307 – Understanding Challenges in Preventing Human Trafficking Among Roma Youth, with Christina Chalilopoulou

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Dr. Sandie Morgan is joined by Christina Chalilopoulou as the two discuss the complex challenges in prevention of trafficking of Roma youth.

Christina Chalilopoulou

Christina Chalilopoulou is the co-founder and CEO of a ALYSOS Alert. She’s a graduate of London Metropolitan University and has a degree in European Studies and Ethics. Christina Chalilopoulou has also studied Leadership for Gender Equality with the British Council and served in multiple roles for Greek government entities, overseeing projects for social responsibility, human rights, and policy in social inclusion, and sustainability. She’s been Advisor to the President of the Central Union of Greek Municipalities, and a plethora of roles on behalf of education and social integration strategies for Roma people.

Key Points

  • In Greek Gypsy culture the crime of early forced marriage is common. It is also seen as a form of gender-based violence.
  • Roma are vulnerable to a multitude of forms of trafficking because of the social exclusion they experience. Examples of this social exclusion are the lack of access to health systems and lack of access to equal employment systems, resulting in low educational achievements, high levels of unemployment, and poverty.
  • ALYSOS Alert aims to empower and inform within the Roma community, but also to educate society as a whole about the vulnerabilities and affects on the Roma people.
  • The inclusion of those who have lived experience as a person of the community, is necessary in the process of designing policy.



Sandra Morgan 0:00
You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode #307: Understanding Challenges in Preventing Human Trafficking Among Roma Youth.

Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast here at Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice in Orange County, California. My name is Sandie Morgan and this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Today, our guest is from Athens, Greece. Her name is Christina Chalilopoulou and she is co-founder and CEO of a ALYSOS Alert. She’s a graduate of London Metropolitan University with a degree in European Studies and Ethics, and has also studied Leadership for Gender Equality with the British Council. Christina has served in multiple roles for Greek government entities, overseeing projects for social responsibility, human rights, and policy in social inclusion, and sustainability. She’s been Advisor to the President of the Central Union of Greek Municipalities, and a plethora of roles on behalf of education, and social integration strategies for Roma people, which are so important to our topic today. There is so much more, so Christina, welcome to the podcast.

Christina Chalilopoulou 2:05
Thank you for having me. It’s such a great honor to be invited, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to communicate all the issues that my community is facing. Thank you so very much.

Sandra Morgan 2:23
I loved meeting you in person when I was in Athens in June, and I plan to be back in Athens next June and see you again in person. So we’ll get coffee.

Christina Chalilopoulou 2:36
Yes, it will be lovely.

Sandra Morgan 2:38
So tell us about the Roma people. I don’t think people know very much and these are your people.

Christina Chalilopoulou 2:46
Well, you see, Roma originate from Northern India, presumably from Northwest India. But in Greece, the Roma, or as I like to make the distinction, the gypsies, they have been present in Greece since the 14th century. We are not an entirely homogeneous group, given that we consist of different and often conflict tribes. We are estimated that we are around 300,000, Greek gypsies that live in Greece.

Sandra Morgan 3:29
Let me stop you and ask you a question, because I know when I lived in Greece, it was a little confusing for me in conversations. Are we talking about Roma or gypsy? Or is gypsy a synonym for Roma? Can you clarify a little?

Christina Chalilopoulou 3:52
Yes, the thing is that the term “Roma” comes from our dialect, and it means a human being. Therefore, in our language, Roma actually means people. But, you see, in Greece, because the Constitution does not recognize minorities, and the few decades now, the term “Roma” actually, it tends to mean that it’s a minority group. We distinguish ourselves and we say that we are Greek Gypsies, rather than Greek Roma, because Roma is an international term, but because other countries, and especially in Balkans, their constitution recognized minorities, therefore they recognized Roma, as a minority. Where here in Greece, we don’t recognize any minorities in our constitution, we are Greek citizens therefore we make that distinction. So, yeah.

Sandra Morgan 5:05
Thank you.

Christina Chalilopoulou 5:05
So on top of that 300,000 population, we have to also count a significant number of newly arrived Roma, who originate mainly from Albania and countries of former Yugoslavia. So that makes around an estimation of 500,000 people who live in Greece.

Sandra Morgan 5:30
That’s half a million.

