“What is your name?” asks the teacher. “Abel,” replies a young boy. “And where are you from, Abel?” she asks. “Ethiopia!” he says, raising his arms in a gesture of victory. The boy sitting beside him is from Ghana, the girl next to him from Sri Lanka, while Cirilo, who has yet to look up from his drawing, is from Ukraine. Aged 3 or thereabouts, there is nothing separating these kids, not even arguments about toys.
Munting Nayon means Little Village in Filipino, but the entire world has a home at this kindergarten that was started to help working mothers in 1994 and continues to be run by the association KASAPI – Unity of Filipino Migrant Workers with funds from the “We Are all Citizens” program implemented by the Bodossaki Foundation.
“We initially opened the school for the children of Filipino migrants, but within weeks we started to get requests from other communities, so the kindergarten has functioned for all migrant children aged from 9 months to 5 years old almost since the start,” says Deborah Carlos-Valencia, a social worker at the school in a pretty building in Kato Patissia, an area of downtown Athens with a large migrant population.
Valencia immigrated to Greece from the Philippines in the mid-1980s. As a founding member of KASAPI and DIWATA (Determined Independent Women in Action for Total Advancement), she soon became acquainted with working parents’ needs to have somewhere safe to leave their children.
“The fact that public nurseries keep children for only a few hours a day compelled us to start Munting Nayon,” she says. “Immigrant women who worked until 5 or 6 in the afternoon told us they’d lose their jobs if they left at 2 p.m. to pick up their children. So we asked ourselves why we didn’t open our own nursery.”
Munting Nayon opens at 7.30 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m.
“We often get calls from parents saying they’re running late at work, so we’ll wait for them until seven or eight o’clock. What else can we do?” says Valencia.
Monthly fees are not more than 140 euros. “It’s nothing compared to the prices of private nurseries,” says Valencia. “Other than a full curriculum of preschool education, we also provide food, but more importantly care and love. Parents are confident that their children are in good hands, while the children also acquire an important advantage for when they go to Greek school. They will be ready, they will have confidence and they will assimilate quickly into the system.”
Indeed, a number of state schools that have taken in Munting Nayon “graduates” have told the nursery’s management that the children learn fast, participate in class and make friends easily.
“That gives us a lot of satisfaction. Just think that by the age of 5 most of these children already speak three languages,” says Valencia.
Classes at Munting Nayon are in English but Greek university students volunteer to teach the children Greek through fun educational activities. “The children come into contact with the sound of Greek early and become familiarized.”
The crisis has, of course, taken a toll. “Munting Nayon can take in 40 children. There were years when applications were way above this figure but right now we only have 20 children. Many families are struggling. Most work as household help. Many lost their jobs – migrants are the first to get fired – others saw their salaries slashed and others still can hardly afford to commute anymore. But once they get a job again, the first thing they do is enroll the child with us again.”
After nearly 20 years, the nursery school finally received an official license in 2011, the only example of a migrant organization to have been recognized by the Greek state.
“It was a long and painful process,” says Valencia. “For immigrants, the bureaucracy is even more intense. The authorities did not trust us; they were skeptical and kept questioning our motives. But we persisted and with the help of organizations that provided us with technical support, for example for the building code, we managed to get our license.”
The neighborhood loves the school and supports it, but it wasn’t always like that. “The school used to be located in Amerikis Square, where some of the neighbors were not so friendly. They’d complain about the noise of the children playing, throw water into the yard. Thankfully we have none of that now,” says Valencia.
Recently, one of the nursery school’s first students got married and had a child of his own. “Many of our former kids about about to graduate from Greek universities. We are so happy we have been able to make the lives of migrants living in Greece that little bit easier.”