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Oinofyta Refugee Camp School

Volunteering in Oinofyta Refugee Camp School, Greece – By Isabel Wright Embercombe Land Based Education Facilitator

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I have been a member of the Embercombe Education Team since May 2015 and have been a teacher of all ages since 1991, but my experience of volunteering for 2 weeks in the school in Oinofyta Refugee camp this summer taught me more about learning and about myself – about what it means to be human – than anything I have done as a teacher before. I went there with my adult children – Laurence, 31, a football coach amongst many other things; and Naomi, 26, a Reception/Year 1 teacher – amongst many other things! And one of the many powerful aspects of this experience was to do this together in a situation where, for all our varied experiences and views on life, we were all total beginners.

The camp is one of the longer-term camps that was set up this year away from the points of arrival (from Turkey) on the Greek islands and in the port of Piraeus. Setting up these camps was a response by the Greek government to the closing of the borders by neighbouring countries and is a recognition of the fact that these refugees may be in Greece for a long time. It is on the site of a disused chemical factory – a rubble strewn plot, surrounded by a wire fence, breached in several places (making security difficult), with a semi derelict building in the middle. The first arrivals were housed in tents provided by the Greek air force – about 3-4 metres square – with an awning and space to walk between them. Later arrivals are housed in the factory building which has been partitioned into cubicles slightly smaller than the tents, with just an open doorway screened by a shower curtain offering a semblance of privacy. These cubicles house whole families – often 3 generations, sometimes with as many as 9 or 10 people sharing. It is hot and noisy and the people who live there talked about how impossible it was to get to sleep at night. There are about 900 people in the camp, almost all families from Afghanistan, with quite a large number of single men, some from Pakistan. The camp is on a road that runs up into the hills north of Athens, with (mostly abandoned) factories and warehouses spread out on both sides – in the middle of nowhere but also about 10 minutes drive from the small town of Oinofyta. There are currently 3 camps in the area but, with the camps at Piraeus about to be closed, there will soon be several more. To bring this closer to home, it would be like having anything from 3 and 7 camps in fields near the A38 between Plymouth and Exeter, which you could see through the trees as you drove towards your holiday in Cornwall.

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We arrived in Greece on Thursday, August 4th and went for a brief visit to the camp in the late afternoon, prior to starting work the next day. Here are some first impressions from my diary:

We were all quite nervous, totally unsure what to expect. Our welcome was overwhelming! Layhing (who set up the school) was delighted to see us and introduced us to many people – a man who is a secondary Farsi teacher in Karbul and now the school principle in the camp; a younger man who had just fitted air con in the nursery and one of the school classrooms, bought with the £777.00 raised by Naomi’s school in support of her work here. It was very moving to see the work and support of those Cornish families, whose lives are so far removed from the lives in the camp, translated into something as practical and beneficial as cool rooms for babies and for children to learn English.

Layhing walked us around the camp. Everywhere we went we were greeted, waved to and hugged by smiling children who all wanted to greet us with “hello, how are you today?” And then answered with “I am very well, thank you” when asked how they were. Children are everywhere, often in groups including just-toddling toddlers, with no obvious adult overseeing them. But there is no traffic, no dogs, and nowhere designated as a play area. We met a group of American women from Boston, who have set up a charity called Carrying the Future and who were standing on the Greek border handing out baby slings so that families travelling on foot with infants could carry them safely. They said they had handed out 100 before the border closed, many to men who then took over carrying the babies; and these women are now planning to go home and raise money to build a playground in the camp. We heard another story of a family with three daughters, the youngest of whom was run over by a truck which didn’t stop; they had to leave her body in the bushes and keep moving. The other two girls are in the school, but finding it hard to settle… 

The next morning (Friday), we arrived on time, with no getting lost and a growing sense of the geography of the immediate area. Children and some adults were waiting on benches in the shade, with notebooks and pencils in their hands. The classrooms are either in the small school building (3 classrooms, two nursery rooms separated by a stair gate, a makeshift bedroom, which also houses the newly acquired fridge freezer, enabling them to give the children cold water to drink, all bottled, there is no mains water); and to keep the bananas they have for snacks from going off. The rooms are tiny, and filled with rickety tables and chairs, allowing up to about 15 children to learn in each room – as long as no one needs to move.

