New dilemma in refugee crisis: how to educate refugees stuck in Greek limbo

By Melissa Deatsch

(Athens, Greece) —  As the number of refugees flowing into Greece has lowered from the dramatically high numbers of 2015, the crisis has shifted focus to improving the quality of life of the refugees inevitably stuck in limbo for many months or even years.

More than a million refugees from the Middle East crossed Turkey and Greece on their way to northern European destinations in 2015. With the closing of the borders in the Balkan migration route and the EU-Turkey deal in March of 2016, over 60,000 refugees have been trapped in Greece waiting for the slow system to allow them to be relocated to a different country.

The debate began on how to address the education gap for these refugees and migrants.  Without access to education while stuck in Greece, refugees miss out on important years of development.  The Greek Ministry of Education understood that this would make them potentially unemployable and set them far behind their age group’s education level in their new country.

As the new school year approaches, Greek education officials are struggling for the second year in a row with how to educate 20,000 refugee children who appear to have become a more permanent presence in the country than anyone had anticipated.

The Greek Ministry of Education implemented an emergency solution for the integration of refugees into the Greek schooling system for the 2016-2017 school year.   A transitional period was deemed necessary in order to make integration as cohesive as possible.

The Ministry of Education Research and Religious Affair, made their position clear in the publishing of Educational Actions for Refugee Children in June 2016.

“A transitional phase from life in the camps towards integration into the Greek educational system is necessary,” the report concluded.  “In order for refugee children to acquire the ability to learn Greek and fill in any gaps in their education due to the lengthy removal of many of these from their home country’s schools.”

As apart of this transitional period Reception Facilities for Refugee Education (RFRE) were created. On October 10, 2016 the first of these opened for refugee children in camps aged 7-15.  They included Greek and English language courses as well as Math, Computer Science, Physical Education and Arts at the Greek public schools at 2 p.m. after the Greek students have ended their studies for the day.

The primary goal of the transitional year was breaking down the language barrier.  The Ministry of Education suggested refugee children could hardly be implemented into the school system without at least basic knowledge of the Greek language.

With September fast approaching, the Ministry of Education is still facing challenges.  The implementation of some of the integration strategies saw delays and lacked quality in the first year.

A 2016 UNISEF report estimated that of the 21,000 children who remained in Greece as of December of 2016, many were not making it into the Greek school system.  By the end of the school year in 2017, only a little over 3,000 children were being educated at 33 RFREs across Greece, according to the Ministry of Education.

The attendance from students that did have access was inconsistent.  Students were estimated to typically attend about 30 percent of the classes at some camps according to the Ministry of Education’s findings.

Finding enough quality educators also proved to be a great difficulty.  In many cases teachers were constantly being changed, making it hard to find consistency or progress through the curriculum.

Additionally, challenges delayed some RFREs in opening until as late as March, leaving some refugee children with less than three months of the school year.

As a result, the Ministry is looking at the 2017-2018 school year as another transitional year for refugee integration, hoping to learn from last year’s failures.

Decisions for what type of education program each child should attend will be made on a case-by-case basis depending on previous education, knowledge of the Greek language and living situation.  The goal, as was last year, is to ensure that all refugee children in the mandatory school age group have access to education at some level.

Refugees residing outside of the camps in other temporary housing will continue to have access to the public schools near their residence.  There they can attend morning Reception Classes with extra support.

But the concept of integrating non-Greek speaking students amongst their own children has many Greek people concerned.  The Greek Nationalist party, Golden Dawn, has taken up the fight against the integration of refugees into Greek schools.

The Golden Dawn party spokesperson and Member of Parliament Ilias Kasidiaris explained the party’s stance saying it was a risk to Greek children’s education.

“How can you put a child who doesn’t speak the Greek language well into a class with Greek children without it affecting the Greek children?” Kasidiaris asked.  “It cannot be done.”

Leaders of the Greek Non-Government Organization (NGO) Metadrasi disagree.  For Metadrasi’s founder, integration of refugee school children into Greek society is the missing link to this crisis that needs to be met.

Metadrasi created the Step 2 School Summer Educational Program to prepare children to be integrated into Greek schools.  The program is open to refugees of all backgrounds ages 6-17. There are even classes for parents that are interested in taking language courses.

“We said okay now Metadrasi has to do something this summer,” said Lora Pappa, founder and president of Metadrasi.  “September is coming and again we will have the same percentage.”

Four hundred children from the Athens area came to the first day of Metradrasi’s summer school, proving to Pappa that the desire for education is there.

Many other NGOs, volunteer groups and other organizations have stepped in to attempt to fill the education gap in the camps without access to public school.  These NGOs provide informal education located in the camps.

This informal education does what it can to keep children busy and learning during their formal education gap.  However, it lacks in quality and effectiveness, as many of the teachers are not trained educators, but social workers or volunteers.

These children have risked everything and experiences severe trauma for a better life in another part of the world.  Every month that passes without education sets the child back further and further and creates greater difficulties in adjusting to life once reaching their eventually destination.

The first transitional school year proved to be riddled with challenges and only marginally effective in fighting the education gap.  However, valuable first steps were taken toward integration.  The leaders of the integration effort, such as Pappa, will continue to break down barriers and overcome adversity.

“Many times people say ‘Oh Miss Pappa you live in another world’,” Pappa said, laughing.  “I think it’s good.  I hope I can continue to live in another world.”

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