Creating space for young people in Ritsona refugee camp

Young men attend an art workshop supported by the Lighthouse Relief. Photo by: Claire Thomas / Lighthouse Relief

LONDON — The Ritsona refugee camp in Greece hosts more than 750 refugees awaiting relocation elsewhere in Europe. About a quarter of them are children and adolescents aged 16-25. Many of these young people — most of whom found themselves in Greece after fleeing violence in Syria — have missed out on formative experiences and routines. As donors begin to catch up with the needs of vulnerable refugee populations — especially women and young children — volunteers in the Ritsona camp noticed that one demographic was falling through the cracks: Adolescent boys.

“We already had a space for women, and of course young girls were welcome there also, and we also had a place for children. But for that age group, 16-25, we realised there wasn’t much day-to-day engagement and stuff to do, particularly for males,” Daphne Morgen, program manager at Lighthouse Relief, told Devex in a phone interview.

“We pitched an art-specific space in January, but that quickly became more of a drop-in space, which accommodated their needs and requests for a space they could just come to daily and socialise with each other,” Morgen said.

Morgen and her deputy, Hannah Brumbaum, acknowledged that orchestrating youth advocacy can be challenging, particularly when the young people you’re trying to rally are grappling with the emotional and physical hardship that comes with being displaced. But faced with the rising urgency of the migrant crisis, and the wary treatment in Europe of young refugee boys fleeing Syria, Lighthouse Relief staff and volunteers persisted in growing the space — hosting music, art and yoga lessons, as well as counselling services — and found that the more ownership youth are granted in building the engine for advocacy, the greater the outcome.

A magazine, Ritsona Kingdom Journal, was born. Driven almost entirely by young people in the camp, it showcases the art, photography and writing of Ritsona’s refugee youth, offering a glimpse not only into the day-to-day difficulties of a transient life, but also the buoying joys that come with being young and eager to move forward with life.

Ritsona Kingdom was published online this weekend to mark International Youth Day on August 12. “We want to show through this work the incredible power of amplifying youth voices,” Morgen said.

On the practical side, Morgen said the camp was small enough that Lighthouse Relief could rely on word-of-mouth to reach the young people in the camp, and found that letting youth determine what they needed from the centre was instrumental in the project’s success.

“It’s not a place [where] you have to participate,” Morgen said. “No one has to come in, has to do anything. We also have enough volunteers that can take the time to sit down with the youth one-on-one, if that’s what they want to do.”

She said the centre’s staff also maintains contact with the Red Cross presence in the camp, in order to connect social workers with vulnerable youths, who could be victims of abuse.

“Minute to minute, hour to hour you deal with so many different dynamics, moods, people can come in and feel whatever it is they’re feeling,” Morgen said.

Much of the magazine’s content is featured in both English and Arabic, as are the centre’s “rules of engagement,” which hang on the wall. They include guidelines such as: “Respect each other’s beliefs and work.”

Learning from the experience, Morgen said she and her staff would encourage other organizations working with young refugees to adopt a youth-led approach to creating space, as well as a publication for self-expression.

“Several of the youth aren’t afraid of being vocal, and trying to find ways to integrate
into the commentary they’re hearing around the world,” she said.

Ritsona Kingdom is both eye-opening for its readers, and cathartic for its creators — young people waiting for their chance to make a difference.

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.