The other two classrooms are makeshift shelters, with green shading material over the roof of a metal frame, bamboo matting walls to provide some shade and wooden floors. They are bigger than the classrooms but much hotter. The teachers are an endless stream of volunteers, some experienced teachers, some with no previous teaching experience; some staying for as little as a week, some for a couple of months; for some of us it is our first experience of something like this, for others one of many.  On our first day here, Laurence worked with a woman who normally teaches history at university level and pre-university A level students. She said that at first, when she arrived and the school had just opened, it was really hard to get the children to settle and listen or sit still at all; it is still clearly very intensive and difficult and helped massively when there are extra adults and, as on this day, a Farsi speaker who can translate; but her group of around fifteen 5-8 year old boys seemed happy and settled and to be learning. Looking in on the tent next door, where a teacher from England was doing her first lesson with the equivalent girls group, Laying said it was like a ‘small miracle’ to see the transformation in their attitude to learning achieved over the previous 2 weeks. The translator is here for a few weeks in her holidays. She now lives in Canada and was herself a refugee child in a camp at the time of the Russian war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. She has been volunteering in refugee camps in different countries for 11 or 12 years and her family have built a school in their old town in Afghanistan; and she talked about how hard it is to say to the children that she now lives in Canada, a country where many of their families want to go.

Layhing has asked me to take over her role next week when she is away, of overseeing the whole place and making sure everything runs smoothly and so I shadowed her for the morning, including going to the local town, Inofyta, to buy vegetables and chicken for the Friday teachers’ lunch. I am not sure how I will manage that as she seems to know everyone and everything and was called upon to solve a myriad of problems. And since then she has also asked me to teach the advanced children’s class in the mornings as they no longer have a teacher. But I will try! 

In the evening I worked with another new teacher, taking the adult women’s advanced English class. There were nine of them, mostly in their teens, and all very friendly and eager to learn. We had a lot of fun and laughing, role playing visits to the doctor with all our aches and pains, with some sobering moments for me when one of the young women, in role as the doctor, told her patient to come back to the hospital the next day for an X ray “because there is no electricity today”.  We held the class in some newly created shade in the tiny school garden, where they are trying to get the children interested in growing food, create compost from sea grass collected from the beach, have an outdoor play area for the nursery, run adult classes … It is astonishing to experience the calm, determined resourcefulness and imagination to see what can be created out of what looks like nothing; and then the energy and resilience to get on and do it, always imagining what will be the next project while you work on the current one.

Laurence had come to the camp primarily with an offering of football coaching for the children. He has just done his first few FA coaching badges and so this was his first experience of running sessions – a challenging context for someone so inexperienced. The first problem was where to play. The camp ground is strewn with rubble, broken glass, ditches being dug to lay pipes so that there can be a mains water supply. As we left after our initial visit, an Afghan man asked us to take him to the station, and on the way back we passed an all-weather pitch on some waste ground which seemed to offer a solution. But it had its own problems. It was about 20 minutes walk away along a busy main road with no pavement. Lorries thundered up and down the road intermittently, not expecting pedestrians and so it was essential to keep the children in very good order to keep them safe. But he doesn’t speak Farsi, they didn’t know who he was and saw no reason to listen to him. Also, they were incredibly excited at the prospect of playing football – and at leaving the camp.

It is also a pitch that is used by the adult refugee men in the evening, when Laurence wanted to use it for the children. He went and played football with them and then talked to them about changing their time to let him do a session with the children first. Their response was really positive and welcoming of someone coming to do something with the children.

On the first football evening, Laurence and Naomi took about 30 boys between the ages of about 5 and 13 (the girls and boys were not allowed or willing to play in mixed teams). Fourteen 5-11 year old boys piled into one car – the Afghan translator had agreed to go with them and to drive them there – but the rest had to walk. As they left, some mothers came up to Laurence and Naomi with much younger boys, who were wailing at being left behind, and asked for them to go too. Naomi had to say no. She asked one of the parents whether the slightly older children could manage the walk along the main road. He responded quietly with the observation that they had walked a lot further and through much greater danger to get to Greece.

The football session sounded like (mostly cheerful) chaos. The boys were so excited and just wanted the ball! They didn’t want to do warm ups or drills or work as a team or stop when the whistle blew or listen to any instructions … for Laurence it was trial by fire. All the things he had learnt had to be put to one side and he had to deal with the children in front of him – with what would get their attention, what they could cope with, what was safe. And, in a way, that summed up the whole experience for all of us. Nothing was what we expected or, often, what it seemed; and we just had to stand back, assess what was really happening and what we could offer to it, lose preconceived expectations and work out what was really possible. And then sit back and enjoy it.

