Abstract This article draws on critical, anti-oppressive and human rights perspectives and presents a social work project, developed in the disadvantaged ‘Muslim Roma’ neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the big cities in the region of Thrace-Greece. The project aims at dealing with school drop-out, encouraging children’s regular attendance and improving their educational attainment. It encounters multilevel and holistic interventions, aiming at challenging discrimination and exclusion. Inclusion in education is a prerequisite for the implementation of any anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive policies, as illiterate people face severe difficulties in profiting from any of these. It is claimed that, although education is both a right and an obligation for children, families, schools and the state, this is not always the case for the population under study, as safeguarding children’s right to education is being hindered by the complexity of imposed obstacles in the Muslim Roma communities, namely poverty, poor health, frequently unregistered children, inadequate health services and inter-generational illiteracy. It has been even more perplexed by negative stereotypes and prejudices attributed to them. Direct practice and empowerment, systemic analysis, counselling and community-oriented social work interventions formulated the project, which aimed to bridge schools, families and communities and tackle school drop-out. Muslim Roma, school drop-out, anti-oppressive, critical and human rights social work Introduction The article draws on critical, anti-oppressive and human rights social work perspectives to present a European co-funded project in Thrace-Greece (north-eastern region, bordering Bulgaria and Turkey), aiming at the Muslim minority’s inclusion in education, as well as tackling school drop-out. The project, using national and European resources, encountered multilevel holistic social work and community interventions, under the title ‘Actions to support Muslim-minority pupils, with particular problems’. It formed a part of a wider programme and it was launched in two different periods (2005–07 (EPEAEK II Operational Programme for Education and Initial Vocational Training with funding from the Third Community Support Framework (2000–2006)) and 2010–14 (ESPA Partnership Agreement for the Development Framework—European Structural and Educational Funds)). It referred to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, multiply stigmatised and discriminated against members of the minority. The project involved defending children’s right to education, by working in partnership with children and families who lived ‘permanently’ in the poorest and most segregated neighbourhoods at the outskirts of the big cities in Thrace. The population under study, named ‘Muslim Roma’, frequently reject both identities (Muslim and Roma) and simply identify themselves as members of the minority. The right of self-determination has always been respected by the team in the project. ‘Rough pathways’ are words purposefully chosen in the title, as they portray the dirty, unmade roads, full of sludge when it rains, which become very difficult to walk on. They are also metaphorically used to reflect on the complexity of the obstacles and the difficulties the team faced. The article starts by presenting the complexity of the Muslim minority in Thrace and by underlining the emerging differences to other Muslim minorities in the EU. It discusses the distinctiveness of the minority education—a unique bilingual educational system of segregation and separatism. It is argued that the complexity of the minority education and most particularly that of the Muslim Romas justifies the use of complex theoretical perspectives, which are presented prior to the discussion of the ‘project’. Muslim minority in Thrace: a ‘unique complexity’ The Muslim minority in Thrace is the only officially recognised minority in Greece, established along with the minority of the Christian Orthodox, Romioi in Istanbul, Turkey, by an International Treaty—the Lausanne Treaty (1923). The minorities were recognised at the time as the bridges between the two countries, to ‘secure peace’ after the exchange of population, which occurred when the war between Greece and Turkey ended in the early twentieth century. The minority population, approximately 100,000 people, are of Turkish, Pomak and Roma origin (Kandylaki, 2004)—largely a poor rural community of farmers, in mountainous and frequently remote areas, where they mainly cultivate tobacco and cotton fields. The relations between the Christian majority and the Muslim-minority population in the region have been totally dependent on the Greek–Turkish external relations (Kandylaki, 2004). Being the only Muslim minority in Europe, recognised under International Treaties, the minority in Thrace presents significant differences to other minorities in the EU. First of all, members of the minority are native and Greek citizens. Their families lived in the area even before Thrace was attached to