Christina Chalilopoulou 5:32

Sandra Morgan 5:34
How is their culture different than the host culture?

Christina Chalilopoulou 5:38
Because we are in in Greece since the 14th century, we don’t have many differences in our culture, apart from the negative thing that we still, even today, married at an early age.

Sandra Morgan 6:03
How early?

Christina Chalilopoulou 6:06
Quite early, at the age of 14, sometimes 15. In extreme cases, even younger. So ALYSOS Alert is actually working on combating early marriages in my community, and we try to inform as much as we can, the community and why this actually constitutes a crime because it is illegal to get married at such an early age. Yes, it’s a fight that we give every day and to be honest, we need the support and all the help that we can get. Because here in Greece, you see, via the government policy, the state policy, it’s not always as near to us as it should, in the level that we need to be.

Sandra Morgan 7:11
Okay, so let’s kind of dive into that, because it feels like that contributes to making Roma more vulnerable to exploitation and even human trafficking. I’m particularly interested in understanding the forced labor part for children. I was noticing when I was there, this year, that I still saw children on the corners that I identified as Roma, and they weren’t in school, and that bothered me. So let’s talk about what that is related to.

Christina Chalilopoulou 7:17
Well yeah, if we talk about Roma and trafficking, then we should include sexual exploitation, labor exploitation, domestic servitude, illegal adoption, and forced begging. But these are not only the types of trafficking that we have to face, we also need to see that we have the the illegal marriages, as I mentioned earlier. What makes us vulnerable is the poverty and the social exclusion that we face, which results in low educational achievements, unfortunately, high level of unemployment, and this is something that we, of course, we need to overcome. I need to mention that, in my community, early enforced marriages are a form of gender based violence. So women who are faced with extreme poverty and social exclusion, they face serious difficulties in accessing socio protection systems.

Sandra Morgan 9:14
Let’s go back to this term you’re using: social exclusion. Let’s give some examples of what that looks like.

Christina Chalilopoulou 9:26
Well, from education exclusion, we don’t have easy access to health systems, we don’t have an access to equal employment, and these are only our every day struggles. We face so many stereotypes from the society, that actually I think, it’s because the whole of the society has not been trained in order to accept peoplewho face social exclusion. They see us as different, but we are not any different.

Sandra Morgan 10:20
I think your definition and it clarifying what Roman means: people, it means people, so no, there’s no difference between people. In my living in Greece, I saw that social exclusion. I saw how Roma people, gypsies, were treated differently when I was in a market or when I was in a public setting, and I couldn’t quite understand what I could do to make a difference in changing that. Some of the questions I had as I began to understand child labor and sexual exploitation: “Who do I call?”, “How do I get services when I see a youth that I feel might be being exploited?” As a foreigner visiting the country, it was distressing not to have an avenue. There is a hotline for human trafficking but it was a little more challenging for a foreigner to use it.

Christina Chalilopoulou 11:40
It’s true. Usually all those campaigns that are available, they’re not available for those people, for my people, for those young girls and women. So what we need, and what we try to do is get the information there and make them feel safe, and get them to know their rights. Because something which is happening very often, is that we see young girls in a situation where domestic violence is happening, but she cannot recognize that what is happening is illegal, and that is under the umbrella of domestic violence, and therefore she cannot ask from her family, from her environment, any help. Even if she tries to, the sad thing is that in cases where the young girl actually asked for advice from the mothers, their mothers actually said that, “You should be patient,” probably because the mothers also were victims of domestic violence. So the problem is that they don’t know where to ask for help, and what we try to do as ALYSOS Alert is to empower those girls and those women, and make them feel safe, and let them know where they can turn to get help.

Sandra Morgan 13:25
Okay, so I noticed on your social media for ALYSOS Alert, that you are recognizing International Day Against Violence Against Women, and that’s significant. Iis that a strategy for educating within the community? Or is it more focused on in the greater Greek society?

