The Meaning of History: Summer Program in Leros, Greece

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Rutgers Global - Students and Displaced Persons in Leros, Greece, unwind on a small outdoor court
Wednesday, October 11th

Rutgers students connect with the human experience in Leros

Greek national and lecturer Elektra Kostopoulou came to Rutgers in 2013 on a sponsorship from the Onassis Foundation to teach a course in Modern Greek history. Four years later, that sponsored work evolved into an eye-opening opportunity for students in Leros, Greece—an epicenter of the eastern Mediterranean migration of displaced people from the Middle East.

A historian with an emphasis on the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century, Kostopoulou, now a lecturer at Rutgers, believes that history is more than simply archiving events and studying “the past to learn about the present.”

“Both history and current affairs concern humans. They both touch on shared patterns, constraints, and possibilities for the future,” she said.

It’s that concept that helped her shape her spring 2016 course, “Refugees and Migrants in the Eastern Mediterranean,” part of the Modern Greek Studies Program in the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences. The course covers the genesis of the recent refugee and migrant movements from Syria and the broader region through Europe and the complex past, present, and future dynamics that have shaped—and will continue to shape—the issue.

“One of the main principles of the European Union is to provide asylum for refugees and migrants escaping war and genocide. To many people, escape to the European Union is the only viable option,” Kostopoulou said. “To me, the connection to the issue is very personal. My family currently lives in Leros and my mother has been a very active member of the broader grassroots mobilization in support of displaced groups. The island of Leros is one of the main gates into the European Union. They [displaced people] try to cross from Turkey to Greece.”  

Kostopoulou said that the recent fiscal crisis in Greece helped to mobilize a united effort to help displaced people.

“The population of Leros is about 9,000, and in summer 2015, the numbers became overwhelming. On a given day, there were thousands of arrivals of displaced people, with two or three thousand sleeping in the streets,” she said.

She admitted that the reactions of Leros natives varied, some responding with “hatred and xenophobia” because they were “overwhelmed with their own issues.”

“People were not willing or enabled to think of the displaced. But when faced with actual humans sitting on their doorsteps, hungry, thirsty, or wet, many acted in a different way,” she said. “It brought them face to face with human disaster.”

For some natives of Leros, she said, witnessing these events became a “source of empowerment after feeling a loss of agency, a loss or representation” that came along with the Greek fiscal crisis.

“This is my personal opinion, but [taking initiative] during this crisis gave people the chance to engage again. They found an opportunity to have an influence, to feel more agency as citizens.”

With the help of Rutgers Global–Study Abroad, students could choose to take a one-credit service-learning component to connect with displaced persons in Leros, Greece, in the summer of 2017.

Collaborating with the Leros Solidarity Network—a grassroots organization of which she is a member and that has helped to provide everything from drowning rescue to medical care and clothing—Kostopoulou designed the program to meld academics and cultural immersion. Rather than living on a college campus, students stayed in hotels near city centers and frequented local eateries. Students gathered in the mornings for class discussions on topics such as migration, policy, and human rights, and traveled to a shelter for displaced women and young families in the afternoon to connect with displaced families living there.

“Leros is a contradiction, because it is a beautiful island with great cuisine, and we did want the students to have some exposure to that,” Kostopoulou said. “They did dine in the shelters with the refugees and migrants, many of whom are Muslim. The program was held during Ramadan, so the students would break the fast with them.”

Kostopoulou also organized a number of activities that gave students and residents the opportunity to interact outside the walls of the shelter, such as visiting museums, dining at the local restaurants, and going to the playground with the children.

She warned that the course was not intended for students who wanted to experience “humanitarian tourism,” but for students who wanted to experience the local environment outside of a university setting and actively engage with people to understand new perspectives.

“I think this is what energized them more than anything,” she said. “One of the main goals of the course was to inspire students to internalize issues and to think of their own backgrounds—to approach the experience of the displaced… as part of the human experience.”

Sarolta Takács, director of the Modern Greek Studies Program in the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, said that the program helped to give students a space to “think about incredibly important problems in a safe place.”

“You have to move out of what you know into the unknown—in a structured way. You don’t want to come into a refugee camp as an American who has everything, and you’re there for three weeks for the program, then disappear,” Takács said. “Kostopoulou was very careful in designing the program to help students make the human connection and learn how to give in a respectful way.”

Alexander Lopez-Perez, an English major in the School of Arts and Sciences, said that he learned “that the term ‘refugee’ does not do justice to the uniqueness and individuality that the people at the shelter have, but perhaps simply ‘human’ may.”

“The people of the shelter came from very different communities, cultures, and customs and walks of life before their exodus,” he said. “I met with a father who felt insecure in his role as a provider, a soccer player who got bullied because of his skin color, and a jolly big brother of the group who worries for his sister and niece, but is strong enough to hold his feelings in until he’s alone.”

The service-learning program helped Lopez-Perez recognize that these emotions are “universal feelings and dilemmas that we all face.”

Other students echoed the sentiment.  

Samaa Abouzid, a senior at the Rutgers Business School, had never taken a course in Greek studies, but deeply considered embarking on a hands-on learning experience. When a friend suggested the service-learning abroad program in Leros to her, Abouzid enrolled.

“I enjoyed the program because it was a win-win situation—I was able to complete the course with knowledge about population movement and legal regimes, but I also had the opportunity to connect with those seeking refuge.”

Fluent in Arabic, Abouzid took on the role of teaching English to women living in the shelter after morning course discussions with Kostopoulou and the rest of the class.

“A majority of those I worked with at the shelter were of Syrian or Iraqi descent—and I am from Egypt—so our dialects were completely different,” said Abouzid. “However, this wasn’t a hurdle as much as it was engaging.”

As director, Takács aim to raise enrollment in the course in 2018 to give more students the opportunity to engage with these concepts and experiences. Her message?

“You live in a bubble—burst that bubble. Get involved!”