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GREECE: Interview with Maria Chalari- International Human Rights Expert [Part 1]

Photo courtesy of Maria Chalari

Maria Chalari is an international  human rights expert. She stands as a leader in the face of Greece’s instability and financial crisis, as she nobly attempts through her research to develop solutions towards a future that promotes inclusion. Maria feels that it is important for societies to invest in human rights study programs for the welfare of its people, and is currently working on research which promotes the empowerment of the Grecian society.

In Part One of this interview, Maria discusses her love for motherhood, the current human rights threats in Gaza and how her work impacts human rights initiatives.

(1) Can you tell briefly Women For Action about you and where you were born?

My name is Maria Chalari and I am from Greece. I have studied Education (Bachelor of Arts in Education) and Education and Human Rights (Masters in Education and Human Rights) at the University of Athens in Greece and at the Institute of Education in London, UK. Since October 2010, I have been a registered research student at the Institute of Education in the Doctor in Education (EdD) International Programme.
Since 2005, I work voluntarily with human rights organizations and institutions as a team leader, as a trainer for volunteers, as a specialist for innovative education programmes for children. I have taken part in a lot of projects about human rights in many countries around the world such as Japan, Turkey, Cyprus, Russia, Bulgaria, Portugal and Hungary.
I have worked as a member of research teams for the currying out of research projects for the National Center for Social Research, the University of Athens, and the Hellenic Coordinating Centre of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. I have also worked as a tutor. I have taught 18+-year-old students who wanted to become Early Childhood Educators the following subjects: Sociology of Education, Education and Human Rights, Childhood Literature, Environmental Education, Early Childhood Education and School Management.
Ten months ago, I gave birth to a bright little boy, named Fotis. His name means light (φως) in Greek! And this is exactly what has changed in my life after being a mother to Fotis: a new light has entered into my life. I look at everything that I have done up until now from a different perspective, I am more compassionate about my aims and my dreams and I feel more responsible for the well-being of my family and of the rest of the world.
The light (φως) is also something that characterizes my country, Greece. The sunlight in Greece is so vibrant that it ‘hits’ people with an almost physical force. It probably is a physical force: our brains are much more sensitive to light than we realize, and scientists have discovered that even the backs of our knees inexplicably have a primitive form of light sensor. My country is an amazingly beautiful country with a very rich history and the homeland of many famous personalities throughout centuries, but at the same time an amazingly corrupted country.
In the last few years, major political and economic changes have swept through my country. Greece is facing a severe economic crisis and also a serious xenophobic crisis, a crisis of values, and an identity crisis. The above have generated growing complexity of our society, uncertainty in Greek people, unpredictability of the future and changing attitudes towards belonging and identity.         
The current social and economic situation apart from the huge difficulties and severe problems has also made apparent new tendencies and possibilities in Greek society. We may succeed in becoming aware of the new tendencies and possibilities that the current situation offers us, Ιf we manage to sidestep the negative implications, and try to find room for imagining another way of thinking.

(2) What inspired you to go into education and human rights studies?
I always wanted to do something in my life that would make a difference in my country and in the world in general. As a student I felt many times that the key to many problems in our society is education, so I started thinking that I would like to go into education. To be an educator for me means that my work truly does have positive or negative ramifications for my students, their families, and the future. My purpose back then was very noble and valiant and I try to keep this purpose in the forefront of my mind no matter the challenges I face.
I can trace the genesis of my human rights studies back to my adolescent years, when I traveled abroad for the first time to visit a college in Amsterdam for two weeks, to work with the students there on an environmental project. What I recall most from that period of my life is the fact that I felt so much welcome and at the same time important in a classroom full of ‘strangers’.
When I finished my first degree in Education in 2002, I started working as a teacher. Greece by that time had significantly and irreversibly seen its demography changed in social, cultural, economic, ethnic, racial and religious terms as a result of immigration and asylum migration. During the period following the 1990s, Greece not only witnessed a significant return of nationals to their homeland, but also experienced a shift from being a traditionally ‘sender’ country, to a main destination country for immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Rapid demographic changes that took place led to an increasing participation of immigrant people in Greek society and immigrant children in education.  
While working in classrooms with many immigrant students, I kept reflecting back on what I felt in that classroom in Amsterdam to remind myself not only of the obstacles and barriers of a close and non-inclusive education system, but mostly of the possibilities that an education system receives when creating truly transformative experiences for its students. It was about then when I decided to continue my studies in Education and Human Rights. For me people working with kids, teenagers and young adults in formal and informal education are the key persons in promoting human rights and in striving to prevent injustice, oppression and discrimination.

(3) What sort of human rights initiatives do you feel needs to be heavily focused on?
Recent events in Europe, Gaza and other places of the world threaten the foundations of culture of peace and human rights. They show that a more visible, explicit and conscious approach to human rights education is needed urgently. Human rights can only be achieved through an informed and continued demand by people for their protection. That is why I believe that we need to focus on human rights education because it constitutes an essential contribution to the long-term prevention of human rights abuses and represents an important investment in the endeavor to achieve a just society in which all human rights of all persons are valued and respected. Human rights education- meaning educational programmes and activities that focus on promoting equality in human dignity- has the potential to be a catalyst for action by promoting values, beliefs and attitudes that encourage all individuals to uphold their own rights and those of others. It also develops an understanding of everyone's common responsibility to make human rights a reality in each community.

(4) Your role as a researcher at the Center for Research of Human Behaviour, what does that entail?
My role as a researcher at the Center for Research of Human Behaviour after the birth of my son (29th of September 2013) is strictly advisory. In a few months, I plan to stop acting only in an advisory role and continue working there as a full time researcher. Till then my role entails participating in advisory committees and provide advice and my opinion in preparing and presenting tenders for new research projects- (1)  in defining and refining research objectives, (2)  in using an appropriate and creative methodology to design and manage a research project, (3) in analyzing and evaluating research and interpreting data etc.

(5) Your bio states that you’ve specialized in innovative education programmes for children. Can you elaborate on that?
Through my studies I have specialized in designing innovative programmes for children. Until now I have designed together with a colleague who is nutrition specialist innovative programmes for Nutrition Education. Greece has one of the most rapidly rising death rates due to cardiovascular diseases (CVD), which now constitutes the primary cause of morbidity and mortality. The accumulative evidence on the preventive potential of school-based health and nutrition education programmes has lead us to design a programme for Nutrition Education in Greek primary schools. I have also designed activities and methods to introduce children to human rights in creative and attractive ways. This winter I aim to implement an innovative programme for human rights education in a primary school in Athens. 

(6) What is it like traveling the world and being exposed to so many different cultures and at the same time being able to contribute to the quality of life of those cultures?
Paraphrasing some of my favourite Italo Calvino’s words in the Invisible Cities I would say that every time I travel around the world and every time I am exposed to different cultures I find a past of mine that I didn’t know I had: ‘the foreignness of what we no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for us in foreign, unpossessed places.’ Traveling around the world and being able to contribute to the quality of life of different people was and continues to be one of the biggest dreams of my life. I feel very lucky because I have managed to realize it.

Next in this interview Maria discusses the challenges she face as a woman in her career efforts, her career achievements and her research regrading the Greek education system.
SUBSCRIBE to this section for Part Two of this Interview! 

(Interview by Julene Allen and Chiara Cola)

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Julene Allen