The mobile school project in Thessaloniki blows out 10 candles

Posted on 09-04-2019

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the mobile school project in Thessaloniki. Happy birthday, ARSIS and PRAKSIS! For 8 years, our two local partners shared one mobile school to work with different target groups. In 2017, they applied for a second mobile school to increase their impact on the street by reaching out to more street-connected children and youngsters. In July of that same year the implementation training took place and in March 2019, a follow-up training was organised, to coach and reenergise the two local street work teams. 

What did ARSIS and PRAKSIS achieve after 10 years of working with a mobile school?  Time for an interview with the local experts to find out.

From ARSIS:

  • Valbona Hystuna: Head of ARSIS’ Youth Support Center, working at ARSIS since 2003 
  • Nikolas Ftiakas: mobile school volunteer from 2014 till 2015 & coordinator from 2015 till 2019
  • Eleftheria Ladia: mobile school volunteer in 2018 & coordinator since 2019
  • Alberto Pérez López: mobile school street educator since 2017

From PRAKSIS:

  • Stefania Pantazi: coordinator of PRAKSIS’ programmes in Northern Greece
  • Meni Christidou: mobile school intern in 2009 & coordinator from 2010 till 2016
  • Theodore Kazakis: mobile school volunteer from 2015 till 2016 and coordinator from 2016 till 2017
  • Eleni Poda: mobile school coordinator since 2017

 

How did you get to know Mobile School? 

Valbona: One of my colleagues went to a meeting of Dynamo International in Brussels in 2006 or 2007. When she came back, she informed me about the beautiful tool she saw during a presentation by Mobile School. She thought it would be a good tool for us to use, since we were working on the streets for a long time with children that had been victim of trafficking and exploitation. At the end of 2008, ARSIS applied for the mobile school and in 2009, the implementation training was organised with Ann Van Hellemont (former Mobile School Manager) and Rob Sweldens (current Mobile School Manager). It was an amazing experience. So amazing that I did the training twice (laughs). I hear the same from my colleagues. Many of them have participated in at least one Mobile School training and the feedback is always positive. The trainings are interactive and you learn a lot. It’s often about such simple things that you wonder why you haven’t thought of them yourself. It’s up to us to then implement the training in practice. 

Stefania: 12 years ago, one of my PRAKSIS colleagues went to a training in Spain and got to know Mobile School there. PRAKSIS was already working with street-connected children back then, but it was difficult to really reach them, so the mobile school seemed like the perfect tool for us. After Ann and Rob came, we were really excited, because our problem was solved! The implementation training was amazing. It was exhausting – an entire month! – but it enabled us to do everything we’d imagined doing for the children. It’s not just the mobile school, but the entire philosophy behind it, the way of working with the children. 

 

What was your first experience with the mobile school?

Meni: The long training we had, of course. One month of training with about 15 people and two amazing trainers. I will never forget our first street work intervention with the mobile school in Dendropotamos. I remember us standing there in the beginning, not really knowing what to do, while Ann and Rob – the two only people not speaking Greek - where entertaining all the children at the mobile school (laughs).

Eleftheria: My first experience with the mobile school was the first time I went to Dendropotamos as a volunteer, almost two years ago. It was a great experience, because it was the first time for me to be close to a different population, but still have such a nice communication and cooperation with everyone. I was fascinated with the mobile school as a tool from the very first day, because I understood that it can be very helpful for both the education and the better and deeper approach of the children.

What was your best experience with the mobile school?

Eleni: I don’t have a unique favourite experience with the mobile school but I do have a favourite moment. The moment when a child understands that he or she can do it, the moment they realise that they have abilities too. The smile of achievement is the best thing I experience with the mobile school!

Alberto: I cannot answer this question without the word: “everything”.

Meni: Only one? There are so many. All the happy faces! If I have to pick just one, it would be the first intervention in Agias Sofias camp. During the training, one of the most important things Ann and Rob told us was about the approach of a street-connected child. They told us that touching the children (e.g. tapping them on the shoulder) is not always a good idea, because in many cases, the children have connected that touch with something bad. When we arrived at the camp, all the children were really excited about the mobile school. They all ran towards us to check out this new thing we’d brought. Well, almost all of them… There was one little boy of about 3 or 4 years old. He was really cautious and kept his distance. I really wanted him to be involved, so I approached him and I did the wrong thing. I tried to touch him on the shoulder to say “Hi, come play with us!”. The child made a movement with his hand, to protect his head from a slap and immediately took five steps backwards. That was the moment I remembered Ann’s and Rob’s words. I told him “Okay, take your time. I will be there waiting for you!”. I went back to the mobile school, keeping an eye on him. After half an hour, while I was sitting on the ground, the child came, hugged me, smiled and asked me to play with him. That was such a happy moment for me! I felt really relieved. From that day on, we became really good friends and played and explored together. 

Nikos: A lot! In 2017, for example I met a child I worked with in 2014. The first thing he wanted to tell me was that he continued going to school and that he was in high school now. So that’s certainly one great moment. 

Theodore: The majority of my experiences with the mobile school took place in Peraia, a Roma camp in the rural region of Thessaloniki, Greece. My best experience isn’t one specific event. It’s the different moments during which we received help from the people of the camp. From giving us water in the heat, to providing us with space in the shadow to conduct our sessions and even to opposing other people from the community and defend us from a verbal and physical assault. Those were always very humbling experiences, that kept teaching me a valuable lesson. We may think that we are in a position to provide some kind of support and help, but we – as educators – will always need support, too.

