Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Greeks open schools to refugees

This article was published by IRIN News

Shezie and Ravina from Afghanistan listen to the correct pronunciation of the months of the year in English, at the 66th Middle School of Athens

A bystander outside the 66th Middle School of Athens nowadays witnesses two events when the bell rings at 2pm: scores of Greek children pour out of the three-storey building onto a asphalt football pitch, and out of the school gates. Silence descends for about 20 minutes before coaches pull up and disgorge dozens of refugee middle schoolers. They are barely distinguishable from their Greek colleagues. Boys and girls band together. They wear the jeans, sleeveless duffle jackets, sport shoes and backpacks universal to 13-15 year-olds. There is not a headscarf in sight.

The great difference, teachers say, reveals itself in the classroom. “When the bell has rung, they want you to stay on and explain something,” says English teacher Maria Liakopoulou. “When it’s the last period on Friday, they often demand more homework,” adds maths teacher Dimitra Anatoliti. “And they want us to write that they’ve done well in their exercise books.”

The enthusiasm is evident to anyone familiar with the feigned boredom of youth. Refugee students spring out of their seats to race each other in long multiplication on the blackboard, and the class cheers them on. When called upon to read the months of the year in English, a small class of Syrians, Afghans and Iranians eagerly takes turns.

“You’re not going to have bored kids in class. They are kids who make demands, want things and are motivated,” says Alexandra Androusou, a professor of education science at Athens University, who helped draft the education ministry’s after-hours programme for refugees.

“They have suffered unspeakable and unspoken things… To go from a war zone and get to Greece and see people drown on the way, settle in a camp and also go to school, makes them very knowledgeable about life. No child raised in the Western world has this knowledge. But this also means they are very demanding.”

Boys play soccer during a break between classes

Androusou led teams of her university students in a yearlong project at the Elaionas refugee camp, from which the 66th school draws its students. They witnessed the refugees in a much more raw state. For instance, at first many parents didn’t let their children out of their mobile homes.

Androusou’s team – or commandos, as she calls them - performed a pied piper trick. “They went around the camp playing musical instruments to announce their presence and children would come out of their mobile homes and follow,” she says. “In the beginning, many of the doors didn’t open. By the middle [of the year], all the doors opened, children would be pushed out, and the parents would thank us.”

The team took some 70 children, aged 5-15, under its wing. There was no common language. Many had never been to school and couldn’t draw straight lines with a ruler. They ripped the paper they were given. Collaboration on group projects was next to impossible.

By playing games, the team gradually formed a relationship of trust and began to introduce Greek and English words. It also instilled basic discipline. “The children needed rules and boundaries and wanted them….  because boundaries at this age allow creativity, they allow access to knowledge,” says Androusou. By the end of the year the children were able to arrive on time, follow instructions and accomplish group art projects. Androusou proudly displays a sculpted column of clay on her desk as the pinnacle of this learned collaboration. 

Two Afghan boys play a board game during break

Charity and prejudice

Greece now has a standing population of about 60,000 refugees. At last count, 38,000 were asylum seekers, and many have applied to move elsewhere in Europe. Staffing shortages and constant new arrivals mean a long wait before their cases are decided. This means that an estimated 20,000 children are going to spend some or all of the current academic year in Greece. When the Syriza government announced its intention to educate those above the age of six – about 14,000 minors - it produced uproar in parts of society.

Critics of the plan raised the question of money; but the programme, estimated to cost a little over €21mn, is being funded by the European Union and is providing some 800 part-time jobs to Greek teachers.

Of greater immediate concern was the issue of hygiene. In the past few years, refugee and immigrant populations have helped bring back malaria and tuberculosis, which had been so marginalised by vaccination and spraying for mosquitoes that medical schools couldn’t find subjects to teach their effects.

Ilias Papastavrou, the headmaster of the 66th school, met with parents to tell them that their school would operate an after-hours refugee programme. “They wanted to know that the refugees will be vaccinated, as the law stipulates for Greek kids as well," he says. "They wanted to know that the school would be cleaned after the evening programme to be ready to admit the Greek kids in the morning."

Many reactions were worse. Last September, parents at the Panorama district of the northern port city of Thessaloniki occupied their children’s school so that refugees could not enter. In Volvi, north of Thessaloniki, parents refused to send their children to school at all until they were threatened with a court order. On the island of Chios, activists conducted a poll on whether refugees should be allowed in their schools, even though no such policy applied there (the eastern Aegean islands are a legal frontier under this year’s EU-Turkey Statement, not an area of residence for refugees, and the government is not offering them education there).

Despite the reactions, the programme, which includes Greek, English or German, maths, computing, sport, music and art, is now being taught in 37 schools nationwide. Hundreds of refugee children living in squats and UN-sponsored rentals in central Athens have also enrolled in regular morning school, even though they don’t intend to stay in Greece.

“Some parents don’t want their children to learn Greek because we don’t need it,” says Somaya Suleiman, a Syrian mother at a squat in a disused school building in central Athens.

“[For the first] two days or three days [my son] hated Greek school because he told me every morning, ‘Please mom, I’m sleepy, don’t send me… But now he wants, he likes to go to this school because he has a relationship with new friends.”

Amir from Iran copies down the months of the year in English

The problems refugees encounter, beyond the academic, are emblematic of broader, European concerns. “Some people are afraid of me when they see we have [the] hijab,” says Mazia Jemilli, a remarkably articulate 15 year-old Afghan who plans to be a neurosurgeon.

While waiting at a bus stop recently, she asked two middle-aged ladies to translate a recorded message in Greek on her cell phone. “They said, ‘Come, come, we have to go,’ and they escaped from me, and I said, ‘why do they do like this?’” she says, tears welling up in her eyes. They think we will be terrorists. They are scared of us. I don’t know why they think like this. We are not terrorists.”

Jemilli says she has also encountered religious prejudice at her multicultural high school at Hellenikon, a southern suburb of Athens. Multicultural schools were established for the children of eastern European refugees after the fall of communism, but are now increasingly filled with Afghans and Syrians. Her school holds an organised morning prayer for Christians, but not for Muslims. She suggested rectifying this. The school has so far refused, on the grounds that it has students adhering to five religions.

Refugees were a moving body of humanity throughout 2015. Last February, the police forces of Austria and the former Yugoslavia closed the Balkan route that allowed them across as many as six borders to Germany. Once they became a standing population, they were put into disused army camps, out of sight of most people. Enrolment in school is now making refugees visible to society.

Although the Greek school experience is largely a success, neither Greeks nor refugees forget that work, the ultimate integrator, will be the greater problem in Greece’s recessive economy. “Even if they appreciate the fact that as a country we have accepted them as warmly as we can, they know they have no future here. There are no jobs for them,” says Elli, a Greek volunteer.

Androusou is mindful of the broader European failure at assimilation. “Europe lost the bet on integration. It lost its ability to be a place of democracy and the creation of a common perception of things,” she says in reference to the 2005 Paris banlieues riots. But she insists that education, rather than the economy, is the key to a more open society, and believes Greece will manage better. Ideological racism, she says, is a minority trend here, and parents who protested against refugees going to school with their children suffered from ignorance and fear. “I think we’re a little wiser since the waves of immigration in the 1990s,” she says. “School is the battering ram that will put these people into society.”

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