My name is Marjorie, and I’m currently the coordinator of the Sissa Project, a non-formal education project for refugees in housed in a squat in Athens.
Before coming to Athens, I was a social worker and educator in France. I was working with immigrants to promote education and encourage social cohesion – we did literacy for adults, homework support, and activities for both adults and children. I also worked in Steiner and Decroly schools (schools with alternative pedagogies), running after-school activities and helping with behavioural problems.
I firmly believe that education is the most important tool with which we can build society. Learning should be active and concrete to keep students engaged and involved. It should also be grounded in the needs of the students themselves. Education can help to promote social cohesion, nurturing the skills which are needed for all to live in harmony.
My educational practice draws upon the work of Maria Montessori, with her focus upon discovery, and Célestin Freinet’s emphasis upon projects. I also look to psychology, and to the approach of Jean Oury, which holds that all our relations can be therapeutic and pedagogical. I also find Marshall Rosenberg’s model of nonviolent communication, which encourages compassion and manages anger, to be an important grounding when I work with people.
I first came to Athens in 2016. I started by playing games of chess with the kids. Chess is a great educational tool – it’s widely respected across the world, children (and adults) develop their abilities really quickly by playing, and it demonstrates the potential these children have. The thing we need to do is to support them to realise that potential.
It was obvious that the potential of these children was being wasted. They had such limited educational opportunities, it was hard to see how they what future they could have, or how they could participate in society. This was when I began to consider creating an informal school for refugee children.
I came back to Athens in July. My partner has an internet radio project in Spain which focuses upon immigration, and I decided that this would be a great creative opportunity for the children. I wanted to continue with my project of playing chess, and would also teach literacy skills by making podcasts with the children. This was the beginning of the Sissa project. This was a significant challenge – there was a huge need for education in the squat, and we only had a small number of volunteers. I started out working with Rita, a psychologist from Portugal, who was amazing in getting the project off the ground. Our aim was to establish informal education project, teaching maths and English alongside artistic and creative work. It was also really important to us that the kids were able to play outside, so we started to take them outside every day.
The third member of our team was Ana, a teacher from Spain who had training in teaching phonics. She provided us with teaching materials and created a curriculum for us. She’s a wonderful teacher, and her experience in teaching English was absolutely vital for us. A maths teacher from Sweden who was developing a maths curriculum in one of the camps through refugeeEd also kindly wrote a syllabus for us.
Unfortunately, Ana and Rita weren’t able to stay with the project any longer. But they’re continuing to help us from afar, recruiting volunteers, and compiling training materials to support our volunteers to be great teachers in this unusual environment.
Our current goal is to allow the children to develop the skills and abilities which would allow them to integrate into a school in Europe. This involves maths and English, which we teach by promoting an active way of learning. But it also involves making sure that they understand classroom rules – asking politely, not fighting, and cleaning up after themselves. Understanding and following these rules will be key for their integration. The children also participate in activities which increase their ability to concentrate, such as chess, craft, or visual arts. We also want them to have a real childhood full of imagination, so we want them to play together in the park. And to allow them to overcome racial divisions and to learn to cooperate as a team, which we and to learn how to participate in a team.
We decided that the classroom needed to be the kids’ own space, and so we’ve all been planning and decorating it together. This was really the start of the educational process, and the children responded very well to being given this responsibility.
Each day we work with up to thirty children, who range in age between 3-15 years old. There isn’t always a stable attendance – some families quickly move on and some of the children have difficulty with timekeeping.
Our goal is not to replace or to compete with the Greek school system. We are trying to support children to re-enter education and to support parents to take an active role in their children’s education. We also emphasise keeping parents informed about the behaviour of their children.
Around 280 people live in the squat, and conditions are difficult – around half of the residents have travelled to Greece without legal documentation or are waiting to move on to another country without legal permission. Around 40 children between the ages of 1 and 15 live in this tough environment. The population includes Afghans, Syrians, Kurds, and Pakistanis.
Those who live in the squats are waiting to move on. The residents are either asylum seekers, in a family reunification program, are waiting to receive a place in a camp or apartment, or they are waiting to move on. Most of the children who live in this uncertain situation have not been to school for at least a year. Some have never been to school. When the project began, only one of the 30 children who then lived in the squat were enrolled in a Greek school – the process of enrolling is long and difficult.
The rules and hierarchy of the squat sometimes make it hard to achieve things. Sometimes there are tensions and certain children cannot participate in activities. We don’t believe that the project can continue to work within the squat for much longer – we’re hoping that we’ll be able to find a site outside the squat where we can work with these children during the day.
We currently have three volunteers (although soon it will only be two!).
11am – 1pm – on two days each week, we work on a maths topic, approaching the subject through games and fun exercises. For example, we might teach by using Sudoku, or through chess, backgammon, or dominos. Of course, this all depends on the children – some just want to play, and so we need to use the game to bring them to try some maths problems. On two other days, we do English. We use picture cards to teach vocabulary, and phonics books and cards to teach the sounds need to speak the language. We use songs and we have a few games, but it would be helpful if we had more.
1-1:30pm – I like to play a fun game like ‘Simon says’.
1:30pm – 2:30pm – Break time (this is the time when I can speak to parents…)
2:30pm – 4pm – this is a time for active learning. We might play games which teach the English words for the weather or for the body parts. Or, it might be project time, when the children will do art or crafts. This might also be a moment for our short-term volunteers to shine – at the moment we have a clown – the kids love it! We have also collaborated with NGOs offering theatre, circus, and art therapy sessions.
4pm – 5:30pm – we take them to the park to play sports. We often play basketball, and once a week we collaborate with a skateboarding project. Soon we’re going to start playing volleyball – it’s a great team sport which encourages people to work together.
Soon we’ll start with our internet radio project. We would like to create stories with the kids, and then record them during our English time.
Since the project began, we’ve had more and more children coming to classes. We’ve seen an incredible improvement in their behaviour, with less racism and violence, and more respect of time, for their environment, and for teaching materials. Now we know that every day the children will tidy up their classroom and water the plants before leaving. And the overall atmosphere and cleanliness of the building has also improved.
However, it’s difficult to continue this positive work with only one volunteer. There are a huge range of ability levels between the children, and it’s hard to dedicate the time needed to those who have most difficulty. There can also be challenging behaviours, including fighting and racism, and some children have certain traumas. We really need more volunteers in order to manage these behaviours and to ensure these children can get the education they need. Unfortunately, I’m not a qualified teacher, and they really need a teacher.
This is a great opportunity for an inspiring teacher and leader to help establish an educational project, helping those who need it most.
If you’d like some more information, please have a look at our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/sissaproject/.