Greece in the early twentieth century. As opposed to Britain’s and France’s Muslim communities, for example, which have been associated with their histories of slavery, colonisation, economic and ideological exploitation and forced migration, Muslim communities in Greece have been locals for centuries, since the Ottoman Empire. Besides their Greek citizenship, however, they have become the victims of the ‘cold war’ between Greece and Turkey throughout the twentieth century and were considered as ‘potential enemies within’—as ‘others’. ‘Othering’ appears to be based on ‘hostility and danger’, in retribution for the persecution of most of the Istanbul’s Romioi Greek Orthodox minority from Turkey in the 1950s, rather than associated with racist connotations. It was only in the early 1990s that the policy of ‘Isonomia-Isopoliteia’ (equality and equal citizenship) was introduced in Greece, and it was followed by educational policy changes in the mid-1990s, focusing on the minority’s social inclusion and their inclusion in education (Kandylaki, 2004). Muslim-minority education was also specified by the Lausanne Treaty (1923) as well as in the Greek–Turkish Protocols (1954 and 1968), and it was inscribed in Law 119/1972 in accordance with the Protocols. Minority education is bilingual (Greek and Turkish, as well as Arabic to read the Koran), while the first minority bilingual high school (Gymnasium and Lyceum), Celal Bayar, was established in Komotini (Thrace) in 1952. There are currently 231 bilingual minority primary schools, two gymnasiums and lyceums (in Xanthi and in Komotini), three gymnasiums in the mountainous area of Xanthi, where most courses are taught in Greek, apart from the Koran, which is taught in Turkish and Arabic, and another two ‘Ierospoudastiria’ (religious high schools) in the two big cities. Minority education is characterised by segregation and distinctiveness. It is undoubtedly every child’s right to get registered in state ‘generic’ schools. However, in many villages, there is no ‘choice’ other than the local minority school. Furthermore, the ‘minority schools’ are ‘symbols of identity’. People are proud of their minority identity and preserve it by enrolling their children into minority schools, besides their complaints about poor educational standards. The Greek state has made serious efforts to improve Muslim minority since 1997 (Kandylaki, 2004). The hereby presented project is part of PEM (Greek Ministry of Education Project for the Reform in the Education of Muslim Children in Thrace-Greece), launched by the Universities of Athens and Thessaloniki and co-financed by the European and national social funds, ‘to reform the education of Muslim-minority children’ (see www.museduc.gr (accessed 3 October 2017)). Based on the recognition that they usually complete primary education with ‘an insufficient and inadequate knowledge of the Greek language’ (a major obstacle to their access to high school), the emphasis has been on the Greek language and school inclusion, with The creation of printed and electronic educational material, the organisation of supportive lessons to children and teachers and the setting up of the KESPEMs (Centres for the Support of the Project for the Reform of the Muslim Education), which are community and learning centres, equipped with computer—labs and lending libraries, where teaching-support in small groups and creative intercultural activities take place (see www.museduc.gr). ‘Complex’ theoretical approaches to the Muslim-minority education ‘complexity’ The complex situation of the minority’s education and particularly that of the so-called Muslim Romas justifies the use of multiple theoretical approaches, such as critical, anti-oppressive and human rights perspectives. Critical social work (see Fook, 2003) forms an ‘umbrella’ theory, based on the importance of interacting between ‘structural dominance’ and ‘individual self-limitations’, which lead to oppression (Fook, 2003). The project encountered working in partnership with children, parents and the communities, and attempted to promote social justice, social inclusion and participation in the local community, in accordance with Darlympe and Burke’s (2010) understanding of critical social work practice. It is only consciousness of the necessity for change that may lead to change, thus the consciousness-raising process focused on helping children and parents appreciate the value of education. The aim was to help them change their attitudes on education and develop children’s sense of belongingness to school. Anti-oppressive practice (AOP) involved raising parents’ awareness and understanding that, unless their children are educated, they cannot fully participate in an inclusive society. AOPs provided a better understanding of the dynamics of oppression, following Dominelli’s (2002) argument that ‘unless social workers understand “oppression” and the ways it is reproduced, their interventions, can become “oppressive” directly or indirectly’. It was critical for the team to develop ‘empowering forms of practice’ for the children, the