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Lessons from a Greek refugee camp

"Each day threw up a new challenge—that is to say, fight"

By Alex Shilling  

©NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

“You political types,” said the barman in my hotel on my first night in Athens. “You will help for a little time and then you will go.”

I had gone to Greece to teach English to refugees, predominantly from Syria and Afghanistan, at a camp about 40 minutes’ drive from the centre of Athens. The camp was based at the old Ellinikon Airport, the country’s national airport until it closed in 2001. It was partially redeveloped for the Olympics and refugees were housed in former departure lounges and sporting facilities, which is how I ended up volunteering at something named the Baseball Camp.

On my first day, I turned up at the Arrivals section of the old airport only to be met with a series of puzzled expressions. The problem wasn’t the language barrier—the aid workers almost all spoke perfect English—but the director had not been expecting me. We sorted it out, but it was my first experience of the structural chaos at the camp.

Twenty minutes later, I was teaching my first lesson to refugee women. I had prepared a little before flying out, but it soon became clear that, contrary to what I had been told to expect, this was a mixed ability class. We began with the alphabet and moved onto vowel sounds, finishing with some basic vocabulary—resorting to stereotypes,  I chose clothes and shopping as the topic.

I thought the lesson had been a relative success, given the circumstances, which included nursery rhymes being played at deafening volume on a ghetto blaster in the classroom next door and small children running in and out every few minutes to demand cuddles, high fives and chalk.

As lessons continued, not only mixed-ability but mixed-gender classes became the norm. Both men and women would sporadically wander into each other’s classes despite there being a gender and ability segregated schedule, which was clearly not being communicated to them. Mixed gender classes had been forbidden by the camp authorities because of cultural sensitivities and several refugees, particularly the women, were obviously uncomfortable with it.

I taught these lessons with a colleague, and we faced the same dilemma every day: did we inform the camp authorities and waste time, or did we just get on with it and attempt to teach a lesson that covered all the bases? The latter was tough, but could become a triumph for compromise and the marriage of our somewhat contrasting teaching styles.

A typical class would have around seven to 10 students in it by its halfway point. My colleague would work on the alphabet to the beginner female refugees on the board, while I sat down with the intermediate level male refugees and taught them vocabulary about jobs and grocery shopping; we would then switch roles. I was especially proud of Ali, a young man who was able to write a basic job application letter using several different tenses after just a couple of sessions.

However, this approach only worked as long as there were two teachers, so when my colleague fell ill and was absent for several days, problems inevitably followed. A couple of the refugees began to complain that the classes were too difficult. The camp director sat me down and stressed that although she wasn’t blaming me, things weren’t working out and the camp was bringing in a new teacher. I had already been in touch with another project within the camp and took on a position coaching football to children.

The volunteers at the new project seemed much more relaxed and approachable than those in the main building at the Baseball Camp. But working with refugee children was no less stressful than working with the adults. Each day threw up a new challenge—that is to say, fight.

Just before lunchtime at 1pm, five or six of the boys would see red. It was usually the same kids and they tended to pick on one pleasant but overweight kid. He didn’t seem to like sports and he was reluctant to join in the other activities, such as drawing, painting or singing. Also, he didn’t appear to have many friends, so was often on his own and thus an easy target.

I started to plan my mornings and early afternoons around how to prevent the fight happening and how to protect this kid if it did. I gradually won his trust, and he let me hide his mini-scooter on top of the water tower so the other kids wouldn’t steal it. After much cajoling and pleading, I persuaded him to join the morning football game.

Eventually, even his tormentors began to pass him the ball and compliment a good tackle of his, or a robust header. Off the pitch though, it was the same story. Football was great for channelling the kids’ energy but when the game was over, they would still be pumped up and not in the frame of mind to sit down and do reading or drawing.

The main problem was a lack of a coherent timetable. The kids knew football was in the morning so came down from their living quarters excited and ready to play. But the quieter, sitting-down activities would also sometimes be scheduled for the morning; other times, in the afternoon. With children who have experienced the kind of trauma that the ones at Elliniko have, structure is everything and despite the best efforts of the volunteers, we never quite achieved it.

The other big issue was the squalor. The camp is covered in rubbish: ready meal packets, cigarette butts, empty beer cans. Children are literally playing in filth; I and the other volunteers spent much of our time stopping infants from picking up bits of broken glass and putting them in their mouths. Finding somewhere to play football that wasn’t actually hazardous was difficult and we ended up using a car park, having to stop the game every time one of the delivery vans came in.

The camp at Elliniko is being closed down; there are plans to turn the site into a luxury resort. The refugees will be relocated to a new camp in Athens. While I have been critical of the Baseball Camp, camps like it are completely dependent on volunteers. They are woefully understaffed, receive little or no government funding and the staff work themselves into the ground to ensure that the people who live there have food, access to clean water and somewhere reasonably comfortable to sleep.

Governments have been slow to react to the refugee crisis and too often, leave the camps and the refugees to fend for themselves. At Elliniko, it would have only taken the local bin men a morning or so to clean the camp up; yet this never happened. In this, as with the rest of the crisis, our politicians have dropped the ball.

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