Helping refugees in Europe with The Odyssey and Don Quixote


Bilal Almobarak knows a good deal about stress and threats to wellbeing faced by refugees. Almobarak fled the Syrian civil war in 2015 and ended up in Sweden, where he now runs a non-governmental organisation that helps integrate displaced people into Swedish society.

A trained pharmacist, Almobarak is executive manager of the Support Group Network (SGN). The NGO was created by refugees of various origins that also include Afghanistan and Ukraine and professional backgrounds ranging from engineers to teachers. 

Daunting challenges

SGN is part of a research project that received EU funding to come up with new ways to integrate refugee children in six European countries: Bulgaria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Sweden. Called REFUGE-ED, the project is wrapping up in December 2023 after three years. 

SGN has run the Swedish component of REFUGE-ED, working with residents of Sweden’s largest temporary-asylum centre – called Restad Gård and located northeast of the city of Gothenburg. 

Once the legal status of young people and their families at Restad Gård is formalised and they leave it, access to SGN support remains available at an intercultural centre in the nearby Vänersborg municipality. SGN’s activities at Restad Gård and the centre include language exchanges, dance classes and forest walks. 

‘I met a father in our intercultural centre when he was delivering his 12-year-old daughter,’ said Almobarak. ‘He said: “Thank you, really, because if she is not coming here to learn something new, she will be sitting on her tablet!”’

Hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in Europe face the daunting challenge of adjusting to an unfamiliar culture, making new friends and learning a foreign language. They also often have to grapple with distressing effects from dramatic migratory journeys and family separations.

REFUGE-ED has taken actions to enhance education and mental health in a range of institutions, including intercultural centres, care facilities for unaccompanied minors and schools.

Literary liberation

From literary gatherings and mathematics lessons to gardening and theatre, the project ran 46 activities in the six countries, reaching more than 10 000 people.

Teresa Sordé-Martí, a sociology professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain leading REFUGE-ED, said the main goal has been to improve children’s education, wellbeing and integration.

In the literary gatherings, young people discover classics ranging from Homer’s Odyssey to Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. The participants then share thoughts about specific fragments, lines or even the entire book.

Homer’s work of the 8th century or 7th century BC is about the 10-year journey by the ancient Greek hero Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, back home after the Trojan War. In Don Quixote, written about 2 300 years later, the eponymous hero from La Mancha travels in search of adventure as a knight errant.

They are able not only to understand literary classics but also to enjoy these works of humanity.

Professor Teresa Sordé-Martí, REFUGE-ED

Sordé-Martí said the criterion for choosing works, including non-travel literature, is that they are considered world classics embodying universal themes and contributing to humanity. She said making such masterpieces accessible to young migrants improves their linguistic skill and encourages them to express emotions and break down social barriers.

‘This shows the most disenfranchised communities that they are able not only to understand literary classics but also to enjoy these works of humanity,’ Sordé-Martí said.

Back in Sweden, Almobarak said educational activities in general have been a big benefit for young residents of Restad Gård. 

He said the children not only have felt empowered but have been able to turn attention away from the daily reality of their legal limbo. 

‘You live there until you get your papers and that can take several months or even years,’ Almobarak said.

Beyond words

Special support at schools is also important for refugee children, according to Ilse Derluyn, a professor in the Department of Social Work and Social Pedagogy at Ghent University in Belgium. 

She led an EU-funded research project that examined ways within class and other school settings to foster mental wellbeing and social integration for adolescent newcomers. 

Called RefugeesWellSchool, the project ran for almost five years until end-September 2022 and involved 3 500 students at dozens of schools in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the UK. The students were aged 12 to 25.

Derluyn highlighted the beneficial role of theatre.

In dedicated sessions, students guided by therapists explored migration themes and even re-enacted their own experiences.

‘Recognising each other’s stories, knowing that you’re not the only one who has suffered very difficult experiences during your migration trajectory or back home, that you’re not the only one who is missing his or her parents, is a very important part of it,’ said Derluyn.

Empathy and impact

In addition to drama, the RefugeesWellSchool researchers tested mediation and teacher training.

One main takeaway was the importance of creating places in schools where new arrivals can share their experiences, anxieties and hopes with each other and with non-migrant children, according to Derluyn.

The need to address wellbeing in schools is really high.

Professor Ilse Derluyn, RefugeesWellSchool

Classrooms with a mix of students from migrant and non-migrant backgrounds also featured in the project. Mixed classes fostered greater social integration by increasing empathy for and understanding of the experiences of refugees.

Derluyn said the project garnered significant interest, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Since then, the EU has granted temporary protection to about 1.3 million Ukrainian children.

‘These kinds of interventions are very valuable, also in these extreme cases,’ Derluyn said. ‘The need to address wellbeing in schools is really high.’

RefugeesWellSchool’s work has featured in the activities of other organisations in Europe. 

For example, the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies presented the project’s results in an initiative on psychosocial support for Ukrainian refugees and in conferences for local authorities and teachers.

As a result, the work has reached large numbers of people, including policymakers involved in refugee reception in Norway, according to RefugeesWellSchool.

In addition, findings from the project have been the focus of research and health events in Finland, as well as of educational activities at EU level. 

Beyond RefugeesWellSchool, Derluyn has a very personal connection to the issues: one of her four children is a former unaccompanied refugee minor.

‘Newcomers are a very important group in our societies,’ she said.

Research in this article was funded by the EU. The views of the interviewees don’t necessarily reflect those of the European Commission. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

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