Our Journey to Youth UnMuted
By Co-Founders, Daphne and Hannah
When we arrived in Greece in 2016, Daphne to help out a friend from grad school and Hannah to volunteer for a few months, little did we know that we were embarking on a journey that would change our lives forever.
We met each other in early 2017 in Ritsona Refugee Camp, a small camp outside of Athens that housed over 600 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq. Across Greece, young people over the age of fifteen are legally unable to enroll in formal school and there was little youth-specific programming in camps. Daphne, upon observing these gaps in the Ritsona, had just begun to roll out the pilot phase of a youth arts program, responding to the youth’s desire for some form of engagement and support. Hannah was introduced to her a few weeks into the start of the pilot phase, and joined her in building the program.
Every day, as we interacted with the youth in camp and read the international news, we witnessed a huge disconnect between the stories making headlines and the realities of these young people. We experienced firsthand how the voices of displaced youths were largely absent from the narrative built around the crisis endured by migrants, despite the fact that they had so much insight into their situations. They were informed about current politics in their home country, in Greece, and in countries (including the United States) in which they hoped to resettle. Many were learning three or four languages to try and keep up and hold on to their dreams for their future.
As humanitarian and social service providers, we felt that our duty was to create a platform through which these voices could be heard and amplified. This has been our constant motivation and drive throughout more than two years of work in Greece.
Youth UnMuted’s Evolution: From Youth Engagement to Storytelling
Youth Engagement Space (Jan. 2017—Jan. 2018)
In response to the lack of youth programming in Ritsona, we created and developed a drop-in center for youth called the Youth Engagement Space (YES) with Lighthouse Relief. We built the YES alongside the youth, asking for their input and needs in every decision we made. We knew that in order to have investment, we needed to cater the space and the programming to meet their interests.
As the YES grew, youth continued to share their desire to be heard and to express their opinions and creative works. We created The Ritsona Kingdom Journal, a youth-led magazine which was published every few months. What began as a small magazine, showcasing art and a few brief articles, is now on its 7th edition and has continued long past our departure from the YES.
Storytelling Without Borders (Feb. 2018—April 2018)
We scaled up our approach by implementing an EU project, Storytelling Without Borders (StWB), in several sites throughout Greece, which involved partnering with local organizations to host stop-motion filmmaking workshops. This was our first opportunity to test out the best practices we had developed during our time in the YES in a pop-up setting; we wanted to see if we could create the same energy and community in an unfamiliar camp with completely new groups of youth. While we did need to adjust and tweak bits and pieces, youth around Greece responded to our core values of “individuals first” and facilitation that promoted self-efficacy.
In traveling around for StWB, we also realized that youth-specific programming was not only absent from Ritsona, but was missing in camps across Greece. We often found ourselves facilitating workshops in adult English programs or camp-wide drop-in spaces - the only programming that youth had access to. At this point, we decided to launch our own project, taking the practices and values we had gained from building the YES and refined in StWB. Youth UnMuted was launched in May 2018.
The First Year
Youth UnMuted was established with the goal of elevating the voices of displaced youth. To reach this goal, we structured our programming as pop-up style workshops; they were easy to take on the road, and allowed us to travel and meet youth where they were. These features of our programming have ultimately allowed us to access a larger population of youth than we would have if based in a single location.
Our pop-up workshops, hosted by partner organizations, bring a variety of creative storytelling modes: stop-motion filmmaking, photography, creative writing, and more. Complimenting these creative workshops is our quarterly online Youth UnMuted Magazine, which provides a digital platform where youth can contribute their work and express their creativity. Workshops and the Magazine are spaces where youth can share their stories - whatever stories they choose - with full autonomy, enabling them to shape their narratives and self-advocate.
Over the past two years, we have learned a great deal from the young people we have encountered. Without a doubt, the most powerful lessons have come from simply stepping back and listening to what they have to say. Their opinions, narratives, and resilience are what keep us focused and motivated, and we believe that the world would be a better place if everyone could hear what these young people have to say.