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How Are Refugee Children Being Educated in Camps?

Heather Ridge, an agriculture and science teacher at Boulder Universal school in Boulder, Colorado, recently spent 5 weeks volunteering in a refugee camp in Greece. Here are her experiences and observations regarding the education of refugee students in the camps.

By guest blogger Heather Ridge

Children are the first to greet you when you arrive at the Ritsona refugee camp near Chalkida, Greece. They crowd around the car, reaching into windows and opening doors, wondering what you've brought them. They have learned that good things come out of bags and boxes brought by well-meaning charitable groups, and some will fight violently for items in short supply. Of the 700+ residents in the camp, over half are children.

"My son used to be so well behaved," one mother lamented. She holds a university degree and does her best to educate him at night in the tent they've shared since moving into the camp in March. Months later, she worries both about the behaviors he's developing, as well as the skills he is not. It's been challenging, with all the chaos and upheaval of war and migration, to now adjust to the new reality that they may be stuck here in camp, trapped by closed borders, for a very long time. The normality and consistency that school can provide are one of several reasons that refugee parents and students alike cite it as a top priority in a recent study by Save the Children. The same study also found that, on average, Syrian children who are refugees have already spent about 25 months out of school.

The Greek government also considers it a top priority, given that almost 40 percent of the more than 54,000 refugees now within Greek borders are children. As laid out in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, Greece is legally responsible for providing them with access to an education. This comes at a time when the country is still struggling with how to manage massive amounts of international debt that have led to cuts in spending on education and increases in teacher hours and class sizes for the past eight years. While many families hope to leave the camps and reunite with loved ones already resettled in other EU countries, the reality is slowly dawning that this process could take months, or more likely, years, with many of them being granted asylum only in Greece.

Whether temporary or permanent, the Greek government has just a few months to work out a plan for this massive influx of students before the new academic year. The most urgent decision to be made is whether temporary schools will be established in the more than 40 formal camps around the country, or if these students will be bussed to existing local schools. Presently, it seems most likely this decision will be made on a camp-by-camp basis. The beginning of summer vacation in June has bought them some time and opened up space for NGOs and other civil society groups to pilot informal educational programming. During the summer, operation of school facilities reverts from the Ministry of Education to local municipalities for use. This is an opening for organizations to provide structured activities and language curriculum within an actual classroom to help students prepare for the academic year.

ritsona2.jpgThe need is massive. Along with the behavior that arises from exposure to trauma, students face huge gaps in both language and lost learning time resulting from bombed schools and constant moving to remain safe. Many of the youngest ones have never been in a classroom, held a pencil, or learned to read in any language. This is a harsh contrast and hard reality for parents who have come from well-educated backgrounds. In a recent survey by the UNHCR, 86 percent of adult refugees surveyed had a secondary or university education. Many of the older students have had to leave universities and medical studies with only one or two years until graduation. Indeed, the same survey revealed that the most commonly reported occupation of those fleeing was student.

In camps like Ritsona, access to informal educational opportunities takes several different forms. Refugees who are teachers can volunteer to tutor groups in native languages, using whatever space they can find with whatever resources are available. However, austerity measures and asylum status prevent these teachers from being remunerated or involved in more formal school options. Many NGOs, like Lighthouse and I Am You in the Ritsona camp, have volunteers that take on "classes" in tents and temporary structures, acclimating students to working in a classroom setting. Faces come and go as volunteers change and curriculum varies, limiting the normalizing effect that a consistent schedule and environment can provide. Volunteers also work with older students and adults to teach the fundamentals of English, Greek, and sometimes German, focusing on vocabulary that might be helpful in navigating the asylum process, health needs, and transportation.

The response is inspiring. In the area around Athens, conversations are happening. Committees such as the new Education for Refugee Children, are made up of local, national, and international organizations working closely with the Ministry of Education and local municipalities to locate resources and funding to support the goal of integrating refugee children into the Greek education system. Many, such as ELIX and Organization Earth, which have been advocating for children in Greece for years, are now shifting their focus to help address the crisis. Other groups, like Jesuit Refugee Services, are developing much needed wraparound services that provide shelter and schooling for some of the most vulnerable children. Having spent the past few years trying to survive and remain solvent during the debt crisis, the expanded efforts of these Greek organizations is especially notable. Working together with larger international organizations such as UNICEF and Save the Children, these groups hope to advise and possibly fund educational programs.

The reality is troubling. One of the greatest fears of refugees and residents alike is the threat of backlash. So far, reports of violence or anti-migrant sentiment have been minimal across the country, but many feel that could change at any time. As the Ministry of Education works toward developing a comprehensive plan for schooling, other departments struggle with logistics and funding around housing and food. This comes at a time when Greek coffers are already empty and much of the public is wary of further belt-tightening. Equally in short supply is information on next steps. The asylum registration process has been vague on timelines, and procedures have shifted as the Greek Asylum Office does its best to handle the overwhelming caseloads. Teacher workloads will undoubtedly increase, as schools work to address not only the increased numbers, but also the significant emotional and physical needs of students arriving on their shores. 

This is an historic event in many ways and the education policy that arises from the refugee crisis has the potential to reflect what is best in humanity and change the way we address high-need populations at a global scale. There is not going to be one solution. Daunting as the task seems, the need for case-by-case analysis and long-term planning is the need of the hour at a time when every minute counts and the whole world is watching.

For more information about the refugee crisis, please visit UNHCR's website.

Connect with Heather Ridge on Twitter.

Image of the Ritsona camp courtesy of the author. 

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