Junior ‘UN’ in Athens’s Koliatsou Square

The 22nd Primary School complex in Nikopoleos Street, one of the narrow roads behind Koliatsou Square, is one of six local schools in the same compound and, outwardly, no different from the others. However, of its 136 pupils, 106 are foreigners – 77 percent, the largest percentage of foreign pupils in any Greek state school. It is different, but not in the way we imagined when we walked in the school gate. «When I took over this school, it was 1977 and I was told, ‘They send us all the foreign and black children.’ A lot has changed since then,» said Vassilis Siamos, the headmaster. In the schoolyard, the classes have already lined up for morning prayer. The children are from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Moldava, Egypt, Ukraine, Germany and Cyprus. The yard is shared with the junior and senior high schools and a primary school for children with special needs, as well as the evening school, are all under the same roof. The first thing one learns in a school like this is that there is room for everyone. The building, dating from the early 1930s, is typical of its time: high ceilings with large classrooms and windows. Emiliano asks the headmaster if he can ring the bell, a large hand-held one which he swings manfully. «We use the old-fashioned kind to distinguish it from the other six bells that are rung in this yard, but also because the children enjoy ringing it,» said the headmaster. The classrooms are freshly painted in cheerful colors with bright curtains at the windows. In none of them are the desks ranged in rows, but are either arranged in a circle, facing each other or else along three walls. «I am a great believer in the psychology of space and color,» explained Siamos. «That is why all the classrooms are painted different colors; each has a different character.» A few years ago, things were somewhat different. «The first thing I asked for when I came here was that the doors be locked at night and guards brought in around the clock. At night, homeless people would break the locks and come in here to sleep. Because the street is populated mostly by foreigners, and therefore does not bring in votes, it had been forgotten. I brought in the municipal cleaning service and had tiles laid on the ground floor as there was damp, and installed floodlighting in the yard. Children should feel safe at their school,» he said. «Here we speak the language of acceptance. Whoever crosses the threshold of this school will receive whatever the Greek State has to offer. In the beginning there was some opposition. When I came, I managed to set up a parents’ association, but it didn’t last long. The Greek parents had reservations about the others, and the foreigners – mostly the Albanians – refused to take part because they knew there would be a reaction. They were afraid. The association may not have survived, but I set things straight immediately. As long as I am here, although the school is not officially multicultural, it will be run as if it is, within the framework of the law. The main lesson we have to learn is to live with each other. Here, differences are valued. We have all the religions, ethnic groups and seven different schools. What else could we do?» Parade, prayers The children do not go to national parades as they are poor and cannot afford the trappings. «We have our own parade here, on our own. Seven times out of 10 the flag-bearer is a foreigner. At first there were protests, because nationalism is always stronger on the eve of a national holiday. Now everyone has got used to it. We don’t talk about what goes on elsewhere.» «When adults stay out of things, the children get on fine together. You’d be amazed at how they communicate,» said the director. «Most of the foreigners here are family-oriented, they have bought homes and been here for years. The cafe, the baker and the local restaurant are Albanian-owned. Albanians are consumers, like us. That is why we are always after them, they are not low-key. These days the crime rate among them is low, they just have a bad name. I had a pupil once who was always being harassed. There were parents who interfered in the classroom to make sure their child did not sit with an Albanian child. «But the truth is that foreign pupils are better than their Greek counterparts and that hurts. That’s only natural. Why do Karditsa and Grevena have the most university entrants? They want their place in the sun, and a way to get there is through education. That is what it’s like here. I tell them they would be fools not to get an education. ‘Do you know how many kilometers of stairs there are in Athens? Two hundred apartment houses are built every year. Is that what you want? Your goal is university,’ I tell them. Once a physics teacher was transferred here against his will. A short time later he came to me and said he actually enjoyed teaching; the children’s eyes ‘were thirsty for education’.» Evangelia/Fatimata In first grade, there are just two Greeks among the 16 pupils. In the break, I ask their teacher, Foteini, how she feels about teaching there. «These children have a greater need of us because they don’t usually have anyone to help them. Their parents work long hours and often don’t speak Greek very well. And the children are so eager to learn. One day one of them had not done his homework. The little girl next to him turned and said: ‘If you don’t study what will become of you!’ They see the trouble their parents have and know they have to try to better themselves.» Outside the headmaster’s office is Evangelia, aka Fatimata. From Sierra Leone, she was recently baptized. «At school I am Evangelia and at home Fatimata,» she laughed. Evangelia is entering the preparatory class. Most enter first grade, but those who come at an older age or who don’t know the language well first complete the preparatory class, which is divided into two sections, one for beginners who know no Greek at all and a more advanced class for those who have already completed one or two years of school.» We ask Siamos what happens at prayer time, which is held in all schools. «Those who aren’t Christian aren’t required to come; it’s up to them. They can also be exempted from the divinity class. But very few do actually ask for exemption, and I’ll tell you why. Talking to parents bore results. We convinced them that we are doing good work with their children. For many years, they used the school as a daycare center, because they and their older children work. But I want the school to be a provider of knowledge and for the children to get a Greek education. That is why they join in at prayer time. Because by taking part in the Greek education process, they feel that they belong. They respect the country, its culture and people, they are proud to live here. That is our goal. Even if they go back to Albania, at least they will go as philhellenes.» Andreas, who teaches sixth grade, indicates Antonis and Astrit, two boys who are teasing the others. «They are very lively, but very bright. Astrit is going to be baptized soon and is choosing a name. He’s thinking of Aristides, which sounds like his own. You know, more foreign than Greek parents respect us. They feel the the same respect people used to toward teachers, back in the villages. As for the children, whatever you give them, they give back threefold.»

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