“I want to be useful and to help out as much as possible, but I just have no idea what’s needed.”
My name is Claire, and this was how I started my first conversation with Helen from refugeeEd. I asked a lot of questions about the situation in Greece, and Helen patiently answered them all.
A few weeks later I was in Polykastro, a small town in Northern Greece, working for Open Cultural Centre, a Spanish organisation which supports the local refugee population with a “café”, school and bike rental service, as well as many other ad hoc activities. The school has morning classes for adults, from Literacy to Intermediate levels, as well as evening classes for children and teenagers.
After three months, I was coming to feel that I had learned more from my students than they had from me. I had to re-think some fundamental things such as my go-to lessons about “objects in my home” or “introducing my family”. And I had to learn how to keep hold of my emotions when the first example sentence that comes to a student’s mind mentions lifejackets and seas.
While I’ve faced some unexpected challenges, such as the vacuum of care left when other local organisations are forced to downsize or leave, other concerns I had before arriving in Greece have proved completed unfounded. Although there are always one or two students who are absent from class, all my classes have a core group of motivated, enthusiastic learners who arrive daily, on-time and with their notebooks at the ready.
Most of the refugees in Polykastro are stuck in limbo, going through the “asylum process” for at least a year, often two. Two years of “toolkit English” is demotivating and frustrating, a constant reminder that you should be somewhere you are inexplicably blocked from reaching. Further, many volunteers only stay a couple of months, so a way to ensure long-term consistency for the students is vital. With this in mind, my fellow EFL-trained volunteers and I have spent the past three months creating longer-term curriculums fitted to coursebooks and online resources. We have made audio recordings for future teachers to use, and ensured an easily manageable and simple level testing system is consistently used. Each adult class has an optional WhatsApp group for the students to share homework, stories, jokes and songs in English, and so absent students can catch up on missed lessons. In short, their education is taken seriously and we work on the assumption that everyone deserves the opportunity to access high-quality education, no matter their situation.
Our students don’t have control over many things in their lives. They can’t stop their phone buzzing with bad news from home. They don’t have a say about who else shares their temporary home, about who else also lives in their metal container. But they can choose to do something useful each day. This little bit of control and empowerment can help our students get through another long day of waiting with so many unanswered questions in such a confusing situation. For an hour each day they are not refugees, they are students in an international classroom, helping each other to learn, talking about which celebrity they would most like to interview or about what food they ate last.
There are hundreds of refugee support organisations across Greece. Each of these organisations wants more than anything to close down because they are no longer needed. But this can’t happen yet. As long as national governments and international organisations fail to respond adequately, volunteers will be needed, offering a smiling and encouraging face.