Christina Chalilopoulou 13:53
Well, you see, 25th of November, it’s the International Day to End Violence Against Women, and what we say and we strongly believe, is that forced marriages are an abuse of human rights, and especially where a child is involved in those early enforced marriages. So this is sort of a campaign, a very small campaign because we are a very poor organization, and we only work with volunteers. So basically, the work that we do is to inform and empower inside the community and also try and train the society in general, to see that if domestic violence is something very bad, and very wrong and harmful for a human being, imagine how harmful it is for a person who is excluded from the community, who is probably in a very, very low educational level, therefore cannot get any help because they cannot recognize early stages, and how to read those signs. So imagine how difficult it is for a young girl to actually leave and face the violence that is facing, and get help. We try to also educate in a way to inform the whole of the society, and that’s where we need.

Sandra Morgan 15:49
For me, as I’m listening to you, and having lived there, and I know many times, gypsy communities were very mobile, didn’t always stay in one place, didn’t have access to being part of broader communities, and that impacted how the children attended school as well. When we talk about changing systems to protect the vulnerable, we’re talking not just about education as an awareness campaign, if you print posters, and you put them up in places where people might be, that requires that those young girls would be able to have that level of reading, and they may not have attended school all the way through high school, like most of the population, how is ALYSOS Alert addressing that?

Christina Chalilopoulou 16:52
Well, that’s a great point because all the work that ALYSOS Alert is doing, is on the community to the spot. Basically what we do, we try to communicate our messages by audio, not by posters that they cannot read, but by audios. So we have a group of volunteers, and we visit each area once a week, and we do work on the spot. It is very, very difficult. We are so thankful to our volunteers, but this is something else we need funding that actually will give us the opportunity to be more accessible to those girls and women.

Sandra Morgan 17:47
So when I met you, one of the things that really struck me was having a representative from Roma community with a story like yours, because you weren’t married early, you went to university. I remember a little about that story, maybe you can share with our listeners too, because your father was a big piece of that.

Christina Chalilopoulou 18:18
It’s true. Well, you see, my mother got married at the age of 14 and by the age of 15, she was a mother. I am the youngest out of five children and we all got the opportunity to study and read overseas. My father, who was raised in a nomadic way, he loved education. I think he was so unhappy for not having the opportunity to finish school and study that actually, he didn’t say anything else other than for us to go to school and finish our studies. That was his biggest dream. He actually learned to write and read on his own, and he dreamt of being a lawyer. Unfortunately, he didn’t study, he didn’t go to school, but he worked day and night with my mum in order for us to finish school and study. He faced a sort of bullying from his family and from his community because those years, to go to school, for my biggest sisters and brothers it was something almost not acceptable. So yes, he was and he is the reason that we actually finished our studies and we went to universities. He is the reason that he taught us how to love our community, that we have a moral obligation to help those people, and to be the bond between our community and the whole of the world. Because I think people, due to the everyday life, they don’t have the chance to think and realize how difficult life is for people to leave, legally. When I say legally, I mean when the laws do not allow you to work legally, and that actually puts you in a very difficult and bad situation as an illegal worker. Why do I say this? Because gypsies, the only thing that they are good at, so far, is trade. Here in Greece, in order for someone to work in a market place, they need a license. Here in Greece, Roma people, they don’t have the licenses, because governments, they have a limited number of licenses that are given, therefore, those people are almost punished to live and work illegally. So imagine how difficult it is to work illegally, and not having the money that a family needs in order to feed and dress their children so they can go to school as everybody else, so the children are actually separated from the rest because they don’t have the right clothes or the right shoes. Here in Greece, children, they do face bullying from from a very young age and that makes them not willing to go to school.

Sandra Morgan 22:34
Okay o this kind of brings us back to where we started with the issue around poverty. It becomes a vicious cycle, and without the education, even if everything is lined up in a community to get a license, you have a lot of paperwork to have to fill out. It requires some reading skill, and just all of the things. You’ve got to have a stable address, you can’t be nomadic, you can’t be moving, and so it feels like we need to make some changes. ALYSOS Alert has been a leader in trying to advocate for changes in government policy, even legislation. What are your goals for that in this season?

Christina Chalilopoulou 23:27
Well, as you said, I have worked in the past, as an advisor to former prime ministers and ministers. Even though I know the problems that my community actually faces, what I saw, I found it difficult, not from my side of view, but it was difficult for them, the government’s, actually, to make the necessary policies in order to include my people according to their needs. What we are trying to do is lower the rate of school dropping, because even though education is a priority for the rest of the world, for my community, it is not. For my community, priority is to be able to work in order to feed your family. Yes, I think I think we need to empower the girls and the young people in my community to show them the way that education is the the only, and the right way to go. They need to know that they do have some Somebody to rely on, and that’s what we try to do. ALYSOS Alert is trying to be that stone that they can rely on.

