The Stories Behind the Stats: Refugee Kids in Greece
Before my international affairs graduate program had even begun, I had the chance to work face-to-face with the refugee issues that I would study in the fall here at Columbia. I wanted to hear the stories behind the statistics of the refugee and migrant crisis, to see the challenges on the ground, and the grassroots response. I strongly believe that all policy-makers and practitioners should spend time in the field, meeting the people affected by policies and projects.
While visiting family in Europe, my boyfriend and I drove from Spain to Greece to volunteer in the Oinofyta refugee camp, north of Athens. We both had a background in refugee work and education, and a previous volunteer put us in touch with the camp coordinators.
Oinofyta Camp is built in and around an abandoned chemical factory, a crowded, dusty lot with barbed wire fences next to a noisy highway. The 650 residents, half of them children, are refugees and asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, trapped in limbo in Greece by the EU-Turkey deal in March.
We signed up to help get the primary school project—two brave women teaching 50-some children in a cinderblock hut and two tents—up and running sustainably with curriculum and classroom structures to pass from volunteer to volunteer.
When the five of us new teachers—from the UK, Canada, Spain, and the US—arrived on the first Monday, the little camp school teemed with excited, unruly children.
Learning in a refugee camp carries unique challenges: the kids don’t get enough healthy food, so they’re hyper and hungry; the facilities are hot, crowded, and noisy, making it hard for even the most focused child to learn; and very little funding goes to education in refugee camps, leaving volunteers with limited resources.
To complicate classroom management, many refugee children have little to no school exposure, lacking experience with school discipline, sharing, taking turns, or paying attention to the teacher. Imagine trying to get 25 eight-year-olds to line up for recess for the first time in their lives, all in Farsi.
The kids also carry the trauma of fleeing their countries and threats like the Taliban with them, which manifests itself in their classroom behavior sometimes. That first week, they were always in survival mode, grabbing all the crayons or toys they could get, and fighting often. One burst into tears when a teacher taught a little lesson on geography, pointing out Afghanistan and Greece on the map. No child should ever have to go through what these little children had experienced.
In my group of five-to six-year-old boys, we had two students trying to strangle each other the first day over a marker, which frightened us. But, over the next few days, we were able to teach them to share with hand gestures and serious faces to convey the English: “One for you, one for him. One for you, one for him.” Crying fits and fights happened every time the teachers turned their backs.
However, by Friday of that first week, we had seen a transformation. The now-120 students lined up by the door for recess, the teachers had learned some basic Farsi phrases for school, the littlest students were counting in English, and even the tantrum-throwers were participating!
From Monday to Friday, we had seen an incredible difference in the kids’ behavior, the school organization, our collaboration to make things happen smoothly, and of course, in the students’ learning. Altogether, the students, teachers, and school leaders felt a sense of accomplishment and progress.
In many ways, the camp school was, and continues to be, their way to escape their terrible memories and the difficult conditions of the camp life. For a few hours each day, they are able to just be kids in a kid-friendly environment dedicated to their growth and health. Their education is important on so many levels. They shouldn’t be left to fall behind in school and society just because the international community has forgotten them and the local population rejects them. They shouldn’t have to wait to be resettled or integrated to access their basic human right to education.
Now studying at SIPA, I find myself thinking about the kids in the refugee camp daily. The experience influenced how I approach the issues in my graduate classes and what I plan to do in my future career in international affairs and human rights. As I grapple with global issues in group discussions and debate about refugee policy in class, my memories from Oinofyta camp remind me to focus on the people affected by these large-scale statistics and policies.
I remember the little girls excited to be allowed to go to school, even in a tent; I remember the warm, indiscriminate hugs the innocent kids gave; I remember the transformation we saw in the kids’ participation and knowledge in just a short week of school; I remember the little girl who sat and painstakingly copied the entire Roman alphabet herself, patiently waiting for a teacher to check her work; I remember the mothers and fathers who came to the school just to thank us and to ask for more classes, for themselves!
I remember the stories I learned behind the statistics, the stories of hard-working families and children who deserve a chance to study and grow up in a safe, supportive world.
Shanna Crumley is a graduate student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), focusing on human rights and humanitarian policy. She also is currently employed as a work-student student at the Columbia Alumni Association (CAA). To read more stories from Shanna’s work in the refugee camp, visit the blog at Pocket Philosophies or follow the project on Facebook. To learn more about the school in Oinofyta Camp, follow Armando Aid.
Watch a short documentary about Oinofyta Refugee Camp and Armando Aid below.