What is your drive to continue with the project?

Eleftheria: It’s important to celebrate small wins and to not focus too much on long-term goals. Something that makes me really happy is just seeing the children having fun and learning small things, taking small steps. Even if they manage to write one simple word correctly or give you a smile or a hug,… For me, that’s already enough to keep going.

Eleni: The mobile school programme is multidimensional, so except from the children and the goals that we have in the camp, another reason I am still motivated to do this work are my volunteers. They are really passionate and motivated. Since there are new volunteers quite often, somehow they inspire me to stay motivated and try new things all the time.

 

What is the added value of the mobile school to street work?

Stefania: With the mobile school, you meet the children and their families in their environment. For me that’s the difference, we have to put ourselves in their shoes. Working with the mobile school gives me the power to think that this community has the opportunity to change their lives and I’m very happy to collaborate with my wonderful colleagues, who give everything they have to change the lives of these children. The mobile school gives everyone who works with it the possibility to open their souls and minds.

Eleftheria:  Because it’s so big and has so many colours, the mobile school is a very easy tool to attract children and get closer to them. For me, the best part of the mobile school is the communication, the way you connect with the children. After a while you see that the children start asking for you, that you build up a trusting relationship with them. That’s the best reward for me. I also really like the energisers and all the games you can play with the children to interact with them. While playing, they feel free and it’s the perfect start to get to know each other. During the games, we find out more about the children and their families and we can collect a lot of information to do case management. The tool gives us a lot of opportunities.

Nikos: I agree with Eleftheria. To do street work, you need to be able to identify the children and their needs, but the difficult part is establishing that connection. You need to be able to get in contact with the children and the easiest way to accomplish that is by making them curious, by offering them something they don’t know yet. The mobile school is a great tool to do that and we saw that the combination of the mobile school with social circus works wonders as well. The children see you with different eyes, you’re not just an adult anymore but an animator. It makes it easier to get connected and once you know the children, you can start connecting with their families too and support them as much as you can. 

Eleni: When I first saw the mobile school, a whole new educational world emerged. It is something unique and it is very difficult to understand its power if you have never used it as a tool yourself. It’s a symbol of union, equality and fun. It’s the best partner in work. It would be really hard for me to work in a different way with kids now, since according to me, mobile school combines everything. It fights the cause and not the symptom.

 

How would you describe the mobile school in 3 words?

Eleftheria: Enjoyable, educational and colourful.

Nikos: A mysterious magix box.

Stefania: Empathy, creativity and happy.

Valbona: Smart, colourful and power.

Theodore: Heartful educational change.

Alberto: Ultimate guerilla educational tool! Sorry I used 4 (laughs). 

Eleni: Unique, innovative, adaptable.

Meni: Colours, smiles and acceptance.

 

ARSIS and PRAKSIS have been working with the mobile school for 10 years. What do you think you have achieved in those years? 

Alberto: Trust. In many places where we are doing interventions today, ARSIS already worked with the mobile school in the past. More than once, I’ve been approached by adults telling me they also played with the mobile school when they were younger, that they learned a lot and had a really nice time. 

Meni: Reaching children, many many children. All these years, we have been reaching children in their environment and that is a huge accomplishment for me. All the interventions and the activities we’ve done. And the feelings both the street workers and the children have felt. All of this. For me, the mobile school was huge school both professionally and personally. It was such an amazing experience, the best experience of my life really. I think I became who I am through the mobile school. 

ValbonaI think the mobile school tool inspired us to work with very different target groups in different periods and in different ways, since it’s such a versatile tool. In the beginning we mostly used it to work in Roma communities. Then, to work with trafficked children and with the children working on the streets. It was very helpful there as well. Afterwards, we wanted to address the advocacy on children’s rights, so we used the mobile school in schools for one year. Then, the refugee crisis started and it was the only tool that we could use at the border between Greece and Northern Macedonia and in the refugee camps. In the past 10 years, I have seen results up-close. Children from Roma communities saying they will wash their teeth from now on, children in refugee camps talking about their rights,…For me, this is really important to see. The children from all these different groups learn something they didn’t know before, something that makes them focus on something new. It’s nice to see the organisation grow as well. There are 20 people working here now! It’s really nice to see what we’ve been able to accomplish so far.

Theodore: In the past 10 years, the mobile school has become one of the core programmes of PRAKSIS Thessaloniki. I’m especially proud of the work that has been done in Roma camp Peraia, where we have been working the longest. I sincerely believe that throughout these years, the mobile school project has managed to establish a kind of relationship that has an impact on the population living there and on the generations of children we have worked with.

Do you see ARSIS/PRAKSIS working with the mobile school for another 10 years? 

Valbona: I hope that I’m not going to be here for 10 more years (laughs), but I hope that in 10 years I will hear that ARSIS is still using the mobile school. I think it’s something that is not finished. I don’t have the feeling that we already accomplished our aim with the mobile school. It’s a continuous process, which always invites us to think creatively about how we can use the tool better, how to better support children and families in need.  

Stefania: And more, yes. I feel we have to do more about the match between this excluded population and the educational system.