Sandra Morgan 25:14
And I really appreciate, in your ALYSOS Alert strategy, that you include research as well as policy analysis. You don’t just put together a program and come and say, “Do this,” you have the research. In your last project with the government, collecting data from all of the regional municipalities was really important. Because if I, as working with you in children, come and look at Greek statistics on education, it looks pretty good, but if I have data about Roma children and education, then I’m going to direct more attention to understanding what the underlying issues are so that I can support your goal of reducing school drop out, reducing the resistance to even going to school because of the bullying and the stereotypes. That’s going to take full community that cares. I’m curious about your partners in Athens. I have seen through your CV, that you have been very effective across different public institutions, the private sector, civil society. Are there some areas that are more receptive and building more collaboration?

Christina Chalilopoulou 26:56
Not really.

Sandra Morgan 26:58
Okay, so it’s one of your goals, but you haven’t really seen the fruit of that. Okay.

Christina Chalilopoulou 27:05
It needs hard work. What I had to face, is that I had to work three and four times harder than anybody else, in order to convince them why we should actually work on that community, and why we should give opportunities to education, to working through working environments, and it was always very, very hard to convince, especially the state officials. But, I did find people who had good intentions to do work, and to actually design policy, but you see, good intentions are not enough. What we need is we need to involve more people from my community who actually have gone that extra mile, and they finished their studies, and they do have all the necessary qualifications in order to work in national and international organizations, and this is something that would make me very happy if I see it happening. Because until now, what I have seen and what I’ve actually dealt with, was people outside from my community designing policies, because as I said, they had good intentions, but they had lack of knowledge, and that is a huge, huge, huge gap.

Sandra Morgan 29:04
That’s a really important observation, Christina and I want our listeners to go back and listen, I’ll put the episode number in the show notes, to listen to Dr. Shauntina Sorrells about Human-Centered Design. In my world, we have a saying: “Nothing For Us, Without Us.” So having people from outside the community design programs and develop projects, they’re not going to have as much success because they’re not informed by the lived experience of the people within the community. Listeners, please go back and listen to that. Think about how, in your setting, how you can help improve the situation for people who may be in the same category of social exclusion. Christina, I was so taken by our opportunity to meet before because I see you as changing the next generation opportunities, much like your father did for you. He resisted the status quo and he changed the trajectory for your entire family.

Christina Chalilopoulou 30:31
Thank you. I don’t know what to say, thank you so much. I really love what I do. I don’t know if it shows but I feel like I’m a woman in love. What I do, I do it because I strongly believe in it and I love my community. I’m trying to find ways to help as much as I can. Hopefully, something good will come out of all this effort that I’m putting in. So fingers crossed. Having said that before, for designing policies, “Nothing For Us, Without Us,” it’s crazy. If we just think that how much funding has been spent, billions, to design policy in order to achieve inclusion, but unfortunately, the only thing that, until today, has succeeded is the exclusion of my community. That makes me wonder why this is happening, and the only answer that I give is that because all the state, governmental, and international organizations, they do not include in the level that they should, people from the community.

Sandra Morgan 32:15
You are a warrior, you’re a path maker, just like your father, and I believe that you are going to be successful, because you are persistent, and you care so much about your community. I look forward to seeing you again when I’m in Greece in June, and learning more and getting more involved. Our time is up, it went by so quickly. Thank you so much, Christina, for joining me.

Christina Chalilopoulou 32:51
Thank you so much for having me. It was such a pleasure. Thank you for the honor. I look forward in seeing you again in Athens, it was such a lovely discussion that we had. Thank you so much for that opportunity.

Sandra Morgan 33:08
Thank you for listening to this episode. Please go over to our endinghumantrafficking.org website to find the show notes with links to the things we’ve mentioned in this conversation with Christina. You’ll find links to other opportunities like our Anti-Human Trafficking Certificate program. If you haven’t visited our site before, go over and become a subscriber and you’ll receive a note with highlights from each episode, once every two weeks. And of course, I’ll be back for our next conversation in two weeks.

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