Angelika Sogn / Koutsofotinos – The bridge-builder, the activist, and the idealist

“This is the biggest school I have ever attended. I have learned incredibly much. You can gain a lot of knowledge in school, and in environments where you are comfortable, but being in the field is completely different – it facilitates professional and personal development, and it is something I would highly recommend.” – Angelika Sogn

barn som maler fugler på en murvegg

Angelika Sogn has been a coordinator on Lesvos for more than 15 months, and is one of the coordinators that have been there for the longest period of time. She has contributed several times since 2015, and has been a voluntary field worker and coordinators on Lesvos and Chios. The situation calmed down slightly when the EU-Turkey deal was initiated, and she got back to her life in Norway. When Trude Jacobsen rang her in the summer of 2018, there was no question in her mind whether or not she should go back to Greece; she quit her job, terminated the lease on her apartment, and travelled to Lesvos, where she intended to stay for four months. As time passed, she got a bigger network in Greece, connected with the local community, watched the projects develop, and developed a greater understanding for A Drop in the Ocean as the organisation, she got more responsibilities.

Today, she contributes as a project coordinator in Moria refugee camp and is responsible for the work with unaccompanied minors, and acquired the role of “Greek Relations”. This role entails that she is the contact representing the organisation and the coordinators when talking to Greek organisations and the Greek authorities. This text will share some of her experiences, her commitment for refugees, the development of the Drop Centre, and the work A Drop in the Ocean does with unaccompanied minors in Moria refugee camp.

The motivation to become a field worker

It is a sunny day on Lesvos in the middle of November, Angelika has just gotten out of bed after she worked late the day prior. The days in the field are long and eventful, but this particular day has been reserved for administrative tasks. She notes the importance for setting up personal boundaries, which she has learned during her time in the field. She highlights that the name A Drop in the Ocean reflects this – you must understand that you cannot help everyone. If you can make one person’s life better, it is still worth it. It is the small things, like creating a nice experience for a child who live in the camp, that make Angelika continuously engage for the work for displaced people.

We have to go back several years to find the source of Angelika’s motivation and commitment for displaced people. Angelika is originally Greek, and has firsthand experience with going to a new country, which she did at 17 years old.

“I have always been committed. Additionally, I am cross-cultural, which is what drew me to this matter. I went to Norway at 17 years old, so I get it … I have personally felt what it is like to go to a new country without having good knowledge of the language, and having to establish new friendships, and get to know a different culture. I went on to study psychology and human rights because I am passionate about people’s rights. Thereafter, I went to Lesvos, after working with people for several years through psychiatry, unaccompanied minors through the child protection services in Oslo, and through an internship for Amnesty International. In 2015, my mother connected me with Trude. It was when the first wave of refugees arrived. The situation in Greece stuck with me after I returned to Norway. Especially because I am Greek. I was thinking about how Greece was handling this situation, as they have had a large economic crisis, and are stuck with the main responsibility.”

Drop Centre in Moria – An Integration Project

When Angelika travelled to Greece in August 2018, the main goal was that she would contribute to starting and establishing a Drop Centre in Moria.

“The goal was to establish a centre to facilitate integration – a way to build bridges between the residents of Moria refugee camp and the local residents of Moria. We pictured that it would take us four months to gain insight to the situation and get to know the local residents of Moria.”

Angelika is not the type that highlights her own victories. But it was due to her listening abilities and communication with the local community, combined with building relations, having professional insights and a good healthy dose of activism, that has contributed to establishing the Drop Centre in Moria. Today, the centre has been open for more than a year, and a lot has happened in that year. Many voluntary field workers and coordinators have contributed alongside Angelika to create the place that the Drop Centre has become.

Can you tell me more about the development of the Drop Centre, from when it first started to how it is now?

“For me, listening is key. It might be easier to just go with your own project without taking the local community into consideration when establishing a centre. I spent a lot of time listening to people and their concerns.”

What were people’s concern at the time?

“That it was foreign and unsafe. If you think about it, it is a village with approximately 1000 residents, situated one and a half kilometer from a hot spot with more than 16 500 people. I cannot think of a similar scenario at any other place in Europe. I am still touched when I arrive at the Drop Centre, and there is a pair of old shoes outside which have been donated. It is extremely important to see the people who live under these circumstances; they are also affected by the crisis. And they cannot escape. As international volunteers we can come and go, and get a break, but the local residents who live close to the camps do not get a break. Previously, it was a calm village with a lot of history. People are very proud of the name of the village, whereas now it is only associated with a refugee camp. Therefore, I think it is very important to take the local community and its residents into consideration when you are establishing a Community Centre.”

How did you include the local community in the development of the centre?

Angelika Sogn, Morteza (volunteer/resident in Moria Camp) and Christos (Coordinator) outside Drop Centre, Moria. Photo: A Drop in the Ocean

“I remember that the majority of the local community expressed positive feelings towards creating activities for children. This is how we started children’s classes focusing on playing, socialising, and learning. Secondly, people wanted users of the centre to access language training in English and Greek. They viewed this as a crucial part of the integration process. That is how the projects developed. Instead of going in with an idea of what we thought we needed to go, we formed and developed the projects on the basis of what the local community thought would be successful.”

“Another crucial point was that we were able to find local volunteers. The locals were concerned that many international volunteers would arrive, from various countries around the world. We were lucky to get hold of Afroditi, a local girl from Moria, who teached Greek for a year. She is the hero. We also got a lady with excellent sewing skills, who had a professional background, to teach refugee women how to sow and repair their clothing.”

How has the language training affected the communication between the residents of Moria camp and the local residents?