families and the communities participating. Within the framework of critical social work, ‘oppression’ has also been perceived as simultaneously a ‘personal’ and a ‘political’ issue, following the feminist argument that ‘the personal is political’. Every child’s and parent’s personal accounts were highly valued. Personal change was also a political act, as every child who achieves the ‘very difficult task’ of continuing and completing high school and the very few who entered university became role models to tackle illiteracy. ‘Othering’ leads to oppression, but people can be both ‘oppressors’ and ‘oppressed’ at the same time (Dominelli, 2002). By ‘othering’, Dominelli (2002) refers to constructing an individual or a group as the ‘other’—as someone who is excluded from the normal hierarchies. Therefore, parents living in the most disadvantaged areas are ‘oppressed’ by poverty, discrimination and social exclusion, but they may also be ‘oppressive’ to their wives and/or children, by neglecting and/or abusing them. The anti-oppressive holistic perspective involved ‘working in partnership’ with individuals, groups, families, the communities and the schools beyond the traditional goal of controlling ‘clients’, as argued by Dominelli (1993, cited in Dominelli, 1998). Defending every child’s right to education also involved enrolling them in school in time and (re)registering those who dropped out, making sure that they present regular attendance and improve their educational attainment. It was also of great significance to raise children’s and parents’ conscience about the value of education. Empowering families and making their voices heard were also critical. Anti-oppressive approaches value and respect the uniqueness of human beings and cultural diversity, as long as children’s and women’s rights are not violated (O’Kin, 1999; Phillips, 2009). Characteristic examples of children’s rights violation, in these communities, were the under-aged arranged marriages of school-aged boys and girls, and the exploitation of children through child labour. There have been cases where parents were persuaded to ‘cancel’ their children’s marriages when they became conscious of the value of education, but this has not always been the case. Safeguarding human rights has internationally become highly critical due to the increase in social, economic and cultural inequalities and discrimination (Jones and Kriesler, 1998; Rees and Wright, 2000; Ife, 2001; Nipperess and Briskman, 2009). Social work draws its values and ethics on humanitarian and democratic ideals, and consequently human rights form social work’s core value basis (Buchanan and Gunn, 2007). Human rights discourse has become critical in social work theory and practice, as stated in the international definition of social work: ‘Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work’ (IFSW, IASSW, July, 2014). ‘Human rights aspirations,’ Cemlyn (2008) comments, ‘are reflected in the social work code of ethics and on anti-oppressive structural and critical postmodern perspectives.’ By ‘human rights’, we generally refer to those rights that allegedly belong to all people, regardless of their national origin, race, culture, age, gender, sexual orientation or disability. More specifically, we refer to the rights of disadvantaged groups, such as the rights of women, children, refugees and minorities. In accordance with the human rights discourse, the perception of universally shared common values dictates that everyone is, or should be, equal and respectful. ‘Respect’ requires acceptance and esteem to human beings, as Gearty (2006) argues, which means that each and every person should be treated as ‘unique’ and ‘special’. This value, which is in absolute compliance with social work ethics, has been critical when working in partnership with parents, children and teachers, for the cause of this project. Human rights discourse, as Cemlyn (2008) states, influences social work interventions and it is reflected in its code of ethics. On the other hand, human rights perspective brings into the open social groups, usually neglected, socially excluded and vulnerable, such as Roma (Cemlyn, 2008) and Muslim Roma, as the people participating in this project. General emancipatory statements, such as ‘we should empower people’ to ‘do best what they can’ or ‘we should provide opportunities to all’ and the similar expressions, draw from and are interrelated with the human rights discourse. The rights to liberty, autonomy and justice of the Enlightenment period are called ‘natural rights’ and they are socially constructed, according to Ife (2001). The 1948 International Human Rights Treaty and the 1950 European Convention of Human Rights ratified the second generation of rights, namely social, economic and cultural rights, that should be guaranteed by every state. These rights are included in the term ‘social justice’ (Craig, 2002) and they are associated with a ‘multilevel social construction of citizenship’ (Lister, 1997; Isin and Wood, 1999, in Cemlyn, 2008). The third generation of human rights