The football sessions improved daily, with huge ups and downs within each one and across the 2 weeks. He did sessions with groups of younger boys and older boys; younger girls and older girls. Each group only had 2-3 sessions and yet by the end they were doing drills and skills training and playing proper matches. He was very skilful at finding male ‘elders’ – men who commanded respect within the camp because of the roles they had taken on – to talk to the children about their attitude to what was being offered to them. On some evenings one or two of these men would go with the group and help out. At first, I felt frustrated that more adults didn’t come forward to help; but gradually realised that, like everything else, it was quite complicated. To start with, it can be very tricky taking responsibility for other people’s children as a parent (rather than as a teacher where that is the job, within established parameters), even in far less challenging circumstances. People often don’t like non-family members taking a firm line with their children and it can cause disputes between the adults. In the camp, people are already very on edge and exhausted and the atmosphere is quite volatile; a dispute about a child’s behaviour or telling off could escalate into something much more serious. And the children were difficult to manage because they were used to being in control of themselves with very little adult attention in their play; and so there was a strong likelihood that any adults looking after them would need to intervene firmly and take control (as indeed Laurence and Naomi had to do).

Then I suspect that there are issues about gender roles. In the camp, the women did all the traditional women’s work – looking after the children, cooking, washing, keeping the home clean. My first impression was that that seemed very unfair; but then at least they were busy and had a clear role. The men had lost their previous roles – to work outside the home, to earn the money, to keep the family safe – and yet it was largely the men who had made the decision to leave and who had brought their families to safety thus far. Football is traditionally a male domain but looking after the children isn’t. I can imagine that it was incredibly important to maintain your sense of yourself as the male head of the family in a situation when all other aspects of your identity have been stripped away. This is all surmising – I didn’t manage to have the conversation with anyone directly. So much of what we witnessed was like that – unclear, not necessarily what it seemed; not necessarily easy to interpret through the lens of my normal life and experience.

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Our days settled into a routine: school from 9.30 – 12.00 in the morning; lunch, doing jobs around the school; an iced-coffee, trip to the toilet, Facebook posting and diary writing, catching up on emails in a nearby café in the afternoon (and sometimes a trip to the beach); teaching an adult English class or running the football sessions in the evening.

I taught what was called the ‘advanced’ class, a group of up to 12 boys and girls aged between 9 and 13. A few of them had better English than the children in the other classes, though not all of them; and only 3 could do any level of independent reading or writing in English – the others could copy. They are taught in English because most of the teachers/volunteers speak English; and because, without any certainty of where in Europe or North America they might eventually settle (if they are allowed to settle at all), English is the language that is most likely to be useful to them because of its universality. Many of them had at least a little English from school in Afghanistan. A Greek teacher comes to the school on 2 evenings a week to teach any adults or children who want to learn, but she was on holiday while we were there.

The Greek government has undertaken to provide schooling for children in refugee camps but it is as yet unclear how that will happen. The Greek economy is still struggling and many civil servants, including teachers, were laid off and/or not paid so that it is hard to see where the capacity will come from. Imagine a small rural town in England having to incorporate several hundred extra refugee children in the local schools there. The advanced class that I taught were also the better behaved, more motivated children and were likely to be the first cohort from the camp to attend a Greek school, whenever that becomes a reality.

The lessons each morning focused on English and Maths. But the first job was to establish some routines and clear expectations. I was their third or fourth teacher in 3 weeks – the fact that I was staying for 2 weeks was seen as providing some measure of stability, although there were 3 teachers from England who had committed 3-5 weeks of their summer holidays to work there, so things were generally quite good. The previous teacher had left some notes about what she had covered and I tried to continue from there but there was no clear curriculum or map of what would be covered over time. The school had only been open for a few weeks and had had to stumble from week to week on whoever was available to teach at that point. Since I left, I know that Layhing and a very experienced teacher (who is there for a few weeks) have been working on developing a curriculum and that will really help to provide continuity and a chance to make progress. It took me a few days to realise that many of the children were very competent at number work (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) working with very big numbers; while some had almost no idea of this at all. But they found it difficult to explain what they knew in English. I know from my teaching experience in England that children who arrive with very little English end up in ‘low ability’ (I hate that term!) groups or classes because they can’t show what they know in a way that is understood by over-stretched teachers. And so I engaged in working with them on learning the English for what they could do as well as trying to introduce some things that were new (we used number lines and began to look at negative numbers which they found very surprising and exciting). They were quite frustrated at first, covering what they already knew but in English; but took it on and made very quick progress so that they could begin to work on genuinely challenging maths. I did what I could to catch up the children who hadn’t learnt some very basic maths in school before but don’t feel I really met their needs; and I left detailed notes for whoever took over from me. But when we left at the end of our 2 weeks, it wasn’t clear whether there would be enough teachers the following week. In the end, a group of Spanish non-teachers arrived and took it on, so at least the school was open.

