Refugee children marginalised in Greek schools as afternoon programme fails

Refugee children marginalised in Greek schools as afternoon programme fails
In-depth: Officials wanted refugee children kept away from Greek youngsters. Far-right activists agreed. But some projects are ignoring government rules and helping refugee children end their isolation, reports Katja Lihtenvalner.
9 min read
30 June, 2017
Ouranos examines her new school, where she and nine-year-old Eltaf have just enrolled [Kostis Ntantamis]

One third of the 60,000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece are reported to be school-age children. Stuck in the Mediterranean nation after several northern European countries closed their borders last year, the Greek government has accepted them into local schools since September.

But the school programme never ran smoothly for refugee children. In some parts of Greece, children faced angry parents and far-right activists outside school. On the island of Lesbos, parents even locked the school gates to prevent refugee children from entering.

The pilot project, estimated to cost a little over €21 million ($23 million) and supported by aid agencies, foresaw a few thousand of children attending public schools for four hours every day in the afternoon - after regular classes with Greek children would end.

"The first problem we will confront is their education, not education in a ghetto, but linked with the Greek state education system, in a flexible manner," announced Nikos Filis, minister for education, research and religious affairs.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) also announced it would provide transportation and bus escorts to accompany migrant and refugee children from their accommodation facilities to the nearest Greek schools.

But the project had problems from the beginning.

"The after-hours programme for refugees organised by the Greek education ministry is a big failure," Dimitra, a teacher at a Athens public school, told The New Arab.

  Dimitra's story

Dimitra, the 29-year-old teacher, belongs to the so called '€300 Generation' - a term for young Greeks between 18-32 years of age struggling with high unemployment rates of around 50 percent.

The Ministry of Education has employed 800 part-time teachers to conduct the school programme for refugees, but all will become unemployed in July as the school year ends.

Dimitra, afraid for her future, decided to talk to us but not reveal her real identity.

"We received school books only after a five-month delay, and refugee pupils stay marginalised and isolated in public schools."

Problematic programme 

"One of the biggest obstacles I face is a lack of motivation. I teach Greek to children who have no intention in learning the language as they don't know if they will stay in the country," said Dimitra - not her real name - who teaches pupils from the Eleonas refugee camp.

Of 60 refugee children that were enrolled through the project, just 17 are still attending classes. Some have been able to leave the country, while others prefer to stay in their camps.

"All of these children are still officially enrolled in the programme, even if they might be in Germany or somewhere else. This is usual in all public schools with refugees," she says.

Refugee children here learn Greek, English - or another second language of the family's choice - mathematics, art, and computer programming, while also participating in physical education, from 2pm-6pm every day, after Greek children have left the classrooms.

"The other huge obstacle is of course the language. In my class there are children from Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iran and Iraq. We try with English but many of them have difficulties with it," the 29-year-old teacher says.

No translator was appointed from ministry.

"All teachers in my school improvise. We use pantomime, cards, drawings, photos, whatever helps children to understand."

The difficulties she faces are common among her colleagues.

"I personally have no skills of teaching someone Greek who doesn't know Greek at all. Training for teachers was organised during the school year after we were already teaching for months," complains Dimitra.

"Another thing is our working position. [With us] being employed part-time, refugee children in my school have already changed teachers four times. It brings extra confusion."

Refugee children need stability and to feel safe, but here the educational system itself is creating further instability.

"Pupils ask me in the school: 'Why is this teacher leaving again? Why are we constantly changing teachers?' And then new teachers are coming without knowing the children. Plus, of course, every educator uses different teaching methods and refugee children have to adjust over and over again."

Stigmatisation 'could be avoided'

It is not all misery, however.

"Pupils in the camp are waiting for the bus to come, 15 minutes early. All of them are happy and enthusiastic going to school," said Aura, a psychologist working in the Softex refugee camp, close to Thessaloniki.

"I believe this has to do with one and only fact: the coordinator appointed from the ministry of education working in this camp has done amazing work in presenting the programme to parents and convincing them to send children to school."

In all Greek schools, refugee children stay strictly divided from local children.

"Being present at school during totally different hours makes it impossible to make contact and friends with local children," Aura told The New Arab. "The longer they are excluded, the harder it gets to seek out contact, because of the feelings of shame - not knowing the language, living in a camp - which of course has an impact on the self-esteem of the child."

It starts a domino effect. "Because of the exclusion, stigmatisation, feelings of shame or guilt as well as low self-esteem, the child might 'fail' for real - not progressing in school and making fewer social bonds."