are associated with economic development and clean environment (Ife, 2001), as well as citizenship and civil inclusion (Klug, 2004; Cemlyn, 2008). The UN Convention also refers to social inclusion, political participation and policies against discrimination, while children’s and women’s rights were ratified by the UN in the 1989 Convention (Save the Children, 1999). Maintaining equal political and civil rights is crucial particularly for the Roma, who, although they share common experiences of racism and discrimination with other culturally diverse groups, frequently experience further exclusion due to poverty, inter-generational illiteracy, and lack of political and civil rights (Cemlyn, 2008). The Children’s Rights Amendment stated that ‘Children are unique human beings and important persons, with full rights, besides their possibilities, their potential, their origin or their gender’ (Save the Children, 1999). The prejudices, openly outspoken, that children in these neighbourhoods are unable and unwilling to learn (Karagkounis, 2014) deny, in principle, this fundamental right of children’s uniqueness, their potential and their value as human beings. Prevention of child abuse and child sexual abuse, maltreatment and exploitation, child labour and youth offensive behaviour are children’s rights. Working in partnership with children and families to tackle school drop-out and improve their educational performance often encounters dealing also with child protection, intra-family violence, and child abuse and neglect (Save the Children, 1999). Human rights social work is in absolute harmony with critical social work. Empowering and emancipatory practice and rights-based social work are critical when working with minorities and Roma (Cemlyn, 2008). Rights-based practice in the project involved group work with children and theatrical plays on ‘Children’s rights and the right to education’. It also involved working in partnership with the families to raise their consciousness of children’s right and obligation to education and the right for a labour-free child life. Finally, social workers defended children’s right to citizenship by dealing with legal services and the bureaucracy in the registry office, in cases when parents had neglected to register their children at birth, which is a prerequisite to get enrolled into school. Last but not least, preserving children’s health care, by organising their medical examinations and immunisation programmes, has also been a rights-based practice. Working with the most vulnerable aspects of Muslim-minority education in and out of schools The project took place in the neighbourhoods of Drossero and Gaskane (on the outskirts of the city of Xanthi) and the village of Iliopetra (in the region of Xanthi), the neighbourhoods of Ifaistos, Anahoma, Alan Kouyiou and Perdika (on the outskirts of the city of Komotini) and that of Avantos (in the city of Alexandroupolis), as well as the Mahala (Muslim neighbourhood) in Sapes. School drop-out and illiteracy rates within these communities, as shown by a research that took place in the region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, with 350 Christian and Muslim Roma families, namely approximately 10 per cent of the whole Roma population in the region, are particularly high, reaching 95 per cent of the adult population (aged between eighteen and fifty) (Kandylaki and Tsairidis, 2010). The project has been implemented by a group of seven full-time social workers and two psychologists, along with thirty-five trainee social work students on a year placement, called for the purposes of this paper ‘the team’, with the assistance of language and maths teachers. It evolved under the regular weekly supervision of two social work professors (the writers of this article). The ‘team’ worked on a daily basis—including some evenings and weekends—throughout the whole year, even during summer school holidays, to prepare families and children for the forthcoming school year and supporting high-school children to resit the September exams. Social workers in the project were involved in street work and daily home visits. They have also been mediators between the state organisations, namely schools, social and health services, and families in the neighbourhoods. In co-operation with the medical centres, social workers were also involved, as already noted, in the management of medical examinations and the ‘children’s immunisation’ process, which were pre-requisites for school enrolment. Children in the neighbourhoods were either students in minority schools (e.g. Ifaistos-Komotini and Gaskane-Xanthi) or in generic state schools in the neighbourhood (e.g. in Drossero-Xanthi) or in separate particular classes in generic state primary schools in Komotini. Social workers tried to persuade teachers and headmasters to include for some children in state schools regular classes away from the neighbourhoods, especially in high school. There have also been repetitive efforts to arrange for the bus services to stop in Ifaistos to bring children to schools in the city of