We Accompanied Refugee Children on Their First Day of School
This article originally appeared on VICE Greece
One by one, the children walk down the stairs, wearing backpacks that seem bigger than them. They gather for breakfast in the main lounge of the City Plaza hotel, the walls of which have been decorated with hand-painted cardboard signs that read "Tomorrow, we are going to school".
City Plaza is a self-organised refugee housing project in Victoria Square, in Athens, Greece. The seven-storey building currently houses about 400 people – more than 180 of whom are children – but it used to be a hotel. It closed down seven years ago, at the beginning of the Greek economic crisis. On April 22, 2016, a local organisation called Solidarity Initiative for Economic and Political Refugees, together with tens of refugees, occupied the empty building to the chagrin of the owner. Their aim is to provide decent living conditions for refugees, who have been stuck in Greece since Europe's borders were closed.
The sign reads, "Tomorrow, we are going to school".
It's just after 7AM and the volunteers, who help out at the squat, are trying to get everyone ready for school. It's no simple task: They must divide about 50 children into age groups and safely guide them to the local public schools, for their first day of lessons.
Most of the volunteers are university students. They woke up really early to be here – at a time when a lot of them are sitting university exams – but they all seem so happy and proud; almost as if they're taking their own children to school.
For the people of City Plaza, today is pretty special. Thanks to their efforts and those of a few local teachers, children living in the old hotel are able to start school today, unlike the children living in refugee camps.
In a recent interview, the Deputy Minister of Education, Sia Anagnostopoulou, pledged that "children of preschool age will receive education in the camps. Primary and secondary school pupils will be transferred to nearby schools – at first, in reception classes." This has not happened yet.
Eleni has been volunteering at the squat since its first day. "For us, what's happening is also important in a political sense. We've fought for this, and we will continue to fight," she tells me. "Our experiment is part of a general effort to create a society that includes refugees. Refugee children going to school here is the first step towards integration. While the government has failed to do the same for the children living in the camps, the children of City Plaza and some other occupations are able to go to school today. That only goes to show that when you want something you have to try hard to get it. Nothing in life is for free."
"We have been working on this day since June. There is a group of teachers at City Plaza, who together with the Aristotle society (a local teachers' club), worked all summer to register and enrol the children. The books, the bags and other supplies were all donated," Eleni adds.
She goes on: "Most of the parents are excited. Some even went and registered their children at the schools without our help. The only thing that seems to worry them is the language barrier, and the possibility that Greece might not turn out to be their permanent home. Still, we all know how important school is to the socialisation and psychological growth of children, even if they end up leaving the country."
She also explains that they have tried to register as many of the children as possible. So far, the children of high school age are the only ones who have not been accepted to any school. "We've filed five children's applications but the principal of the local high school won't register them, because they don't have the documents that prove they finished primary school in their countries. There is a process to get a certificate, either through theUNHCRor the Greek Council for Refugees but we have not had the chance to do that because these children came to City Plaza very recently."
I speak to Dina Garane, who was one of the teachers who fought for the refugee children to be able to attend school. She says that "teachers are part of the great movement of solidarity towards refugees that unfolded in the last year. We fight for refugees and their children to be welcome, for the borders and towns to remain open, while opposing the austerity imposed by the government and the EU that is destroying the public education system."
But Garane says individual actions are not enough. "Mass education hires are what's needed to integrate all refugee children into public schools. Classes can't be held in the refugee camps or led by staff from NGOs. Kindergarten-aged children must be placed in formal education and reception classes must be created in secondary education," she says.
From all the children in the squat, my attention is drawn to a little one from Afghanistan. He must be younger than everyone else going to kindergarten today. His mother and two older sisters are also with him.
I decide to follow his group to school, which is made up of eight children, some mothers and three volunteers. We arrive at the school 10 minutes late. The children run into the yard, pointing excitedly to parts of their new environment, while the volunteers take instructions from teachers.
I ask the principal of the school, Dimitris Kritikos how he plans to integrate the children. "It is important to keep the numbers small. For the time being, they'll just be in the classes but we are also planning to give them separate Greek lessons. Additionally, one extra class will be created to support the teachers we already have at our school."
I ask him if the Ministry of Education has arranged for a reception class for refugee children. "For now they haven't sent us any staff, no. Our own staff will volunteer a few hours of teaching – as much time as each of us can donate. We would like to be able to hire at least one more teacher though," he replies.
Before leaving the kindergarten, I ask if there have been any bad reactions from local parents. "So far we have not had any negative feedback. And don't forget, this is a downtown school," he replies.
Marios Strofalis is the president of the parents' association of the 51st elementary school in Athens. He confirms that there have been no negative reactions in the area, unlike in some other parts of the country.
"This school is multicultural – a lot of the pupils already come from immigrant backgrounds. The one thing all parents worry about, whether they are Greek or not, is health. Many of them have asked me if the children have had a medical check up, and they have. In any case, we must endeavour to remain level-headed. When it comes to children, the only thing to do is open our arms and treat them with love and kindness."
Strofalis goes on to address the issue of the refugee children learning Greek in good time: "One problem that is generally observed in this school and other multicultural schools, is that some pupils struggle with the language. Naturally, when a child enters the classroom and does not know a single word, they become marginalised and that's a problem."
"What should a state do in this case? Create integration courses. Unfortunately, that does not happen in Greece. Children are not the problem. The problem is the state. If the government doesn't hire more teachers, all of our efforts will go to waste."
We leave the new kindergarteners at school and return to City Plaza, where the mood is festive. Anastasia, a third year student of Political Law tells me that "for the people of City Plaza this was the second battle we won. Our first aim was to occupy the building, and the second was to ensure that the children go to school. We are now able to offer those kids a routine and this is a massive feat. The next goal is to get the parents accustomed to that routine, as well as the local culture."
Of course the new routine will create new needs, which is why the squat is looking for more volunteers. "We need people to organise afternoon study sessions, to help the children after school," Eleni says. "And for the kindergarteners, we need water bottles and plastic microwavable lunch boxes."