when the refugee crisis began. Now, we operate shelters where we offer a holistic network of child protection services. Basically, what we want to do is to create healing environments for refugee children that arrive in Greece all alone.

Without the healing element and the education that we also provide, these children can’t achieve integration, which is the ultimate aim of our work. For us, I think the words “healing, learning and shining” are also describing part of the child protection model that we implement with the kids that we work with.

WAEL: I believe we have all been through a lot of traumatic situations through our journeys, through the war, or through the journey of becoming a part of a different society. The first thing we need to focus on is how to heal ourselves and how to allow others to help us to heal in order for us to have more understanding of the reality around us.

Sofia, can you share a little more about what led you to refugee work?

SOFIA: In 2014, I was on Lesvos—a Greek Island in the Northern Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey—to make a documentary about unaccompanied minors in detention. Even before the height of the refugee crisis, the issue of unaccompanied refugee children was still prevalent.

We were there with the cameras, and there weren’t many activists. And really what we had to do was to drop the cameras and start actually helping the people who would arrive and would come out of the boats with the risk of dying from hypothermia. I ended up spending almost the whole year on Lesvos working closely with young children.

A group photo of Obama Leaders and refugees in Greece.

WAEL: Did anything surprise you about your experience working with refugee children?

SOFIA: I’ll never forget, there was a girls’ tent and a boys’ tent, and what started happening for a couple of days in a row was that we would take three- to four-year-old kids that we thought were girls, and then realize they were boys dressed up as girls.

The same thing was happening with Afghan girls. They were dressed up as Afghan boys. For us it was very stressful because if we didn’t change them on time and put them in warm clothes, they were at risk  of dying. We kept confusing the children’s gender, so we were trying to figure out, “Why is this happening?” It’s not random. Then after talking with the people who would arrive, we realized that they were dressing up the girls as boys to save them from being forced to be married to the Taliban.

And on the other hand, some parents would dress up their Syrian boys as girls to help them not to be militarized by ISIS. I think that whole experience shocked me to my core. I realized that we really need to do something about it. That experience changed me forever and made me realize that the physical location of where we’re born plays into our opportunities and safeties.

Wael, I wonder if you can you share more about your journey to Greece and how your experiences helped lead you into this work?

Sofia Kouvelaki, Obama Leaer in Greece

WAEL: Sure. As a kid, I remember my family, especially my uncles and my parents, were always helping others. That strengthened my own desire to help others around me, which led me to study law in Damascus. Of course, my studies were interrupted and I had to leave the country. For three years after I left my country, I wasn’t thinking of anything—I was just trying to survive. I was going to work, trying to rent a house, trying to help my family, but the moment I arrived in Greece and learned the language, I realized that I could give others a helping hand, helping them navigate the language barrier.  Helping others made me feel human again. It fulfilled my need to do something about the world we are living in today. I understood my value and skills, and the positive impact I could have on others.

SOFIA: And your personal experiences led you to start your non-profit, the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum, right? Can you share more about what you do?

WAEL: Yes, for sure. I am a Co-founder and Director at the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum. I think it may help to start with where our name came from and what it represents. Youth, for us, represents a mindset, rather than a specific age. We seek to provide a safe environment where everyone is included. We are an international community of activists, academics, and artists working together in order to break stereotypes, connect people, but also contribute to supporting refugees and contribute to the city we are living in.

We started in 2018, and until today we have done a lot of work with the municipality of Athens, with different communities, associations and groups. We proudly spread our cultures by music, dance and different arts. We then started advocating for our right to be called active citizens. For us, the term refugee is related to a lot of miseries and stereotypes. We believe that words have an effect, so we started advocating for everyone to call us active citizens as a social statement, not as a political statement.

SOFIA: So often, the kids you and I work with have been victims of a cycle of violence. They escaped war and then they faced a very violent journey to a new place. Then when they arrive in Europe, which they thought would be the “Promised Land,” they face even more violence and oppression. We must break this cycle of violence and start offering real support.

Wael, at the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum, you talk about providing dignified support to refugees. Can you explain what that means?

WAEL: From my own experience, dignified support requires a deep understanding of the people you’re trying to help. Dignified support means keeping everyone’s unique background and cultures at the forefront of decision making.  As leaders, we need to think beyond covering the basic needs of people. We need to do more than provide food and clothes, which is always needed, but we need to think beyond that. In my experience, the best solutions to crises come from the people who are facing the crisis themselves.

A black and white image of Wael, an Obama Leader in Greece, looking direct to camera.

Helping others made me feel human again.”

— Wael Habbal, Obama Leader

SOFIA: I agree. This has been a wonderful conversation. And it’s making me think about how important it is to surround yourself with other people doing similar work. It keeps you motivated and inspired.

That’s why I think the Obama Leaders: Europe program has been such a great experience for me. I’m so grateful that I’ve met people like you, Wael, and other leaders from all over Europe doing important work. I think for me, the program came at a really vital point  in my life. It’s so important to be able to be surrounded by a community of supporters where we can share inspiration, our worries, and also brainstorm new ideas on how to best serve our communities. What do you think?

WAEL: Absolutely, as you mentioned Sofia, it’s been such a great opportunity to be part of the Obama Leaders: Europe program. Being connected to other like-minded people gives me motivation to continue this work. It’s been amazing to meet other leaders, like you Sofia! We were both working on these areas of need in Greece and we didn’t know each other before. Now through the program, we became close and are working on some exciting projects together.

You can learn more about the Obama Foundation Leaders: Europe here.

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