Komotini. Children and families lived in conditions of absolute poverty, in extremely poor housing and appalling health conditions. In certain communities, such as Alan Kouyiou, the neighbourhood is a ‘slum’, a ‘favela’, with no running water and no drainage or sewage system. As already stated, children were put into ‘separate and segregated’ classes or schools and they rarely continued to high school. The project was emancipatory, as it focused on the empowerment of the Muslim Roma children and their families, to make their voices heard and their presence obvious, to achieve their inclusion in education and tackle school drop-out. The so-called Muslim Roma form the target group of the project. This ‘label’ is frequently attributed to them, besides their wish. The European principle of the ‘individual right to self-identification’ was shared by contributors in the project and officially accepted by the Greek state. Some may identify themselves as Roma or Muslim Roma, while others self-identify as ‘Muslims, members of the minority’, and thus disassociate from the multiple stigmatisation of the ‘Roma’ label. Terms such as ‘pupils’ and ‘parents’ are therefore used here to refer to the population, instead of race and religious labels. Any type of labels are carefully and systematically avoided. It is clarified, however, that people living in these socially excluded neighbourhoods are multiply stigmatised by both the Muslim minority and the majority population in the area. Working in partnership to empower children and families and initiating community-oriented social work interventions have been emancipatory, anti-oppressive and rights-based practices, aiming to bridge schools, families and the communities to develop the sense of belonging to the school and to the community. This has not been an easy task. Furthermore, working in partnership with the teachers, the headmasters and the overall school environment to welcome and empower the children was often burdened by some teachers’ beliefs pinpointing that these children are ‘unable to learn’ (see Karagkounis, 2014) and by some parents forming the majority who claimed the school is degraded when Roma children are there, as they may also be a danger to their children’s health and educational performance. Dealing with the existing negative stereotypes and racist prejudices which formed a major obstacle in the children’s inclusion in school has also been a rights-based and AOP. Actions in the community and with the community Social workers and trainee students participating were based in schools in an attempt to make a joined effort with teachers and headmasters to tackle school drop-out and bridge schools with the families in the neighbourhoods. Visiting the neighbourhoods and presenting themselves and the project to the people were the first tasks. They primarily tried to meet the key persons in the neighbourhood, namely the imams, and/or the community representatives in order to explain the purpose of their presence and the importance of safeguarding children’s right to education. Home visits to families with school-aged children aimed to develop trusting and confident relationships, and to empower parents to talk about their needs and the obstacles they faced in their children’s schooling. It appeared that, due to inter-generational illiteracy, unemployment and social exclusion, the families faced significant difficulties in keeping a daily regular programme. It was hard for them to wake up early in the morning, to accompany their children to school and to prepare a snack for the school breaks. Their homes (a single room in most cases, shared by seven or more family members) were not a suitable environment for children to do their homework. On the other hand, parents, being illiterate in most cases, were not able to assist children in their homework. The need to establish a centre where children could study in self-help groups was therefore evident. This led to the establishment of the Cultural Solidarity Study Centres, mainly in Ifaistos, where children were doing their homework with the help and support of the team, and they participated in group work with the use of art and drama. An account of ‘best critical practice’ The project may be considered as ‘best critical practice’, in agreement with Ferguson’s (2003) criteria, for a number of reasons: first of all, critical theory was used as a hermeneutic framework to present practice; the project has been characterised as ‘best practice’, by the Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) Minority Rights Group (MRG-Greece, 2010); it has been an ‘evidence-based practice’ (see Karagkounis, 2014); it has created experiential knowledge, namely ‘knowledge produced by practice, actions and the occurring processes’; professionals and trainee social work students were under regular supervision by the two social work professors (the writers), co-ordinators of the project; supervision facilitated and guaranteed critical reflection (integral to critical practice and prerequisite to best critical practice, as Fook (2003) argues) and