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  • Maya Rimer

Participatory Workshop for Volunteers and Refugees of One Happy Family Community Center

Updated: Mar 5, 2018

Text by Maya Rimer, Photos by Dann Nørgaard and Liz seeman


For nearly two years I have been offering

Participatory workshops and process design for Grass Root organizations in the Greek Refugee Crisis. I am often in awe of these incredible individuals - staff or long term volunteers and activists turned humanitarians, working from the ground up to try and make a difference to the tens of thousands of refugees still living in inhuman conditions on European soil.


One such group is One Happy Family community center operating on the island of Lesvos. Offering food, activities, a school, a communal garden, barber shop, café and much much more.

The main visitors to the center are refugees living in the horrific camp Moria, where racial tension, violent fights and random fires are common. Nearly five thousand people are cramped into a space built for one thousand eight hundred people, and you can imagine the result.


One Happy Family (OHF) is unique in the way it is run, with international volunteers and refugee volunteers working together, all equal, to create, hold and run this beautiful space. This is often the intention, but rarely have I seen it play out more beautifully than in OHF. Here the spirit of hope, collaboration and solidarity is ever present in the day to day, making it one of the most important young refugee oriented institutions on the island.


I was invited by the coordination team of OHF to host several participatory events -

a Learning Journey for the coordination team which is going through significant changes at this time, and a large event for 100 volunteers and stake holders in this center, asking what improvements we can make together. This event, like all big meetings in OHF, was held in 4 different languages, making sure nobody was left out of the conversation.

When planning the work to come, we had agreed to hold an Open Space event for this big group of international and refugee volunteers - the people actually running the projects and the center. As always, a preparatory team was put together to hold the process with me and make it right for them. We started with video calls when I was back in my native Israel, and met a few times once I was on the ground.


As the work progressed it was becoming clear that the refugees on our prep team found it hard to stay with concepts or ideas, and kept leaping into implementation, leaving no space for open discussion, the core of the event.

They were also getting really frustrated, suggesting many good ideas and being told "We are actually looking for the right question, not the final answers, yet…"


It was three days before the event when I realized we had to change the design completely. Uncertain and scared of creating more frustration and tension within the community I called the amazing Tova Averbuch, Open Space master, and my beloved teacher and friend. Tova reminded me that I'm on the right path, listening to my prep team and understanding the need to shift the initial plan, and helping me see that in this field of chaos and uncertainty, structure will be more helpful than more chaos, in the form of an Open Space.


With the support of One Happy Family, and

some help from abroad, we designed a simpler event - meeting each other, appreciating the good, asking what simple improvements we can make, than splitting up into smaller teams to see how we can further our ideas and what would be our first steps to implementation.

I was also lucky to have co-hosted a large participatory event a while back in Elpida Home Refugee Camp, and having invited in Vanessa Reid, facilitator-host and teacher, I was able to draw upon our past learning to make sure this event will go smoothly. For example, understanding the importance of translation choices I met with all the translators an hour before the event, brought up weird words they might not use every day, like participation, collaboration or opening circles, giving them time to find the right word, and bringing them into the participatory field of people holding this event.

A space and time team was created to choose and mark all the break out spaces, while a harvest team was busy handing out flip chart paper and markers. Writing a suggested script before the event, and making it available to all who were interested, allowed people to further understand the flow of the day and take a bigger role if they wanted, and this worked very well. I was also co-hosting with Mira Salomon, a friend and colleague from OHF with a natural inclination to facilitation. Having Mira, as well as others on the coordination team fully on board and holding space together was a wonderful experience, while Fabian and Mahmud opened the event, framed us in and introduced me as facilitator.

It was amusing and embarrassing to have every one of my words, every invitation or silly joke (of which I seem to have quite a few) spoken in English, translated into Arabic, Farsi and French. I was very anxious about how much cooperation, or willingness to be a bit silly I will find, but I was pleasantly surprised to find massive motivation for every invitation I made, heaps of energy and many people holding the space with me. When ideas were read out my co-host Mira harvested, immediately translated by our translation team, than hung on the wall by the space and time team, like a well-oiled participatory machine. All were working well together - while the refugee volunteers from our prep team, who had such a massive effect on the design, held space by asking people to speak up or please listen, and encouraging others to participate.

The event was a great success, with a lot of enthusiasm and passion.

I did feel that more time with the last discussion groups to really understand HOW to make

the change they wanted would have been useful, but hope the harvest booklet with all the ideas will encourage the teams to further the project they had in mind. Two weeks after the event a PDF file with all the ideas in all 4 languages was sent to all who attended. I loved the ideas that came up - from reaching out to more female refugees to join the volunteers running the center, through vocational training, and even how to improve the food quality.

The day ended in a big clapping check out, closing our time together, and sending love to ourselves, One Happy Family and the whole world- although looking around the most diverse circle I have ever hosted it seemed the whole world was right there with us all along.


This is the first blog entry on my new website, www.mayarimer.com

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