No summer break for migrant schoolchildren
“B for book, C for car...” repeat a dozen 6- and 7-year-olds in an English class taught by two refugee volunteers in a makeshift classroom at a Greek migrant camp. There will be no summer holidays for these pupils, who have to make up for lost time as Greece prepares plans to educate around 8,500 refugee children, starting in September. The volunteer teachers from Syria, an engineer and a university student, are among some 20 refugees giving lessons to 670 students between the ages of 6 and 13 at the Skaramangas camp in the suburbs of Athens. Half of the refugees in the camp – Syrians, Afghans and Iraqi Kurds – are under the age of 17. With only two classrooms set up in shipping containers, each child receives about two hours of classes per week, including lessons in their native languages – Arabic, Dari and Kurdish – plus English and maths.
“It’s only a drop,” says Syrian engineer Bazel Shrayyef, but still “the start of a return to normality” for the children who have faced war and exile and are in danger of becoming apathetic from a life put on hold.
The volunteer teachers say rebuilding ties to school is essential for the children.
“We have children who are 8 to 10 years old who don’t even know how to hold a pen or write their name in their language,” says Syrian Luaay Koman Al Babille, a former student of paleography in Aleppo, who initiated the education efforts at the camp. In a makeshift teachers’ lounge, also inside a container, he puts together textbooks from Syrian programs on the internet, careful to remove any- thing that could aggravate tensions.
According to the NGO Save the Children, which has warned of the risk of a lost generation, the refugee children stuck in camps in Greece on average have not been in school for 18 months. And more than a fifth of school-age children have never set foot in a classroom. At Skaramangas, the refugees are waiting to learn where they will be relocated in the EU, or if they will be given asylum in Greece – so they don’t know where they will be living in six months to a year from now.
“In our classes it’s hard for students to concentrate for a long time, we have to keep getting them to pay attention,” says Ianni Baveas, one of the local volunteers who teaches the children Greek. “A lot of the children are angry,” adds fellow volunteer Poppy Paraskevopoulou. She says she has been waging a battle with charity groups, the administration and the army, which manages the refugee camp, to get eight more classrooms to have a real education program. The challenge for Greece, where some 50,000 refugees are stranded after the closing of Europe’s borders through the Balkan countries in late February, is to create a school program for the children in the camps. The Greek Education Ministry is working on it, incorporating the initiatives like the one in Skaramangas and the pool of volunteers who have fostered solidarity with the refugees. The program set to start in September would include classes to integrate the students, in the camps or at public facilities, ahead of proper schooling.