June 19, 2020

World Refugee Day: the teachers working to bring hope to vulnerable children

Teachers and staff at LEDU, a non-formal education centre on the island of Leros which is run by the Greek NGO ARSIS, a partner of UNHCR

Photo credit: LEDU

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

Teachers on the Greek islands talk about the importance of education for refugees who live in overcrowded camps.

Education gives children knowledge, skills and values. But for young refugees, it can mean so much more - the chance to escape from their troubled past into a brighter future.

Guiding them along the way are their teachers. Dedicated, caring educators whose goal is to help vulnerable and marginalised young people feel safe and ready to learn.

To mark World Refugee Day tomorrow, we pay tribute to teachers who work tirelessly to provide education and hope. One of them is Stamatia Padermaraki, who teaches maths and English to young refugees on the Greek island of Leros.

The 30-year-old works for LEDU, a non-formal education centre for children and youth aged six to 18 run by the Greek NGO ARSIS (Association for the Social Support of Youth), a partner of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

Teachers on the Greek islands - above are Stamatia Padermaraki and Vasiliki Liaptsi from LEDU, below are Manolis Makarounas and Maria Panagiotouni from KEDU

Stamatia said: “Working with child refugees has made me realise even more how important access to education is. Refugee children come from harsh environments and have usually been deprived of many things.

“I have witnessed many cases of remarkable improvement in children’s emotional and behavioural development. After only a few days in school children socialise, become more receptive and self-aware. There is no greater feeling of contentment than being part of this effort."

On the Greek Aegean Islands, there are more than 10,000 school-age children living in overcrowded refugee camps and fewer than 15% have any form of education.

That's a sadly familiar story around the world. There are 7.1 million refugees of school age - children and youth who have fled from conflict, disaster, discrimination and violence. But more than half do not go to school.

Staff at LEDU made this video about their work to mark World Refugee Day

Theirworld and other organisations are working to deliver education to refugee children on the Greek islands. This week Theirworld was awarded 1.35 million euros ($1.53 million) to fund emergency education for thousands of young people during the Covid-19 epidemic - in partnership with Education Cannot Wait, a global fund for education in emergencies.  

The award from the Dutch Postcode Lottery (Nationale Postcode Loterij) will support UNHCR, UNICEF and partner organisations to provide vital education programmes for vulnerable children on the islands and on the mainland who have often fled war in countries such as Syria and Afghanistan. 

Without this donation, funding for education programmes for young refugees on the islands would have run out by the end of this month.

But none of this would be possible without the passion and dedication of the teachers. Stamatia said: "I am continuing the legacy of the teachers who were there for me and helped me become who I am today."

Her LEDU colleague Vasiliki Liaptsi - a 28-year-old Greek teacher - said: "The most important thing that education can offer to refugee children is a safe environment where, at least momentarily, they can relax, express themselves, form bonds and get away from situations they can’t otherwise. 

"I have seen students who came to school uncertain of themselves, afraid and lacking in communication skills and after a few months they turn into individuals that are confident, lively and expressing feelings and thoughts in whatever way they can."

While LEDU provides non-formal education on Leros, it is KEDU (also run by ARSIS) that does the same on the island of Kos, only three miles from the Turkish coast.

Manolis Makarounas, a Greek teacher of children aged six and seven at KEDU, said: "Educators are an integral part of human society. Thinking about all of these great benefits - and because of my love for children - I decided to become a teacher.

Staff at KEDU made this video for Theirworld of refugee children learning a song about fruit in Greek

"Education for refugee children is of vital importance because it provides them with the opportunity to have the sense of belonging and be part of a safe environment. It gives them the chance to have equal opportunities and space to express themselves and be happy."

Maria Panagiotouni, who also teaches the youngest children at KEDU, said: "I became a teacher so that I can be a student!"

About the youngsters she teaches, she said: "Children constantly on the move carry intense experiences. Education will provide the 'invisible children' with stability. It will help them get stronger and gain significant values in their current and future life." 

Those views are echoed by two volunteer teachers on the Greek island of Chios. Julie Mauve from France and Melanie Liu from England are working with the NGO Action for Education.

Melanie and Julie respond to questions from Theirworld about their work

It was established in 2018 by a group of long-term volunteers working alongside refugee communities on Chios and Samos and in the capital Athens.

Mel said: “School provides refugee children with a safe space, which is especially important for unaccompanied minors. It means for a few hours a week they can come to a holistic space and be themselves and just be teenagers - this isn’t something they can do in their normal life.”

Julie added: “Education really empowered us, helped us to grow and to develop. It means a lot for us to be able to pass that on.

“In our school they can learn Greek and English and we run projects daily where they can acquire new skills. It is really important to help them build their self-esteem and confidence.”

The stats on refugees

There are 26m refugees, as well as 45.7m people displaced within their own countries and 4.2m asylum-seekers, according to new UNHCR statistics up to the end of 2019.

80% of refugees live in neighbouring countries. 57% of refugees come from three countries - Syria (6.7m), Afghanistan (2.7m), South Sudan (2.3m). The top refugee-hosting countries are Turkey (3.6m), Colombia (1.8m), Pakistan (1.4m), Uganda (1.4m).

Learning with them (a poem by Anna Maria Palivou, Co-ordinator of LEDU)

They all look so different
They all come from so far away
School is empty without them
School looks brighter when they are inside

But why don’t they look always sad
But why do they always smile with the simple things
Travellers who are so tired
Travellers who make so much noise

Every day with them the smiles are getting bigger
Every day with them I am filled with questions
How many colours do they have?
How many colours did I learn from them?

Every break a new mischief
Every moment a new adventure
Strength, persistence and passion, I insist
Strength, patience and dreams they insist back

And what is hope without them
And what are books without their stories
Canvas without drawings
And fairytales without heroes

And if anyone ever asks me about them,
I will say "I taught them a lot, but they taught me more"

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