“A year ago, there was no communication between the local community and the refugees who visited the centre. Now, the residents that regularly attend classes, strike conversations with the locals whilst they wait for the lesson to start. This has been one of the main aims of the centre and is a clear sign of integration.”

“Many people of Moria village have supported the centre. People in Moria who have worked hard since 2015, they have told stories of witnessing people walking barefoot on the streets, so they gave people shoes. It happens on a smaller scale these days, but it does occur occasionally. They have also encouraged us to continue our work.”

This week we in A Drop in the Ocean will open our second Drop Centre on Lesvos. The centre will be focused on providing  educational activities, such as language training in English and Greek, as well as IT lessons.

Unaccompanied minors – a matter close to her heart

Angelika is passionate about unaccompanied minors, which is something she has previously worked with. In March 2019, A Drop in the Ocean started working with unaccompanied minors in Moria, after being contacted by the management of the refugee camp.

A welcome sign to section A in Moria Refugee Camp. Photo: A Drop in the Ocean

“The work with unaccompanied minors is particularly important between 20:30 and 24:00, where there is a big gap where there are no activities provided for them. These hours are difficult, especially when we are not enough people. There was an attempt to prevent use of alcohol, drugs and fights during the nights when the minors have nothing to do. Our presence was well received, and the boys appreciate our presence. It is nice to witness the development of the boys who live in both sections (A and B) where we work, in terms of language, behaviour, mentality, understanding, and that they have gained a respect for rules.”

“Two days ago, a volunteer from another organisation told us about a boy he believes is around 10-11 years old who lives in section B. He only leaves his room to partake in the activities that are offered.”

A Drop in the Ocean extended their work during the spring of 2019, and started working inside the Safe Zone in Moria, a fenced area specifically made for unaccompanied minors.

You are also working in the Safe Zone with girls and the youngest children, what is that like in comparison?

“Girls aged 0-17 and boys from the age of 15 live in the Safe Zone. It is very hard. It is difficult to deal with children aged 5-7 years, who act nothing like ordinary kids their age. We are there for 3 hours every day, and there is development there as well; children who previously struggled to make eye contact with us, have slowly started to engage increasingly in the activities, and they started opening up after just a few weeks. Children who have struggled to remain calm, have finally been able to enjoy themselves and sit down for an hour or so and just draw. There is a definitive surplus of girls.”

“We make distinct separations between our roles as volunteers and therapists, as psychiatrists and nurses do. We have a high turnover with volunteers, so we make sure that we do not get too attached to the children. It is important to make that separation. But everything we observe and notice, is reported to the people who work with them on a regular basis.”

How does leaving the children behind when exiting the camp make you and the other field workers feel?

“It is the hardest part of the job, especially if there have been tension or fights. As field workers, we are able to get out, but we have no idea of what the situation is like for the refugees after a rebellion or fight, if any adults come to the rescue or if anyone is hurt. We had a boy who was stabbed in August, in the evening. It started as a fight between teens, and resulted in the death of a young boy, because there were not enough personnel on site. This hit me quite hard. To be able to do this job, it is important to accept and realise that you have limitations. It is difficult, but you have to understand what role you have. You wish the best for all children. When I talk about unaccompanied minors that is where my heart lies.”

Unaccompanied Minors in Moria Refugee Camp. Photo: A Drop in the Ocean

Which possibilities do you foresee for unaccompanied minors in Moria today?

“There are more than 1100 unaccompanied minors in Moria refugee camp. I think everyone agrees that the camp is no place for unaccompanied minors to live. The plan is to relocate them to other places in the country, and we hope that they will be relocated to the mainland. More than 500 unaccompanied minors live in the reception hall, which is intended for the newest arrivals. Some of minors have lived there for as long as 5-6 months. We hope that the new arrivals (the new boat arrivals) do not have to stay there for an equally long period. As long as the process is as slow as it currently is, and as long as other European countries remains hostile towards receiving refugees, the situation is stuck in its current state.”

What about the situation in Greece?

“The overall situation in Greece is worrisome. I am worried. There are approximately 100,000 people, as of today, that must be integrated in a country that is already struggling financially, with a high unemployment rate, and I can tell that the tension has risen many places. There was a grand effort in 2015 to help, as people where merely travelling through Greece. Today, people are stuck in Greece, and their living conditions are growing worse as time goes by. People are tired and fed up, and the plans implemented to receive and integrate people are not well thought out. I am afraid that many people will end up living on the streets, and that they will not be able to find work, and not be able to support themselves or their families. The situation is hopeless.”

What about yourself, do you have thoughts regarding how long you will stay in Greece?

“I am a person who follows my heart, so I will stay for as long as it feels right to be here and continue to do what I do. At this moment I feel at home. There is no place in the world more important to be than here.”

Finally, do you have any tips for anyone who wants to become a field worker or coordinator in the field?

“Working in the field means living a simple life, where the cause – helping other people – is the focal point. You get a different perspective when you work in this position. You hear stories about people who get tired, therefore it is crucial to take good care of yourself and set boundaries. It is perfectly normal for me to be here at this very moment. It is liberating, when you are surrounded by stress. This is “back to basics”, where you are surrounded by people who share the same idealism, and you are fighting for a joint cause. It is an incredibly inspiring community to be a part of; to feel the activism and idealism make my heart pound. I am also inspired by the volunteers who come here, and share their experiences and give us some of their time.”

Did you know that:

  • Moria village houses less than 1000 residents
  • In Moria refugee camp, more than 16,500 people reside, where 5000 of these are children, and approximately 1100 are unaccompanied minors
  • A Drop in the Ocean is the only Norwegian aid organisation who works inside Moria refugee camp and other Greek refugee camps
  • So far in 2019, there have been more than 65,000 new arrivals in Greece (where more than 50,000 came by sea)