Areti sits on Auraria Campus

This student is using her landscape architecture skills to improve refugee life

September 10, 2019

Areti Athanasopoulous (MLA, MURP ‘19) started her career as an actress and writer in Los Angeles with hopes of using the artistic platform to become a humanitarian activist like her idol, Audrey Hepburn. As Areti spent time between working with nonprofits, her passion for social justice continued to grow. These opportunities helped Areti to reframe her thought process from wanting to change how people saw the world on screen to wanting to change the world for all.

An environmentalist fueled by her love for design, Areti returned home to Colorado and began pursuing her dual master’s in landscape architecture and urban and regional planning with the goal of impacting the design of our world.

How her family’s history shaped her life passion

During her graduate studies, Areti began volunteering with refugees. Her actions were in response to the ongoing Syrian war, but she felt compelled in a deeply personal way as well – war had also forced her father to flee his home as a child. 

“There are currently over 70 million refugees worldwide who have been forcibly displaced, which is an unprecedented and absolutely staggering figure. Over 25 million of those people are refugees who have crossed international borders in search of safety. As a global community we must acknowledge this crisis and do something to help these people,” said Areti.

Focusing her efforts overseas, Areti volunteered for three weeks in the Ritsona refugee camp in Greece. While there, she put her landscape architecture skills to use by designing a garden in their Youth Engagement Space. Children of all ages were excited about the new space and eagerly helped to plant and construct the garden using materials found on-site. Even the smallest children contributed by gathering and painting rocks. Kids with trauma focused on their tasks, and they began to transform, finding comfort and joy in tending the garden.

“As a global community we must acknowledge this crisis and do something to help these people.”

The Youth Engagement Space in the Ritsona camp, where many children receive English tutoring, guitar lessons and participate in art classes, among many other activities. 

Continuing her mission locally

The experience in Ritsona helped Areti to focus and hone her studies in the MLA program; after her time there, she began researching for more ways to use landscape architecture and urban planning to help refugees, both abroad and at home in Denver. 

Now as an intern with the International Rescue Committee, Areti is assisting with programs that provide psychosocial support through gardening. She has received the Jennifer Moulton Fellowship to fund a permanent garden for the IRC’s program. The organization also gave Areti the opportunity to be a transportation intern, teaching refugees how to get around using public transport.

So, is grad school worth it?

“There are a lot of discussions happening right now – it was even recently on the cover of Landscape Architecture magazine – about the decline in enrollment in landscape architecture programs and if the cost of going to grad school is worth it. I can say with confidence, it is absolutely worth it for anyone interested. At CU Denver, I have acquired the knowledge and skills I need to now go out and make a difference in the world,” Areti concluded.

This summer, Areti was selected as the 2019 National Olmstead Scholar by the Landscape Architecture Foundation. She plans to use the $25,000 to go back to the camp in Greece and help construct an even bigger community garden. After graduation this fall, she envisions herself working internationally on the global refugee crisis.

“At CU Denver, I have acquired the knowledge and skills I need to now go out and make a difference in the world.”