thus justified focus-centred, systematic and sustainable practice development; the project has become an expertise area in social work education at the Department of Social Administration and Political Studies of the Democritus University of Thrace; it has been frequently used as a case study, taught in social work undergraduate and postgraduate courses, namely ‘Critical social work with minorities’ and ‘School social work’, while it has simultaneously been a practice placement area in situ for trainee social work students; the right to education and the right to a better quality of life, free from violence, abuse and exploitation, were driving concepts. Human rights and anti-oppressive critical approaches have thus offered a useful framework for analysis. It has therefore been an excellent educational opportunity for applying theory to practice. The complex conditions and the uncertainty of the actions taken indicated how significant it was to give ‘substance’ and ‘meaning’ to practice. Critical reflection was the sine-qua non to understanding the context. It helped to improve practice and reconstruct the reality. AOPs revealed people’s experiences, attitudes and beliefs, and focused on the empowerment and the development of the Freirean concept of ‘critical consciousness’ (Fay, 1987; Healy, 2005, p. 174). Working in partnership with parents: from home visits to going to school Working in partnership with parents took place with home visits in the community. Visiting families whose (school-aged) children did not go to school or presented an irregular school attendance, in their own homes, aimed at defending children’s right to education. Responding to the families’ basic needs and preventing child abuse, neglect and exploitation were vital to encourage regular school attendance. Despite the complexity of the problems that the families faced, most parents responded positively to social workers’ call for their children’s regular school attendance. As social workers and trainee students tried to make clear that going to school is a right and an obligation at the same time, most parents have frequently responded positively and willingly. Not only did they come up with an understanding of the right to education, but they have even started claiming for better educational quality, as a right. These have been examples of breaking up the vicious cycle of inter-generational illiteracy. Children with irregular school attendance usually lived and grew up in families with multiple and complex problems. They lived below the poverty line and their parents were either unemployed or they worked only occasionally. They were also sometimes faced with family violence, child abuse and neglect. There have even been cases when sudden crises emerged, such as a parent’s death, or a serious illness. Counselling children and families (with the Greek meaning of the word, ‘Sym-vouleftiki’, which means thinking and deciding together) for specific trauma experiences was essential, as, for example, in the cases where a child lost her mother, another one witnessed murder and another one was a survivor of intra-familiar violence episodes. Working in partnership with parents to deal with any emerging problems and difficulties, in order to overcome any standing obstacles to regular school attendance, was critical. Networking with social and health services in the big cities and the Prefecture, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and key persons in the community (i.e. the imams) was required, in many cases. Mediation and parents’ empowerment to succeed with early, on-time school enrolment, maintain regular school attendance and frequent presence in the ‘parallel teaching’ programme at the KESPEMs (Centres for Support for the project for Muslim children’s inclusion in education, see www.museduc.gr) and the afternoon group work in the Cultural Solidarity Study Centres and empowering mothers to participate in Greek teaching courses, organised in the KESPEMs, particularly for them, presented multiple benefits. First, it has contributed to their appreciating the value of education and it has motivated them to study in parallel with their children. A good-practice example of motivation and solidarity was that of a group of mothers who have been empowered to actively participate with and accompany children from the neighbourhood of Alan Kouyiou to the KESPEM in Komotini. A number of women who were mothers and lived in the neighbourhoods were employed as mediators in the KESPEMs in Komotini, in Avantos and in Drossero. Those mothers had a strong motivation for their children’s education and were particularly sensitised in accompanying and supporting children to join in the afternoon courses in the KESPEMs. This appeared to be a good example of working in partnership with parents. The Cultural Solidarity Study Centre: empowering and motivating children through group work and participation in cultural events Group work with children was a powerful method used. The team’s motto was ‘Today we are in the group … and tomorrow we go to school’. Groups