A dozen six and seven-year-olds repeat "B for book, C for car..." 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 about 20 refugees giving lessons to 670 students between the ages of six 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.
‘As Greece prepares plans to educate around 8,500 refugee children, there will be no summer holidays for the migrant pupils.’
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 eight 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 palaeography 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 programmes on the Internet, careful to remove anything 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 a year and a half. And more than a fifth of school-age children have never set foot in a classroom.
- 'Children are angry' -
In Skaramangas, refugees wait to know where they will be relocated in the European Union, 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 her 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 programme. 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 programme 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 programme set to start in September would include classes to integrate the students, in the camps or at public facilities, ahead of proper schooling. But there are many difficulties in achieving that goal. The refugee population is very mixed and still very unsettled.
And national education is underfunded in debt-wracked Greece after six years of austerity. But Iannis Pantis, secretary general of the education ministry, says the challenge of the next school year is "manageable", pointing to the example of the 1990s when Greece integrated several thousand Albanian schoolchildren.
But his optimism comes with a caveat: the European Union should send the Greek government emergency funds allocated for the migrant crisis, which are now only sent to non-governmental organisations. He estimated the initial amount needed at about 10 million euros ($11.1 million). "If the EU wants to help us, all will be well, if not we will not be able to do anything," Pantis told AFP.