The School written by Eliza Davis from Katsikas refugee camp (Greece)

by tuftsigl
Jun 24

I am volunteering at Katsikas refugee camp on mainland Greece, and one of my primary duties at camp is teaching English.  I have no background teaching English, but I've been teaching it since my very first day at the camp, and as of two days ago, I was teaching three English classes a day: one in the main school of the camp, a second one in the Yazidi area, and a third in the female-friendly space.

The main school had, for the past week, been a disaster. The chaos was caused by a combination of factors: Ramadan (the Muslim holy month of fasting); the long overdue deliverance of information on how long people would have to stay in Greece (much longer than they had expected); and some of the primary volunteer teachers/coordinators leaving. Many of the students who normally came had stopped, and when they did show up, they refused to listen or sit down. While there’s always tension between the Syrians and Afghans, one day it broke into an open fight during English class with Syrian students throwing stones into the tent shouting, “Afghan, Afghan.” A number of the teachers and helpers had stopped showing up for their classes, and many of the students that came were ones we had never seen before, so class consisted of long-term students bored of basic English and new students with no idea how to write A, B, C. That was on the days anyone showed up and actually sat down at all.

People were stealing benches from the school to break down and use for firewood (and had been for a while). We built more, screwed them securely into the floor, and the next day they were gone. The tent walls had been torn up by children, and the lock boxes we have in the classroom tents that hold markers, boards, and other school supplies had been broken into and emptied. This level of chaos was not reserved for the school; all community spaces had been affected. The canvas of the children’s play tent walls had been torn from the frame in many areas, leaving huge holes from which kids dropped rocks during activities. We had recently put up a new shade tent to be used as an information point; within two days the shade had vanished and many of the concrete blocks holding up the floor had been stolen. In both the community spaces and the school tents, open defecation had occurred.

On Friday, after asking to have a meeting for days and basically being brushed off, the organization I work with finally met with the community leaders. It was an absolute disaster. All of the staff members came away incredibly upset, having been yelled at for an hour by the refugees with no agreement reached on the school or community spaces or even any semblance of interest from the community in working to fix it. We met that night as a group, all staff and volunteers, and discussed ways to move forward. We agreed to stop all building projects, scale back school operations, and completely rethink our relationship with the community. It was a dark day on camp for everyone.

Then came Saturday. A different group from the community came to the organization staff wanting to meet. They saw the school wasn’t working and had heard about or attended the meeting yesterday; they told us they knew how important education is, that they want it for their children, and that they wanted to take over the school as a community. It was as if every terrible thing from the last meeting had been flipped on its head. Our goal is always to involve the community as much as possible, and them wanting to take over their children’s education and have us support them rather than the other way around was the ideal we hadn’t even dreamed of considering.

The next day, the leaders of this group came to the school, gathered all the children and made them sit and be quiet. It was easily the best class I’d taught at the school. Then they had a teacher meeting in the evening and invited us to attend—I did basic translation for the other three volunteers as these refugee leaders decided together on how to split up the classes, how to make sure the students attend, which classes to have when, etc. Afterward, I went with one of the main school leaders to talk to the Yazidi community and explain the new school, to make sure the Yazidis not only send their children, but are also involved in the planning and teaching as well. They were receptive, and the next day sent two teachers, as well as all of their children, to the school they had previously refused to attend. We erected a new school tent and, in contrast to the information point with its stolen concrete blocks and shade, this one remained untouched.

It was a fully community initiative, and when the full program began today it was immediately apparent the incredible power that had. We had over ten times the number of children from before and all the teachers, with the exception of English classes, came from the community. We were just supporting actors as they organized and handled everything, finally making the “school” run like a real school. Before, education had been a service we offered to the children that wanted to come; now it was a community expectation, the way it is outside of refugee camps. It’s been incredible not only in terms of results, but also community empowerment, cross-cultural integration, and of course education. And it’s only the second day.

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