Educational Freedom Fighter: An Interview with Evangelos Vlachakis, Plitra, Greece, April 2016
Home education is illegal in Greece, yet my family and I have just attended the Worldschoolers Spring Edventure in a small Peloponnese town, hosted by cinematographer Evangelos Vlachakis along with his family and friends at the Porto Grana Hub in Laconia – a place for home educating and worldschooling families to meet, learn, share and discover life together.
I interviewed Evangelos to find out more about his vision for educational freedom in a country in which such freedoms are restricted.
How did the Porto Grana hub come about?
There was an old restaurant available, so we had the idea to use it as a recreational space for kids. Since there was a very limted budget, we tried to renovate it on our own. We tried to combine it with my idea to bring homeschooling families into contact with my family, as I was very concerned about my daughter’s schooling and I felt that having some inside information from families who already homeschool would be beneficial to us. So, it really came about through the combination of having the empty space to use and wanting to research homeschooling.
Is there a strong community of families in Greece who would like to home educate and does anyone practice it despite it being illegal?
I’ve been involved in [researching home education] over the last 3 years and I’ve come into contact with many Greek families that are already willing to homeschool, and also with families that already do it or have done it. Some of the families are doing it underground and only two that I know of have been prosecuted for it.
Some families decide to move abroad in order to pursue a home educating lifestyle when it isn’t legal in their home country – is that something that you ever considered doing or was it always much more important to you to try to develop something in Greece?
I’d like to stay where we live as I think it’s the ideal place for kids and for families – we have the sunshine about 90% of the year and the countryside here is so virgin and unspoilt that it’s an ideal place to grow up. We don’t want to leave this place – on the contrary, I would like to invite families that would like to live in this kind of place to join us here! Foreign families who visit can legally homeschool in Greece – my thought is that on some level we can form a network of foreign and Greek families around Porto Grana and collectively try to lobby the government for a change in law.
So in what way do you hope this more ‘global’ network will help with the lobbying and in the format of home education you present to the Greek government?
I’m trying to gather information about how it’s done because, whilst many people here want to home school, we don’t know how it works in practice, and that’s why we like to come into contact with home educating families so that we have more insight into how you home school the children. This would be beneficial in our attempts to lobby the government in terms of forming a proposal.
Is it in any way difficult looking in on families from elsewhere who have freedoms that you don’t have or does the closer contact with home educating families give you greater optimism that it is possible?
Yes, first of all, I can see that it is possible. I believe what would help is to build a community first, because it helps the families that feel isolated and who need the company of others to support them. I think that building a community will be an ideal base for pursuing home schooling in Greece, and a community also serves the children to more easily interact with one another and develop community projects.
Is it something you’re optimistic could potentially happen soon (as your daughter is already 10 years old and compulsory education in Greece is just until age 15) or are you looking ahead at future generations?
Yes, I’m looking at future generations, it’s not only about my daughter – I would love to home school, but the community-based home schooling I envisage might take some time to happen; we are just at the beginning but I think we have a lot of potential to make it a reality.
It takes some people a lot to take action just for their own children in terms of trying to change a law, maybe putting up with something even if it directly affects them as “that’s the way it is”, so the fact that you’re invested in this is admirable – I think you’ve probably picked up on the fact that for most home educating families it’s a huge lifestyle choice and the freedom to home educate is interlinked with so many other freedoms and our autonomy in the world. Have you got a written plan yet?
Not as yet. My main concern is with forming a community, starting with having families stay with us for a little while. The reason I organise the worldschoolers’ events is for families to come together and be able to live in the countryside and experience how it is to live here – in the future I would like to form an eco-community of worldschooling families who will be the network of people who show the government how community-based home schooling might look.
So the events you’ve set up so far are an experiment to see who’s out there with a view to a future eco-community here?
Yes. We’ve already planned the summer event for June 23rd-30th ,and also plan to have autumn and winter events in September  and January .
So much for weekly posts: it seems three months have passed since my last offering on here. However, major happenings have taken place, one of which is nicely complemented by a book review that shall feature herein.
Many changes have taken place in our lives since September:
I have backed out of a big project which meant a great deal to me in order to concentrate on the things that mean a great deal more;
I have re-embarked on Home Education with FreeToBeP after nigh on two years’ in mainstream school;
Last but definitely not least, we’re celebrating the arrival of FreeToBeNumber3 (hereafter known as FreeToBeL) who is currently snuggled against me in the sling; a sweet, sleeping three-week old.
I delivered FreeToBeL myself in the birth pool at home – a quick, intense labour but a gentle water birth that I’m thoroughly glad I achieved for this precious new water sign. Just as her head was about to crown and she was making her way between two worlds, her siblings informed our dear friend who was taking care of them in FreeToBeP’s bedroom that they must see mummy right then.
