British volunteer primary school teacher Helen Brannigan (c) speaks to refugee children before class at the volunteer-run Refugee Education Chios school on the island of Chios.
Nour ran out of the bleak refugee camp, her 6-year-old shoulders weighed down by a brand-new school bag. “Let’s go! Let’s go!” her classmates cheered, in English, and the children set off on foot to class on the Greek island of Chios, home since their families fled the Syrian war for Europe.
At the school, set up by volunteers, they will be taught how to hold a pencil, write their names and count to 10. The teenagers among them will begin making up for lost time.
Humanitarian organizations say nearly 40 percent of the 60,000 refugees and migrants trapped in Greece are children who have lost years of schooling or missed out entirely on education. So far, their needs in Greece are met in part by volunteer-run initiatives, like the school on Chios, but the Greek government is hoping to change that starting this semester and plans to enroll thousands in schools across the country.
Formal classes – Greek, math, a foreign language – are expected to begin later this month. Authorities say about 22,000 are eligible. To begin with they will be taught separately from Greek students while they integrate.
“All these children in Greece are facing a very challenging situation,” said Eric Durpaire, chief of field operations for UNICEF, the United Nations children’s fund. “They are what we have called ‘the lost generation.’”
On average, child refugees stranded in Greece have been out of school for one-and-a half years, International charity Save the Children said in a report.
Going to school was a priority for nearly all those interviewed in camps in Greece, but more than one in five had yet to even begin their education, mainly because of war an displacement, it said.
“It’s a very simple, basic right,” Durpaire told Reuters. “They have a right to education.”
For the parents, sending their children to school is about more than education. Some say they children are so traumatized by years of war that they are too scared to leave the tiny bleak tents in the camps which they live.
During playtime at the school on Chios, 6-year-old Janna looks out for the mother, sitting near by. “I want my daughter to come here, to adapt, to develop a strong personality because she cries most of the time,” her mother Ufaira said.
The family arrived in Greece from Syria 10 days ago, hoping to go to Britain. “I want to find a home, to stay in one place, so that my daughter can continue studying,” she said.
For the teachers, it won’t be an easy task. Teaching refugee children “is not business as usual,” UNICEF’s Durpaire said.
Students who have been out of class for years see no reason to make an effort. Some parents feel sending them to school implies they will stay longer in Greece, which they had never planned, and learning Greek is not a priority.
On good days, children on Chios go to class happy and energized, on bad days unmotivated and deflated, teachers say. “Sometimes I’m not sure what’s happened in the camp, why they come in a bit tired. I don’t know if they’ve had a difficult time,” said Helen Brannigan, a primary school teacher from Britain volunteering on the island.
About 160 children attend the school twice a week. Set up by Nicholas Millet, 26, and Jacob Rohde, 28 after hearing stories of families fleeing Syria for the future of their children, the school is not meant to replace traditional schools, they said.
Is their project enough? “Absolutely not,” they reply in unison. “In an ideal world these kids would be attending five days a week and they would be integrated, they would not be in the camps,” Millet said.
That is not always easy. UNICEF says more European funding is needed to support Greek efforts as the welfare services have collapsed after years of crisis. Funding so far was directed less towards education and more toward housing.
Residents of one suburb in northern Greece have also fiercely protested this week the prospect of refugee children attending classrooms alongside Greek children. But the Education Ministry says its it will not back down.
“Does a neighborhood, a school, have the right to say ‘I don’t want foreigners here?’ No it does not,” Education Minister Nikos Filis said.