were meeting at schools or in the Cultural Solidarity Study Centres established in some neighbourhoods and in the KESPEMs, once or twice a week. Setting up these groups was not an easy task. The example of the Cultural Solidarity Study Centre in Ifaistos illustrates how group work with the use of drama and creative art has become an empowering method. Ifaistos is a disadvantaged neighbourhood in the north-western edge of Komotini, created when people were moved there from the city centre in 1938, and named after the Greek ancient god, which refers to the people’s involvement in iron crafting. There are currently 1,500 Muslim, Turkish-speaking people living in the neighbourhood, in conditions of acute poverty, with high rates of child work and school drop-out. School failure was closely linked to social exclusion and inter-generational illiteracy (Askouni, 2006; Mavromatis, 2005; Kallinikaki, 2012, cited in Kallinikakis and Kourtidou, 2014). When, at the beginning of the project, back in 2004, the team of students and professionals first went to the minority school in the neighbourhood, they were told by the teachers that children presented an irregular attendance, as they started the school year in November, in order to get the financial benefit (the allowance of 300 Euros per year is given to Roma families by the Greek state as a motivation to send their children to school) and stopped in March, when families usually moved to other areas in Thrace, to work in the fields. It was only the two daughters of the teacher who continued to high school. When the team walked into the neighbourhood, to make contact with people, most of whom were parents with school-aged children, they met with a few so-called ‘cultural clubs’, which were in fact ‘coffee shops’. The owner, the ‘president of the club’, was able to read and write and he was usually being paid by the club’s members to act as a mediator between them and the services in the community. Once the team visited one ‘coffee shop/club’, instantly negative rumours spread. There was therefore a clear need for the team to find a neutral place, to establish a basis, away from all this ‘dominance and splitting’. A stone-built, two-roomed small building, which was the medical centre (operating once every fifteen days) in the village, was provided by the Prefecture, following the co-ordinators’ request, and it was transformed into a ‘Cultural Solidarity Study Centre’. Most children came along to see what was happening and they all wanted to participate. Organising them in age and interest groups was a harsh task. The motto ‘today in the group and tomorrow at school’, under the penalty of not being accepted in the group the following day if they neglected to go to school, proved to be very motivating. Group work with children with the use of play, creative art, dance, drama and theatre aimed to empower children’s school identity, to promote equal opportunities in education, to develop communication and solidarity skills, to help children learn how to deal with conflicts and to increase their self-awareness and self-esteem. They therefore developed their creativity and imagination, built up friendships, learnt to express their opinions, practised reading and learnt lyrics by heart—a practice which particularly assisted pupils with learning difficulties. Creating opportunities for children to actively participate in cultural events, music and theatre performances in the community was important to improve their self-esteem and to help change the existing stereotypes and prejudices. Such events took place in the University Central Amphitheatre, at the KESPEMs and in the cities’ festivities organised by the Municipalities, such as the ‘Eleftheria’ (big festivities in the cities of Komotini and Alexandroupolis) and the ‘festivities in the old city’ in Xanthi. These experiences helped children feel that ‘we are like the others, like everybody else’. These events were of particular importance, for two main reasons. First, they provided children and youths with creative learning opportunities. Performing encouraged expression, increased co-operation and solidarity, and most importantly improved their self-image, self-esteem and self-confidence. Second, these cultural events provided opportunities for intercultural dialogue, contacts and co-existence with the majority. They were therefore good opportunities to reflect upon prejudices and stereotypes, and rethink whether in fact these children are unable to learn as they are prejudiced. There have been a number of opportunities where children participated. Initially, the music group of Ifaistos were invited to play in the university on a number of occasions, namely a welcome day for first-year students, a Conference on Intercultural Psychology, in Komotini and cultural events on an Erasmus Socrates Intensive Programme on ‘Social policy with vulnerable groups’, in 2007–08). The members of this music band continued and completed high-school education. Other day events have been organised in the university, where the fifth and sixth grades of