This article is courtesy of VICE Greece
In 2014, they were the talk of Thessaloniki – eight Roma kids who would travel from Greece to Missouri to participate in an international robotics competition.
Four years later, those kids are 18 years old, finishing school and teaching robotics to the next generation of students in their neighbourhood of Dendropotamos, an area with the highest crime rate in Thessaloniki.
"It was an incredible experience for all of us – it was the reason I got involved with art and started thinking seriously about my future. Under different circumstances, we would probably have dropped out of school," says Vassilis Tsakiris, who was a member of the team. Today, he coaches younger children on the robotics team he helped to start. He studied graphic design at a private college, and since graduating he's dreamed of opening his own design company.
"There were eight of us in total. We named our team FAR.GO.BOTS and built a robot, which, on a larger scale, would bridge the fault lines that cause earthquakes by spreading its arms across both sides of the gap," says Spyros Bakas, now an 18-year-old high school student and mentor.
Before Dendropotamos became residential, ceramic factories in the area excavated thousands of cubic metres of soil from the surrounding land to make bricks and tiles. The neighbourhood was built below street level in the pit that was left over, and is flanked by highways and a dry river bed. The streets flood when it rains. Media don't generally go to the area.
In 2005, a young Greek Orthodox priest in Thessaloniki was preparing to travel to Africa for missionary work. When a local told him he thought the priest still had plenty of work to do at home, Father Athenagoras Loukataris cancelled his plans and decided to start working in Dendropotamos instead. During his first few days in the neighbourhood, Father Loukataris noted that many children didn't have enough to eat, so he organised a kitchen in the church basement. He then realised that many of them were skipping school as well, so with the support of teachers in the area he spent every morning going door-to-door to wake the children up – persistently and patiently – until the rate of attendance rose from around 30 percent to over 90 percent today.
Over the following years, the children of Dendropotamos not only started going to middle school and high school, but completed it too. While a few years earlier most girls would have married at 14, many of them were now set to go to university. Boys who would have been forced to work were given the opportunity to pursue other interests. Loukataris also established the Lighthouse of the World youth centre, which offers practical support to teenagers, including those who had been in prison and women who had been forced to marry young and had missed out on school.
In 2014, Roma students from the Lighthouse community took part in the First Lego League, Greece's national robotics competition, for the first time. The team impressed the organisers – so much so that the Lego Foundation invited them to the International Robotics Festival in St Louis, Missouri.
It hadn't all been a breeze up to that point. At first, the students' parents had not only been skeptical about the trip, but about them joining a robotics teams at all. The Roma community in Greece tends to value work over education, and this seemed like a distraction from the former. Additionally, the community usually only travel to trade goods. "But when our team started getting publicity and word of what we were doing spread beyond the neighbourhood, our parents began to understand that they shouldn't stand in our way," says Vassilis. "For many children on the team, it was the reason that they enrolled in school."
But the team didn't want to settle for just getting an honorary invite to participate in that first contest in the US. "We were driven, we worked harder, and in 2016 we won an actual invitation to the international robotics tournament, but this time on our own merit," Spyros adds.
Stavros Sagkouris, 15, participated in that second delegation of the Dendropotamos children to St Louis. With the help of a Greek sponsor living in the US, they also travelled to New York. "I learned a lot from that experience," Stavros tells me. "Not only did I learn how to socialise, but it enhanced my interests in other subjects."
Giorgos Tsitiridis is a coordinator of the Lighthouse's actions – he spends many hours with the kids and is proud of their achievements. The influence of the team that paved the way four years ago is so strong that, today, up to 30 Roma children in the neighbourhood are active members of the robotics teams. Beyond that, the youth centre offers other activities, like football, music, swimming and debate.
Stavros is now a student at an arts high school, he's learning dance and theatre and, as he says, his dream is to become a film star. "The robotics course is the key for the kids of Dendropotamos to step out of the sidelines," he says. "The area is known for youth crime and the way the Roma kids keep to themselves. But those stereotypes are now being dismantled by our robotics team, and by the work the Lighthouse is doing."