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“No birthdays here”

For the forgotten children of the refugee crisis, school brings a transient normality to life in the camps.

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lead A secondary school English class – lessons are as much about academic education as about sharing culture and creating a safe space to learn.Refugee Education Chios. All rights reserved. Amid freezing temperatures in Europe’s hotspots, refugees fleeing from some of the most dangerous places on earth still encounter political stagnation and the threat of forcible returns after harrowing journeys across land and sea. Young people have been forced into adulthood, leaving their education in a state of limbo. But one NGO has set out to restore the childhood of these forgotten victims so they have some relief from the horrors at home.

The human reality

The small Greek island of Chios, once famous for its production of mastic resin, is now notable instead for hosting refugees. 2,300 men and women, including 700 children live on the island, in dire conditions in the camps, ring fenced with barbed wire. The demographic is overwhelmingly male and mainly comprised of Syrians, Afghans and Kurds. Statistics such as these often give bystanders a snapshot of a crisis, but essentially reduce adults and children to abstract images and data, dismissing the human reality of these young people.

Be Aware and Share (BAAS) is a volunteer NGO working in Chios to break down this depersonalisation by presenting and treating child refugees as an average school kid; in doing so they uphold some fundamental rights for these minors. With a profound grassroots effort, it has established a primary and secondary school, and a youth centre. During school hours, these children can shed the stigmatised identity of being a refugee, and have the opportunity instead to simply explore childhood.

21-year-old Moh, a volunteer teacher, himself a refugee from Syria, helps translate for and assist classes.

“It is great to be getting out of Vial,” he says, referring to the detention facility that accommodates over 1,000 refugees on the island.

“It is definitely dangerous to sit around all day and do nothing. You can see the effect of school on children’s behaviour – they now cry if they cannot go one day, even though many of them have not been in school before now. It is important most of all because it is their first point of contact with Europe – especially the Vial kids, they never meet Europeans. By going to school they meet European people who make them feel happy and loved. I think this first impression is very important.”

Sensitising learning

Teaching English at the schools with BAAS requires a high level of sensitivity to the children’s trauma. Simple educational methods and everyday activities with them can trigger difficult memories. The students left Turkey in boats to reach Chios across the freezing Aegean Sea – some as unaccompanied minors. Many of them have lost family members, and children as young as six speak with an astonishing detachment of the deaths of close relatives.

Some of the teenagers have escaped torture and forced labour as child soldiers by ISIS or others from the conflicts that throng the Asian and African continents.

Establishing a learning environment which facilitates their comfort is evidently difficult and BAAS have had to cherry pick the curriculum with the utmost care. Typical educational activities involving food or daily routines are inappropriate in these complex circumstances. In Souda, an informal refugee camp based within Chios city, a patchwork of NGOs are struggling to support refugees with even basic food and supplies, where an already strained Greek government has failed to do so. Worksheets must therefore be sense-checked so classrooms can focus on human universals and creativity instead.

This is not without its difficulties, however. In a primary school lesson, a reading of “The Owl and the Pussycat” provokes a disturbed response to the “pea green boat”; some children shake their heads, whilst another mimes the puncturing of a boat and imitates drowning, blowing air through pursed lips, then gasping for breath. Out of context, the children’s disquiet would seem abnormal, but the trauma they have experienced at sea and at home has left their childhoods in fragile fragments, which BAAS is putting back together with Pritt stick, playtime, and human affection.

Continuing reality

The backdrop to such hopeful progress at the schools is bleak however. There is growing unrest both in the camps and across the island because of the expanding population. Although numbers are dwindling, rubber dinghies still reach Chios at night from Turkey, and the new arrivals are forcing Souda’s makeshift camp to spill out onto the adjoining beach. UNHCR tarpaulin is their only insulation from the blighting cold. The boredom of daily life in the camps builds frustration, which often turns violent, exacerbated by toxic living conditions and the stagnation of the asylum process.

It is not only life within the camps that threatens their safety. The camp has faced vicious attacks from gangs of fascists. For BAAS volunteers, walking the children back to this environment after a day singing “the wheels on the bus” in a warm and colourful classroom can be the hardest part of the experience.

A boy from Key Stage 1 (ages 6-9), walks to school from Souda.

Political deadlock

The children on Chios deserve to be on school registers, not waiting for months to join the expanding numbers on asylum registers. But the chaos of western politics casts a long shadow and dominates the media. The refugee crisis has become hidden, out of mind and out of print. While BAAS’ work is impressive, it should not only be their responsibility to rehumanise the situation. Politicians, reporters and Europeans must all stand up against the “othering” of refugees, occurring at the behest of toxic policies.

The fragment of normal life BAAS students experience is all too fleeting. Volunteers wave goodbye to children regularly as they board the ferry to Athens for the next step of the asylum process, knowing too well that Athens won’t necessarily hold a better future. Accommodation is even more informal in the Greek capital, and progress even slower.

Having escaped the terrors of war, it thus seems these minors cannot escape the loss of their childhoods. When playing with LEGO, the youngest choose to build guns rather than houses. One boy, Khalid, during a lesson on celebrations, admits that he can’t even remember his own birthday. “No birthdays here”, he explains. Ever since he arrived in Chios seven months ago, it’s a luxury his family cannot afford, another normality left behind.

This makes the work of BAAS so crucial, however transient. It brings structure to children of a generation who some feared would be lost. But they are not lost. Not lost to drone strikes or Assad forces in Syria. They did not lose their lives in a car bomb in Baghdad. And they survived the freezing temperatures of Europe’s seas and harsh winter. Now, they need not be forfeited to self-harm or violence in the loveless atmosphere of the camps. The work in Chios is a constant reminder of the common humanity that joins us, and the importance of childhood, even in the face of an unpredictable future.

Children doodle on the blackboard, waiting for their breaktime snack.

About the author

Eleanor Salter is a human rights and environmental activist. She has volunteered for Be Aware and Share with refugees in Greece, and is interested in conflict and forced migration. She is currently studying Human, Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge.

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