By Lisa Goddard
In an alley off a busy Athens street, between the smells of freshly baked spinach pastries and coffee, and the sounds of honking taxis, pigeons bob around the graffiti-painted walls of a building that, inside, emanates wonder and light.
Lucky passersby might catch a glimpse of this special place as a child’s laugh bounces out of the open window and the shadow of a wooden mannequin dances down the windowsill.
This is the Athens Nest, where children and families arriving in Greece are invited to learn and grow in a safe and beautiful environment that tells them, “Welcome. We’re so glad you’re here.”
On one typical school day morning, the doorbell rings, letting us know the first families of the day have arrived. The center directors and volunteers greet them at the door with warm words of welcome in English, Arabic, French, and Farsi.
Little fingers unwrap from their parents’ fingers as each person takes off their shoes by the door and puts on fresh-from-the-dryer socks.
After the necessary health checks and sign-in procedures are finished, the volunteers usher the adults to their language lessons in a cozy classroom, while the eager children bound toward the tables and carpets specially set up with them in mind: wooden building materials partially constructed on the table asking to be added on to, ramps and tracks lined up on the magnet wall with wooden balls waiting to be rolled. Each child has a favorite material to work with, which the volunteers take care to know and prepare ahead of time.
One little boy from Afghanistan starts sorting the animal figures into big ones and small ones. “Big lion, small lion. This is big! This small.” He blows us away with his English as he works, prompting even the Italian director to joke that he should be the center’s English teacher.
Two girls from another Afghan family sit at the art table, and as they color in their drawings, one girl shares the Farsi words for the colors she uses with the international volunteer: “Ghermez,” she says, coloring in a flower. “Ghermez, red?” the volunteer asks, eliciting a wide grin from the girl.
After about an hour and a half, the families come to join the children and volunteers to share a snack of bananas, biscuits, and milk family-style around the long table.
Quiet chatter in many languages hums in the room as children fill their bellies and squinting eyes reveal smiles hidden behind face masks. As each child finishes, one-by-one, they grab a sponge and walk over to the half-filled buckets of soapy water to clean their plates.
While the littlest ones giggle as soap bubbles stick to their arms, the older children and parents look serene as they enjoy a moment of normalcy before their time at the Nest comes to an end. The good-bye song lasts just long enough to say farewell with their first name to each person present, and soon the room is quiet again, with only the sound of the broom sweeping up biscuit crumbs left.
There is nowhere quite like the Nest. It is a space of learning, but much more than that; it is a space of wonder, joy, care, and community. Each material, thoughtfully chosen and curated, every part of the routine crafted to make visitors feel welcome, warm exchanges across languages and cultures – they let all who enter know that they matter, and they do.