Thus, they checked in with me at the perfect moment and were able to greet their little sister the very moment she entered the big, wide world.
In my opinion, this is the ideal welcome for a new life – in calm surroundings at home, directly into the comfort of a mother’s arms, and to the smiles and coos of friends and family.
First-born FreeToBeP had an elaborate pagan blessing ceremony at 3 months old after a long, hard labour to get him out left us both exhausted rather than celebratory. I also felt, as a single mother, that it was important to see him surrounded by supportive people and to be accepted into a community. My biggest fear as a single mum is that of isolation.
FreeToBeZ (who was out in 4 pushes accompanied by beatific smiles) had a similar experience to FreeToBeL, thanks to FreeToBeP’s timely entrance into the same living room where FreeToBeL was delivered. As the second-born, it felt like FreeToBeZ was born into a family; albeit an immediate and local family of only of a mother and a 4-year-old brother, it was a family with an established network of supportive friends, and a father who wanted to be involved even if immigration law meant he couldn’t be.
‘Welcoming Babies’ is an educational picture book which briefly describes many different ways in which babies are welcomed into the world depending on the country, culture and/or religion they’re born into. A double page of notes at the back of the book goes into greater detail about the customs and beliefs behind the ceremonies described. The full page illustrations are colourful, engaging and full of movement.
I found this a valuable book with regards to learning about global community; that whilst many things in our lives are determined by the country we grow up in or the religion of our family, babies – new human beings – are celebrated all the world over, recognised in a myriad of ways for the precious new instances of life that they are.
The importance of the rite of passage from womb to world is something that people of all nations and belief systems mark and respect. It also draws attention to the fact that – whatever one’s beliefs – we are all bound by ritual when it comes to birth and death.
My favourite ‘welcome’ of the book was the simple but symbolic Hopi greeting; regarding the dawn of a new day and the light of the sun rise as a fitting occasion and event for the blessing of a newborn child. This reflects the ‘elemental’ blessing ceremony that I wrote for FreeToBeP – honouring Mother Nature for the seemingly miraculous yet perfectly normal process that is creating new life, and recognising the symbols in the natural world that put the microcosm of our individual lives in balance with the macrocosm of the greater world and universe.
We borrowed ‘Welcoming Babies’ from our local library and, in my opinion, it is a really useful tool in the ‘teaching global citizenship’ toolbox. Many children can relate to the topic of new babies (indeed, it is a lovely book for introducing the issue of new siblings which bypasses the usual human biology and gets straight to the end result!), and it introduces concepts of religion, spirituality, community, family dynamics and culture without any of these complex subjects detracting from the main theme.
And thus, still in my baby moon, we continue with our own welcome:
The many occasions to express gratitude for being entrusted with the care and guidance of another human being, for the gifts and kindnesses of friends and family, for the smiles and love that surround the presence of a baby;
The protected time to exist in a bubble with few demands from the outside world and an invaluable opportunity to bond and to take joy in witnessing the newly established bonds of siblinghood;
The reminder to reflect on what is truly important in life, especially when it seemed like only yesterday that your first-born arrived and yet six and a half years have passed, and you live in the unsettling mix of guilt and hope that you have learnt from the errors you have so far made as a parent.
Thus a welcoming ceremony takes place each and every morning, where the light of each new day shines a light on the preciousness and precariousness of my children’s lives and I pledge to try my best to live our new family mantra . . .
Whatever the question, the answer is love.
How did you welcome your child(ren) into the world? Was a formal celebration an important way in which to mark the occasion? Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences with me.
I tend to have a ‘feast or famine’ experience when in Morocco, and I was pleased that my arrival this time quite literally coincided with a feast.
I arrived during the evening at the end of a day of Ramadan, just in time for ftur (breakfast). I also cleverly timed my visit to coincide with the Eid festivities, the celebrations at the end of a month of fasting (Eid El Fitr being due to take place in Morocco as of Tuesday 29th July, two days after my arrival).
Having not eaten since lunchtime at Luton Airport and it nearing 10pm, both FreeToBeZ and I were impressed with the spread of food that FreeToBeB laid out as a starter whilst he cooked the main meal. I could have taken my fill just with this first course: grapes, fresh figs, prickly pears (the fruit of a cactus that is abundant here), mixed nuts, fried fish, bread and sweet pastries.
FreeToBeZ began devouring the fish, which I also found quite tempting – I usually avoid fish in Morocco, it being something that I’ve known to disagree even with native FreeToBeB, but it’s been one of my pregnancy cravings. Despite my precautionary perusal, I promptly managed to get a small bone stuck in my throat whilst 2-year-old FreeToBeZ continued to carefully stuff her bread with huge chunks of fish and greedily consume it without problem.