Aura has worked in several Greek refugee camps, from Softex to Ritsona and Skaramagas. The location of the camp plays an important role, she says. In some cases, authorities tried to remove refugees from city life, but those who stayed close to urban areas also remain more motivated to attend school.

"The stigmatisation of refugee children could be avoided very easily. For example, with some common classes -physical education or art. Common breaks between lesson hours, as well as common school excursions," she suggests.

In her professional opinion, refugee children are now in danger of long-term stigmatisation.

Nemad, the father of a family in the City Plaza squat, hopes his book about his family's story can be translated and published [Kostis Ntantamis]

'We want our children to go to school'

There is another way. In the Greek capital, there are groups ignoring the authorities' plan for the afternoon school project and trying to include refugee children in the daily life of the local community.

The City Plaza refugee squat in the city centre of Athens hosts around 400 refugees. Here a small group of eight cheerful pupils are making their first steps in public school.

"Children are going to the school with their parents to be enrolled for the new school year," says Maria, who, along with her colleague, Anna, is responsible for educational activities in City Plaza.

Here, in the most famous refugee squat in Athens, they see the concept of formal education for refugees differently: Integration in the local community is their answer.

Ten children of around a hundred school age youngsters living in City Plaza are now attending public school. The new school year starting on September 11 will bring further changes.

"Before the beginning of the new school year we will organise Greek classes. We want children to be prepared for the new year and attend classes with local pupils," Maria says.

Anna sees Greek classes as no obstacle: "Children can learn any language very fast. They just need the opportunity."

The New Arab accompanied two Afghan families enrolling their children for the upcoming school year.

"Last week, one of the schools of the neighbourhood didn't want to enrol us. People there were screaming at us," said 12-year-old Zhenas.

Her mother, 32-year-old Ouranos, is also taking her nine-year-old son, Eltaf, to be enrolled. "Nothing is more important to me than the education of my children," Ouranos says. 

Refugees are warmly welcomed at this particular public school in the centre of Athens. A group of children in the schoolyard are kicking a ball around, and Zhenas quickly spots two girls. "Maybe they are also from Afganistan," she says.

She sits on the chair while she watches them. Eltaf joins her. The children look at their future school and Zhenas comments "I don't like [the] Greek language too much, but I think now I will need to learn." Her eyes follow the ball and the joyful pupils of her own age rushing around on the grey asphalt as she shows momentary concern for the future.

"You know, Greece is fine, but there are no jobs here. I don't know if my family will even stay here."

The children successfully enrolled, we return to City Plaza and meet their father, Nemad. "We want our children to go to school," he says. "Me and my wife are also attending English classes," he adds, as they both proudly display well-ordered notebooks.

"Hopefully one day my family story I wrote, could be published," he announced, revealing a big smile.

Katherine, a Greek American, teaches English in a school which aims to include refugees within the local community [Kostis Ntantamis]

'Refugees shouldn't be isolated in camps' 

It's Saturday morning. While the doors of public schools are closed, a school for migrants in Kolonos industrial zone just opened its doors. Some 150 pupils are attending a variety of language classes here, and many of them are refugees from the camps.

Katherine, a Greek-American, is teaching English. "Some of them are going to public school, but they also come here," she said. "We welcome them, as we believe that knowledge has no limit. It's our honour and joy to teach."

In Katherine's class there are young children learning alongside adults. "Summer started and this is visible also in our classrooms. Many students are today missing."

Teachers, all Greek volunteers, sacrifice their free time to come and teach here at the weekends. The school also helps high school students in need - particularly those not fluent in Greek - and adults who are completely unengaged with the education system in Athens.

"We wanted refugees to come out of the camps, not to stay isolated and removed far away from local communities," English teacher Efi says. The school here, besides classes, also offering a variety of activities from film screenings to  parties for migrants and refugees, particularly those from the camps.

"In our school, refugees from camps can integrate with the local society," Efi explains. Not everyone agrees with their approach - the head of Eleonas camp showed no sign of approval, said Efi, when they started to encourage refugees to attend the weekend school. 

"I, as a teacher, am very much against the afternoon programme for refugee pupils the way it is conducted. I think that, for children, this is just another traumatic experience."

Laughter is coming from the one of the four classrooms. Teachers here don't press the students hard, but keep classes informal and school a relaxed place, where refugees can escape the often bitter reality of daily life in the camps.

"Refugees are now a part of our society," says Efi. "And as such they should be integrated in our communities."

Katja Lihtenvalner is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Athens. Follow her on Twitter: @Lihtenvalner

Photos by Kostis Ntantamis. Follow him on Twitter: @ntantamisk