In the English lessons, my main focus was on what would be useful to know; and on getting them to speak beyond a very stilted ‘pigeon’ English, moving from “me have pen teacher?” to “Can I have a pen please?” Again, my experience in English schools is that the response you get when you use something like complete sentences is qualitatively different to that given when you use single words and a lot of pointing.  And that if you start by learning ‘pigeon’ English, you just have to unlearn it later. At first, it was very difficult to get them to speak. They wanted me to write things on the board for them to copy. So we did a lot of choral sentences – I would give them a useful sentence structure and then they would all chant it together, repeatedly, to get the sentence structure into their mouths and their minds. And then we would play games that needed that sentence, or do repeated question and answer with the same structures, for example, I would ask a ‘Can you…?’ question and they could choose to answer with ‘Yes, I can….’ Or ‘No, I can’t …’. We also used the Talk for Writing method used in many English schools to develop vocabulary and language structures, learning parts of a story off by heart. We did the Gingerbread Man (causing much hilarity because the Farsi word for ‘fart’ sounds like ‘ginger’); and they became really enthusiastic about reciting the bits that are repeated. As the 2 weeks went on, all the children in my class became much more willing to have a go at saying what they wanted to say; and would habitually repeat my words if I took what they had said and created a fuller sentence for them. Once we had learnt the story orally, I asked them to have a go at writing it (they had lots of words and sentences in their notebooks that I had written on the board as we had worked on learning the story). At this point I realised that their accuracy when copying had fooled me into thinking they understood more about written English than was the case. A few children could have a go; two made a pretty good fist of it; but the others were totally lost and need to go back to learning the sounds letters make, how English words are structured, how to read pretty much from scratch. It is hard to teach that range of knowledge in one class. This is another area that Layhing and her colleague are working on, bringing in teaching schemes that will support this work.

Someone asked me recently whether the children seemed traumatised. On one level, they just seemed like normal kids. They laughed, they played, they fought, they cried. They played tricks on each other and were at times immensely kind. But there were signs of trauma. They were perhaps too friendly with and trusting of complete strangers. If they ever got hold of anything – a toy, a football, a watering can to water the plants with, their main concern was keeping hold of it, rather than using it or playing with it. It took some effort at break time to get children to play with the balls we gave out rather than just clutch them tightly and keep the others away. A group of volunteers came to do some music with the children and started to give out brightly coloured, plastic instruments and there was something close to a stampede to get them, with little children getting squashed in the process.

One day we were having lunch with a family outside their tent – we had many invitations to eat and drink with people and were told it was really important to Afghan people to eat with their family and friends. We were relaxing quietly in the heat, chatting, when there was a very loud bang. All the Afghan adults jumped up and ran towards the noise. The children became very still and quiet, gathering in the younger children who didn’t understand the need to be quiet, and hushing them until the adults returned. A pressure cooker had exploded and one woman had some minor burns. But it illustrated how, beneath the sense of them being just ‘ordinary children’, these children had had to learn how to behave in an emergency, where there was any sense of potential danger.

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There is so much more to say. And so many things we didn’t understand, couldn’t fully make sense of during our time there – perhaps because much of this situation simply makes no sense in any human terms. I am intending to write more for the next newsletter – time and perhaps a fear of overload dictates that I stop this piece now but I would like to share more in the future. Perhaps my biggest learning was something I knew already but can lose sight of in the sense of overwhelm brought on by what is happening: the knowledge that these are just ‘ordinary’ people, like you, like me, like our children and our parents, who have been forced into extraordinary and very terrible circumstances. Whatever our feelings about open or closed borders (and I don’t think any of the answers are simple); about what we as a country and as individuals could and should do, I want to keep remembering that: that these are real people, who just want to live with their families in safety and with hope for the future. And that anything any of us can do to help this to happen – whether through donating or fund raising; supporting refugees and asylum seekers already here; engaging in open and solution-seeking dialogue with those who disagree with us as well as with our natural allies; or indeed going to a camp to volunteer – anything we can do is worth doing and will contribute to a more positive future for refugees.