When the 2pm bell rings at the 66th Middle School in Athens, scores of Greek children pour out of the three-storey building and through 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 counterparts. They wear the jeans, sports shoes, and backpacks universal to 13- to 15-year-olds.
One difference between the two groups of students reveals itself in the classroom: the newcomers are more desperate to learn. Refugee students spring out of their seats to race each other in long multiplication on the blackboard while the rest of the class cheers them on. A small class of Syrians, Afghans, and Iranians eagerly takes turns reading the months of the year in English.
“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.
“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 Greek education ministry’s after-hours programme for refugees, launched in October.
“They have suffered unspeakable and unspoken things… To go from a war zone and get to Greece and see people drown on the way… makes them very knowledgeable about life. No child raised in the Western world has this knowledge. But this also means they are very demanding.”
Androusou led teams of her university students in a year-long project at the Elaionas refugee camp, from which the 66th school draws its students. At first, many parents didn’t let their children out of their mobile homes. Androusou’s team 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 recalls. “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 five to 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.
But, by playing games, the team gradually formed a relationship of trust and began to introduce Greek and English words. They 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 arriving on time, following instructions and working on group art projects.
The closure of borders in the Balkans earlier this year has left Greece with a standing population of about 60,000 refugees. At last count, 38,000 were asylum seekers, many of whom have applied to move elsewhere in Europe, but staffing shortages and constant new arrivals mean a long wait before their cases are decided. The result: an estimated 20,000 children will spend some or all of the current academic year in Greece. When the Syriza government announced its intention to educate all those above the age of six – about 14,000 minors – there was an uproar in parts of society.
Critics of the plan raised the question of money; but the programme, estimated to cost a little over €21 million, is being funded entirely by the European Union and is providing some 800 part-time jobs to Greek teachers.
Of greater immediate concern for parents of children who would share their schools with the refugees was the issue of health and hygiene. In recent years, refugee and immigrant populations have contributed to a return of malaria and tuberculosis to the country, diseases that had been almost eradicated by vaccination and insecticide spraying.
When Ilias Papastavrou, the headmaster of the 66th school, told parents it would be operating an after-hours refugee programme, “they wanted to know that the refugees will be vaccinated, as the law stipulates for Greek kids,” 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.”
At some schools, reactions were more extreme. Last September, parents in the Panorama district of the northern port city of Thessaloniki occupied their children’s school to prevent refugees entering. In Volvi, north of Thessaloniki, parents refused to send their children to school at all, until they were threatened with a court order.
Despite such reactions, the programme, which includes Greek, English or German, maths, computing, sport, music, and art, has now been rolled out at 37 schools nationwide. Hundreds of refugee children living in squats and UN-sponsored rentals in central Athens have also enrolled as regular students at Greek schools, even though many don’t intend to stay in the country.
“Some parents don’t want their children to learn Greek because we don’t need it,” says Somaya Suleiman, a Syrian mother who lives at a squat in a disused school building in central Athens.
“[For the first] two or three days [my son] hated Greek school…. But now he likes to go to this school because he has a relationship with new friends.”
The problems the refugee students encounter, beyond the academic, are emblematic of broader, European concerns. “Some people are afraid of me when they see we have [the] hijab,” says Marzia Jemilli, a remarkably articulate 15-year-old Afghan who wants to be a neurosurgeon.
Jemilli says she has encountered religious prejudice at her multicultural high school in 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 different religions.
Although the school programme has been largely successful, both Greeks and refugees are aware 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 assimilating migrants and refugees, but she insists that education is the key to a more open society. 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. “School is the battering ram that will put these people into society.”
(TOP PHOTO: Shezie and Ravina from Afghanistan chat as they settle in to English class at the 66th Middle School in Athens. John Psaropoulos/IRIN)