Sunday Immigrant’s School (SIS) fosters social mobility as its main initiative is to provide migrants Greek lessons so that they can better integrate and climb the social ladder in the Greek society. Through its activities, the SIS aims at empowering migrants. It was established in 2003 as a volunteer-based initiative, run by immigrants and Greeks, in a central and highly diversified neighbourhood of Athens (Kolonos). The main activities of the School are the Greek language courses offered every Sunday and the provision of legal support to immigrants and refugees concerning asylum applications and validation of legal documents. Legal documentation is not requested for the participation in SIS’ activities. As classes may consist of students of various geographic origins (Venezuela, Pakistan, Syria etc.) and social bonds are created amongst students and teachers, this initiative promotes in practice cultural diversity and mutual understanding.
The SIS’ activity is not restricted to the provision of language courses, as it acts rather as a people-based initiative serving broader political goals concerning the struggle over equal human rights and the legalisation of all migrants. Under this perspective, social mobility is promoted, as people of non-Greek origin get to understand the local language and the legal framework. This way, they can achieve better living conditions and employment status. Currently, the SIS numbers almost 200 students and 35 volunteer teachers. It is run by a general assembly consisting of migrants and Greeks, which convenes once per month. The participants of the assembly discuss over the function of the SIS and raise concerns over more general issues related to migrants’ rights. The assembly is coordinated by the secretary of the school (a volunteer), who also deals with other basic organisational issues (number of classes, allocation of students to each class).
The SIS’ resources are raised by volunteer actions and contributions. The school’s building was granted to the SIS by a member, and was later refurbished by the voluntary work of other members. Other economic resources emanate from the SIS participants and donations by the wider anti-racist movement. The SIS receives some funding from the incomings of the “Expel racism” festival and from sales of a calendar it publishes yearly. When available money does not cover current costs (like power supply and water consumption), its members, both Greeks and migrants, are requested to contribute with the amount of money they can afford. In the first years of SIS’ operation, its members opted for self-financing and rejected external offers for sponsoring coming from private companies (Interamerican, Vodafone) in order to maintain initiative’s autonomy.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
The SIS’s members do not refer explicitly to ‘diversity’ in their discourse. They approach migration issues through the lens of ‘equality’, ‘respect’ and ‘solidarity’. These values are expressed in the way that the SIS operates in various initiatives and campaigns that deal with migrant issues beyond the language classes. This way the SIS establishes a space of encounter and interaction amongst migrants and Greeks. The provision of Greek lessons is not perceived as an act of ‘philanthropy’. It is rather perceived on the basis of mutual respect of cultural identities and a sense of solidarity. These elements constitute the framework of a collective socio-political action against racism and xenophobia. Furthermore, cultural diversity is perceived in a sentimental way. The interaction with persons coming from different cultures within the framework of SIS’ activities (assembly, courses, parties) is described by the activists as an act engendering rich, positive emotions, which “makes you feel complete with yourself”. Moreover, the SIS defends the idea (and the associated practices) that the initiative must maintain a bottom-up character based on self-organisation. The members of the organisation also discard any collaboration with the central or local government, arguing that the latter stand against their agenda (legalization of all migrants and equal right to all) through policies of surveillance, control and expulsion of undocumented migrant population.
Main factors influencing success or failure
The basic factors of success of SIS have to do with the ideological cohesion of the group, the networking with other bottom-up initiatives and its location. The SIS, like other similar initiatives, is in the hands of a small number of persons who share common political references and cultural values. This may be seen as a feature that limits the scope of the initiative, but at the same time it assures its consistency. Moreover, the networking of SIS assures circulation of information, access to economic resources and mutual help. Migrants approach the SIS via information that they may get in local campaigns, in anti-racist festivals and other similar activities, through other initiatives that collaborate with the SIS (like the European Village), as well as via informal personal networks. The SIS also participates in common actions and public discussions with other initiatives related to migration issues (like the migrants’ school of Kypseli market). As a result of the organisational and cultural characteristics of SIS (self-organisation, prioritization of equality, mutual respect of cultures and solidarity), the initiative is highly appreciated by the migrants.
However, the SIS undergoes severe pressures from the wider political, social and economic crisis. The number of the students has declined significantly (in 2005 there were 700 students). This decrease seems to be an outcome of the crisis, as migrants are less interested in staying in Greece and perceive the country as a transitory point on their way to other European countries. Additionally, the migrants who are settled in Greece are in a state of shock due to increased xenophobia and unemployment (the latter also leading to the loss of residence permits); hence they are neither interested in Greek classes nor in active participation in whichever initiative.
The SIS is a case of a bottom-up initiative aiming at fostering migrant’s social integration through voluntary work and collaboration of Greeks and migrants. It has a horizontal, self-governed structure, as discussed by Kooiman (2000) through which the actors take care of themselves and come out of their own accords. The SIS claims openly its autonomy from the state and the private companies. It frames its activity through ‘equality’, ‘respect’ and ‘solidarity’ and avoids the term ‘social cohesion’, which is mostly used in state programmes and actions. The SIS illustrates the strengths of initiatives run by relatively small, ideologically coherent and motivated groups, which are quite well connected with other similar grassroots organisations. Its innovation lies in the horizontal structures and in the commitment the members show in promoting their ideals. At the same time however, the SIS is affected by the crisis in the sense that it becomes more difficult under the current conditions to mobilise migrants in collective activities like those promoted by the SIS.