Ifaistos primary minority school pupils presented theatrical plays. The plays had been written by the pupils with the students’ help and the story was related to ‘the right to education’. The final years of the primary school were considered to be critical periods, where children needed strong encouragement to continue to high school. Visiting the university and performing there were strong encouragement to continue. On the same day, 100 participant social work students played an interactive game with the children, to build the ‘Children’s Rights Wall’ and discuss each child right written on the bricks. Children also participated in the traditional musical parade welcoming the spring in Komotini, named ‘the swallows’ (helidonismata), for the first time among other children. Last but not least, there was the preparation of theatrical plays on Homer’s Odysssey, Iliad and on the Euripides tragedy Eleni—one every year between 2011 and 2013, which were presented in the city’s festivities. The idea to adapt the ancient classic texts into theatrical plays occurred to deal with the emerging difficulties that children faced in studying the texts for school due to their poor knowledge of the Greek language. Adapting the story to a theatrical play helped them to understand the text and motivated them strongly. Complexities, partnership and co-operation: concluding remarks of breaking the vicious circle of illiteracy Community development interventions focused on bridging schools with the families, the neighbourhoods and the local communities, to develop the sense of ‘belongingness’ in the participating children. A significant number of university students, trainee social workers and volunteers (university students in literature and history courses) were involved to support pupils at school and help them with their studying and homework, in all school subjects. Parents’ and teachers’ low expectations in relation to children’s abilities and the families’ way of life frequently distanced children from school. The absence of a regular daily routine was due to chronic and long-lasting unemployment, rather than a cultural element. Furthermore, children and youths provided care for their younger brothers and sisters, in the absence of their parents, especially during particular periods of the year (i.e. in spring time), when families move to work in the fields. The patriarchal family structures and the ‘under-aged arranged marriages’ were also significant reasons for school drop-out. Concurrently, the educational environment treated children and their families with prejudice, as many teachers argued emphatically that ‘These children do not learn …, they cannot learn’ (Papadopoulou, 2014 p. 380). Consequently, many children remained ‘permanently stuck’ in separate, segregated classes—the so-called ‘classes of inclusion’. Low expectations on behalf of their families, and equally low or even lower expectations on behalf of their teachers, formed a vicious circle of low appreciation of education, which led to children’s irregular school attendance and drop-out. Insisting on early school registration and regular attendance for each and every one of the children in pre-primary schools and in the first year of primary school was important. Emphasis has been in the final years of the primary school and on the first year of the high school. Congruent and systematic support and encouragement of the fewer adolescents who succeeded in continuing education in high school were also critical. Excellent examples to other children in the neighbourhood were the few youths who completed high school and the two young boys from Drossero and one from Ifaistos who entered university. Contributors, both professionals and trainee social workers, have worked in a highly demanding project, in unconventional conditions. This involved ‘street work’ and home visits in the ‘rough pathways’ of absolute poverty. They were working in partnership with parents to deal with harsh and complex problems (involving welfare issues, drug-dependency problems and mental health disorders), in close co-operation with social, health and mental health services. Τhe active participation of a large number of university students was of critical importance. Students have become local communities’ representatives, who frequently and regularly visited these neighbourhoods, to help children with their studies in their own environment. This was particularly effective in Ifaistos, where the ‘Cultural Solidarity Study Centre’ became a haunt, where children, social workers, psychologists and students have developed new skills and they have tried innovative experiences of co-existence. The ‘centre’ became a safe environment for socialisation and intercultural interaction. Personal and professional development was achieved by sensitivity about diversity and by dealing with stereotypes and prejudices. 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The British Journal of Social Work – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 1, 2018
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