Young refugees have to grow up quickly during their difficult journey to safety. Nevertheless, they are still children with dreams. In Athens, FAROS is giving them back the hope that has been taken away from them. The NGO is doing this with support from the MiJoRiJa Fund. “These young people have so much potential. They must be given the opportunity to demonstrate it,” says founder Rik Jans.
It is no coincidence that Rik Jans came upon the issue of young refugees and migrants when he was looking for ways as an entrepreneur to give something back to society. As a business leader in Limburg (Belgium) he had worked with people from migrant backgrounds. In Serbia, where he helped to lead a metal processing company, he learned what extremes people will go to for a better life. “On two occasions we have received reports of transit migrants in our trucks.”
“I see it every day in Serbia,” says Jans. “Refugees and migrants have many skills, but they can’t get jobs here. I have been given opportunities in my own life, and I have taken them. Now I want others to have them too. I don’t want those young people’s talents to be lost.” Following a recommendation from his banker, Rik Jans came to the King Baudouin Foundation. The MiJoRiJa fund (Migration Jongeren Rik Jans - Rik Jans Young People Migration) is his legacy.
So far the Fund has already supported three projects - Integra in Italy, SheDidIt in Belgium and Faros in Greece. Through the Faros Horizon Center Design Program training centre, the NGO in Athens is doing exactly what Rik Jans wants it to do: helping young refugees and migrants to realise their potential. “Since the refugee crisis, Greece has become a final destination for many transit migrants,” says the co-founder and director of Faros, Dan Biswas. There are now almost five thousand unaccompanied minors who are refugees in Greece, standing at the threshold of their lives.
“Faros helps them to acquire the skills that will allow them to integrate in society.” This NGO is working alongside the well-known MIT (Massachusetts Institute for Technology), whose D-Lab trains the young people in problem-solving skills through practical technical courses such as joinery, 3D printing and electrical engineering. “These are skills that they can put to use not only in the workplace, but also in their lives.”
The approach was an immediate success. “Initially we started with a summer school in 2017. The boys and girls were here by 8 o’clock in the morning, and they did not want to go when it came to 4 pm. We never had this with ordinary classes. The method is playful and creative, like building things with Lego.” It also gives these young people a competitive advantage in the labour market. Youth unemployment is still very high in Greece, and young refugees have gaps in their CV. The skills they learn at D-lab - problem-solving skills and innovative, creative thinking - are essential in the workplace. “We are now working on training placements and entry-level jobs.”
Faros is therefore helping to ensure that once these young people become adults, they are not lost in the system. “Eighteen is such a crucial age”, says Dan Biswas. “Many of the services provided for young people are no longer available after that time, even though they still need help. They are not prepared for that moment. Our organisation helps to bridge the gap for them.” Faros works out a holistic plan for each young person, including training, psychological support and practical help. “Thanks partly to the MiJoRiJa Fund, we are able to be ambitious for these young people in our programme.”
Resilience during coronavirus crisis
The resilience of these children again became clear during the coronavirus crisis. “They have far fewer problems with stress than adults.” Nevertheless, even they do not always cope with these strange times. Like all organisations, Faros has had to adjust the way it works. “In the first few weeks we concentrated on their psychosocial well-being. We called them every day to check if everything was OK.”
More information was also provided. Thanks to the MiJoRiJa Fund, Faros has also been able to recruit a part-time communication worker for external communication - including an awareness raising video about the lives of unaccompanied minors living as refugees during the COVID crisis - as well as for communicating with the young people themselves, also on social media.
Physical lessons were suspended during the lockdown in Greece, so these were replaced by online tutorials created by the students at MIT. “Cancelling the live classes was not easy, since this is a very physical training course involving a lot of equipment. We learn by doing. The students at MIT developed videos that allowed our young people to work with the things they could find at home.”
For certain specific courses the physical lessons have partly resumed - in smaller groups, with girls in the mornings and boys in the afternoons. Other students are given a toolbox of materials and tasks as homework, and they meet in small groups afterwards for feedback. There are also other classes online.” During the lockdown a few of the young people who had previously been living at Faros and had continued their journey from Greece to other countries, also subscribed online to follow D-Lab. “That also offers new prospects for this mobile population.”
Rik Jans is pleased. The impact of this programme on young people at Faros is huge. “In the summer school that we organised in 2017 there was an Afghan boy who wanted to become an engineer. When he had to run away, his dream fell apart. ‘I want to do more with my life than just scrape to earn a crust on the street’, he told us. We offer new hope for young people like him.”