Added to the selection for the main course were a bowl of deliciously spiced mixed olives and a dish of chicken and olives cooked in a copiously seasoned tomato and onion sauce.
It’s a good job a vegan diet is something I just tend to practice from my own home for health purposes and that I can allow myself to be flexible when visiting other people and places. Not that the ethics of food choice aren’t important to me – they most certainly are – but travelling has made me very aware that our ethical choices in Britain are not always practical in other countries.
These choices may also not carry the same moral weight in countries where observing particular etiquette during rituals of eating and drinking apparently say a lot about the sort of person you are – I tend to find it more morally objectionable to be rude to my living host by turning my nose up at their food than to eat part of an animal that has already been killed and cooked. That’s material for a whole other blog post though (and I’ve got lots of pointers on how to retain a healthy vegetarian diet in Morocco).
Following our well-fed arrival, our first full day turned out to lean more towards the ‘famine’ experience, at least until later in the afternoon.
It was the final day of Ramadan and FreeToBeB slept most of it away, informing me that none of the local shops or restaurants in the suburb we were staying in would be open for food. FreeToBeZ and I contented ourselves with a small breakfast of bread and jam, topped off with orange juice – simple but satisfying thanks to the bread and juice being locally sourced and made just the day before.
From late morning onwards, FreeToBeZ had her fill of breastmilk whilst I eventually took stock of the contents of the fridge at around 3:30pm. FreeToBeB had still showed no signs of stirring, yet I was beginning to go slightly stir crazy. I’m not sure if it was hunger or boredom that led me to the kitchen; there’s a certain ennui I always have to come to terms with in Morocco (something I dwelt on a lot during this visit and managed to find the positives in).
In the fridge I discovered the previous evening’s leftover olives, figs and stale pastries and decided they would do as a late lunch, which we ate as we watched a American children’s film on MBC3, a Moroccan kids’ channel. The Standard Arabic subtitles seemed to bear little resemblance to the Moroccan Arabic words I would have used to translate the dialogue into English and, not for the first time, I caught myself up in thoughts of how useful it would be to study Modern Standard Arabic alongside the local language.
I was pleasantly surprised when our host returned from work at around 4pm to announce that he was cooking for himself, inviting FreeToBeZ and I to share.
Ah, yes. FreeToBeB had expressed his disapproval the previous day that he’d spent the day cleaning the apartment for our arrival whilst observing Ramadan, yet our host awoke late and immediately disregarded the fast by finding something to eat and drink.
I’m more inclined to discover what makes people tick than to immediately cast judgement upon them. As we shared the dish of chicken, liver and onions in a pepper sauce (OK, I drew the line at the liver – if there’s one thing I consistently refuse to eat, it’s internal organs), I asked my host if he was fed up of Ramadan or didn’t partake in it at all.
“I know God and I don’t need a religion to tell me what to do. It’s hot in Marrakech and if people are thirsty they should drink,” said my host.
I agreed with him. I’m not uneducated in the ways of fasting and the spiritual significance behind it – I’ve practiced it in the past in order to put myself into a particular state of mind for rituals I’ve been part of when I was very active in the pagan community. Indeed, Wikipedia’s article on Ramadan notes that its origins lie in the pre-Islamic pagan culture of Arabia. Fasting is undoubtedly a sign of submission and tolerance and restraint and patience, especially for a whole lunar month during the hottest, longest days of the year.
Yet my host’s reply was something I’d tried to explain to FreeToBeB when he’d been struggling with the fast. I’d told him he should just eat and drink if his body was screaming for it; that no loving God would be punishing a good person for doing something necessary for health and survival. FreeToBeB had responded by telling me to respect his religion – yet my advice had not stemmed from thoughts of respecting or disrespecting any religion, but all about respecting a person’s individual autonomy and physical needs.
I know the pagan doctrine of “And it harm none, do as thou will” is still a driving force for me, despite my lack of identification with any one spiritual path these days. As long as what you’re doing isn’t harming yourself or anyone else, go ahead and do it. Obviously, this could still be read very subjectively – if you believe that what you’re doing (e.g. breaking off a religious fast) may reduce your chances of making it to Paradise in the afterlife, then you would certainly see it as harmful to yourself. Yet, from my point of view, my respect for a loved one and their need to eat and drink will come above my respect for a belief system that I don’t even subscribe to and that I therefore see as having arbitrary rules.
