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From Samos Volunteers to refugeeEd: Esther's story

Here’s a top tip for you – if you ever need to keep around 70 4-14-year-olds entertained for two hours in 35-degree heat, with only five fellow volunteers to help you keep them (relatively) calm and hydrated and from falling down a small nearby cliff, beading is the way.

Give them beads with holes slightly smaller than the string and they’ll be head down for the duration trying ever so hard to thread those little beads onto those big bits of string. It works a treat. It’s also good for their fine motor skills but I discovered that happy coincidence after the event.

I learned this, and many other important life lessons, working with Samos Volunteers in the summer of 2017. This small organisation aims to make the lives of the 4,000+ refugees living in Vathi Refugee Reception Center – one of Greece’s concrete, rubbish and rat-filled ‘hotspot’ camps – slightly less awful.

Refugees arriving by boat to Samos are not meant to be there long. The plan is for them to stay there a month or two at most before being transferred to the mainland. In reality, many stay in the camp far longer; today, new arrivals to the island are receiving asylum interview dates as far away as 2021 and 2022. The children in the camp, for the duration of this long stay, are rarely included in formal education.

This means that a small band of volunteers shoulder the task of supplying informal education to as many of the camp’s residents as possible.

A few weeks after arriving in Greece I took on shared supervisor responsibilities for our Kids’ Activities Programme. Twice a day, myself and a group of volunteers would trudge up a steep road out of town to the camp, and try to engage the children’s brains with singing, dancing, reading, crafts and – more often than not – finding creative ways of stealing my sunglasses. (Back at Samos Volunteers’ Alpha Centre, other volunteers would run language, music and fitness classes for and with the camp’s older inhabitants.)

While we managed to achieve a great deal, working with parents and community volunteers to instil some structure and boundaries into the lives of kids for whom these things are really important, I was endlessly conscious of being horrendously underqualified for the task. With no educational background whatsoever, I found myself firefighting a gaping lack of educational opportunity with woefully inadequate tools. I count my lucky stars that some of my fellow volunteers were so creative and clever and qualified enough to provide the educational insight and ideas I could not.

On returning to London to begin studying for my Masters, I discovered that I really missed those kids. It felt really crap to be sitting in a library reading scholarly articles and writing essays when I knew the names of the very refugees caught up in the crisis I was studying in abstract, and knew that Samos Volunteers was over-worked and under-staffed and needed the dedicated and long-term support of volunteers such as myself. It made me feel quite blue, to tell you the truth.

So imagine my delight when I discovered refugeeEd. Here was a charity that works to provide volunteers in Greece with the educational tools and mentoring they need to make a lasting impact. Here was a charity that provided the very thing I had most wanted whilst on Samos. And what was more, it was based in London! I could get involved and help from home!

Two years on, and I’m proudly a refugeeEd Trustee, a charity which, since being founded in January 2018 by the indomitable Helen Brannigan, has reached 20 organisations like Samos Volunteers with its mentoring and training programme and benefited around 2,720 children. Each trustee has an area of particular focus, be that communications, teaching or – in my case – fundraising. As with all small charities, however, we all chip in wherever needed in order to drive along refugeeEd’s mission.

There’s a huge amount to do and we need your help. With 60,000 people stuck in camps or unstable accommodation across Greece, 57% of children not in formal schooling, and people waiting up to three years for their asylum interviews, we need teachers and funds and the time of dedicated volunteers to support the delivery of our work in Greece.

Just as I found a way to help from home, you could too, and we’d love you to consider helping refugeeEd.

Mad about mentoring or terrific at teaching? Email Helen:

Fanatical about fundraising? Get in touch with Esther:

Crazy about comms or skilled at social media? Contact Alice:

Want to help but not sure how? Email:


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