Hugely popular coding course united youth in Greece – without these actions, a new underclass will be born in Europe

In Athens, it is easy to forget that there is still a great number of people in the city who have come there to escape war or poverty. Watching the good-spirited crowds of the Plaka quarter or the tourists lining up to Acropolis, it does not immediately occur to you that since 2015, over a million refugees have arrived in the country.

One out of a thousand has lost their life on the perilous sea route to Europe. The survivors are trying to build a future for themselves and their families.

The ones in the most difficult position are the youth. They are outside most official safety nets, such as the school system. A great number of them have arrived in the country alone. Many do not speak Greek. Young people are also the most likely to suffer from discrimination and prejudice.

On top of all this, they will soon have to find work and make a living in a country that is suffering from a financial crisis and that has the highest youth unemployment rate in the European Union. In numbers, we are not talking about a marginal group.

What should be done about this? In my opinion, there are two alternatives. One, that we invest all the resources necessary to offer the youth opportunities to become productive members of society. Two, we close our eyes and hope for the best.

The latter mode of operation has rarely produced good results. I myself am worried that because of passivity, we will be watching from the sidelines as a new underclass is created in Europe.

When we started our work in Greece in 2016, it was already clear that young people must be offered meaningful things to do, providing them with important skills, encouraging them to look for new education opportunities, or helping them secure a job in the future. Another important thing is bringing Greek and refugee youth together. Many of the refugees will stay in Greece. That is why integration must be supported as much as possible.

As a result, we started the Code+Create project with our Greek partner organisation GFOSS. The project offers participants the opportunity to learn 21st century skills, such as web design, coding, and 3D printing. Half of the participants are Greek, the other half refugees. In one classroom, there can be people from ten different countries. The youth learn new skills and work with people from different cultures.

Code+Create differs from our traditional modes of operation. That is why we were all either interested or nervous, depending on the point of view, whilst waiting for feedback regarding our work.

The results were astonishingly positive. More young people applied for our courses than we were able to admit at a time. Some of the participants arrived well in advance of the time the classes started. In the feedback, one of them said the reason was that our classroom was the first place where this person felt welcome.

A common idea for development from the youth was that we should organise more extracurricular activities to allow the young people to get to know each other better.

I don’t know how many lasting friendships began during the courses, or how many of the participants will choose the branch for their further studies or work.

The effects of a single project on a person’s life is difficult to measure, especially in a metropolis like Athens. However, based on the feedback and number of participants, we are doing something right. We are bringing people together in a safe space and providing an opportunity for positive development.

Code+Create has been a great success, and I am proud of it. However, the project is just a drop in the ocean, and more modes of operation like it must be provided. Most of all, we need a European approach not focused on just administration of the refugee crisis but also on reasons for leaving the country of origin and on potential visions for the future.

The challenge is global, and the repercussions concern us all. Over the past few years, more than a million refugees arrived in Greece, but most of them continued their journey to other EU countries.

At the moment, however, most do not pay attention to Greece, or more widely, to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. In a way, this is understandable. The world is currently facing several massive-scale crises, and most of the world’s refugees are in developing countries. This is why Europe must both support the developing countries and take good care of the people arriving here.

However, the fundamental problems of the Mediterranean are not going anywhere. Even as we speak, there are millions of potential refugees in the coastal countries. Reasons for leaving include conflict, poverty, natural conditions, or simply the pursuit of a better life. If climate change proceeds as predicted, the challenges and potential refugee numbers will multiply in the coming decades.

The fact is that refugees will not stop coming to Europe. That is why we need new modes of operation and a strategic approach focusing on youth and how to integrate them into the countries admitting them. It is the only sustainable way forward.

Antti Toivanen

The author led the Finn Church Aid assistance operation in Greece 2016–2018.
The blog entry is the second part in the #YouthOnTheMove series.


Antti Toivanen