That’s not to say I believe people shouldn’t practice Ramadan. In reflection, there was certainly some way I could have acknowledged FreeToBeB’s struggles whilst supporting him to find the positives in the experience of fasting rather than denying his desire to observe it. Even as I asked him why it was so important to him personally rather than important to his religion that he observed the fast, I recognised my own individualist culture and upbringing in what I asked – for in regards to the spiritual pursuit of selflessness and the solidarity of religious community, am I totally missing the point?
Yet I do strongly believe in people practicing such things as religious fasting through their own understanding of it and a genuine yearning for spiritual union with the divine. Not doing something just because everyone else is doing it, yet may have never even stopped to question the reasoning behind it. Not doing something just because you’re worried about others’ disapproval if you don’t conform. Not doing something just because that’s what your family have always done and because that’s what religious leaders say ‘should’ be done.
I see little substance in things that aren’t practiced from the heart – and if you have a good heart, the thing that I call ‘God’ (Allah, Yahweh, Para Brahman, the divine, the source, universal energy – whatever name you wish to give it) knows this irrespective of whether or not you abide by a specific religious teaching and what is often merely another fallible human’s interpretation of a religious story. Yes, there are certain religious teachings that run through all belief systems that I genuinely do believe are part of the make-up of someone who is tuned into ‘God’, and they are wholesome attitudes to adopt and practice – yet these attributes, such as “loving one’s neighbour”, are things that any decent human being would seek to practice, whether they have a religion and/or a belief in God or not.
I remembered talking to my host and his brother during a previous visit to Morocco and being intrigued to discover that not everyone in what is classed as a 99% Muslim country takes the religion they’ve grown up with at face value – and that some even decide to openly reject it. By ‘openly’, I’ve observed that they seem to have no qualms stating their case to friends – how publicly open they would be is another matter, especially with laws against proselytising. Tourists are generally advised that topics such as religion and politics are ‘sensitive’ issues in Morocco. However, it is thought to be one of the most – if not the most – liberal Islamic countries and I’ve always found a way to talk about my own Sufi-inspired beliefs using Islamic terminology.
Religious freedom, to me, is about being free to deviate and interpret things in your own way whilst allowing others to also make up their own minds. Thus I respect all those Muslims who wholeheartedly take on Ramadan and make the most of the month to connect with the divine, give charity and reflect upon their human limitations. Just as I respect all those atheists who have concluded that there is no divine being to call on or report to, yet whose hearts are imbued with much more goodness and pureness than those who practice hateful follies in the name of ‘God’.
I’d actually spent a fortnight observing the final half of Ramadan during a previous visit in 2011, when I felt the hshuma (shame) of eating when everybody else was fasting. Of my own volition, I felt a need to “When in Morocco, do as the Moroccans do”. Unfortunately, being but an amateur in the ways of Ramadan and failing to get out of bed for the last meal before dawn, I probably ended up eating even less than the locals.
And so much for the pride of martyrdom: I definitely spent more time selfishly thinking about my own evening meal than meditating upon my usual luxuries and praying for those who have no other choice than to regularly go without.
I do, however, remember Eid El Fitr fondly and am glad to have spent a second Eid in a Muslim country.
I thoroughly appreciate being in Morocco during such a special time for the people here. Judging by some of the celebratory interludes on the children’s TV channel, being in Morocco for Eid is akin to being in the UK for Christmas.
However, in much the same way as the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas is oftentimes lost beneath piles of presents and frantic food shops, I’m left wondering how much spiritual reflection permeates the day to day lives of the people here during Ramadan? How much is just a waiting game for the festivities of Eid and the cheerful resumption of normal eating habits? Being spiritual yet non-religious, am I truly able to take a more objective viewpoint whilst genuinely appreciating others’ beliefs in ‘something greater’, or will any tradition I observe be severely clouded by my own cultural conditioning?
If this post had a point, I suppose I’ve found it. It’s difficult to write about Morocco without writing about its food, yet cuisine was never intended to be a main topic of this blog (as much as I love food and cooking). There are already many resources out there with instructions on how to cook the perfect tagine or how to make authentic Moroccan mint tea.
Yet the colourful cultural issues surrounding food are a fascination I can reflect upon as I discover this big wide world, learning at my children’s sides as I encourage them to be open-minded, curious, sensitive global citizens themselves.
I question and discuss not to judge but to discover. Together with my children I can look and learn and say:
What is happening here? Why are people doing this and what do they believe? Why do they believe it? What can we learn from them? Do we already share any of these beliefs? What do we believe?
What do you, my child, believe?
Thank you for reading this post. What do you think about any of the issues I’ve discussed above? Feel free to leave your feedback below, I’d be glad to hear other points of view – or just others’ experiences of enduring or enjoying Ramadan and Eid.