Anna Bockmuehl spent three months volunteering for Action for Education in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios, after completing a degree in History from the University of Cambridge.
Action for Education is a UK non-profit which runs education projects for refugee communities in Greece. They aim to develop projects aiming to build pathways back into education for displaced communities through teaching and supporting educational services in crisis situations.
My name is Anna, and I was a Senior Activities Coordinator for Oxford Scholastica Academy during the summer of 2016.
In June 2017, I graduated from university, and have spent the past few months working for a charity called Action for Education, which is running an incredible social and education project here on this small Greek Island, just south of the more widely known island of Lesbos.
Understandably, given the lack of Western media attention, I was almost totally unaware of the incredible challenges facing refugees on Chios – and, over the course of my first couple of weeks here, I was repeatedly shocked at my own ignorance of the crisis.
Refugees began arriving on Chios in large numbers in 2015, making a perilous journey across the seven miles between Chios and the Turkish mainland, travelling on inflatable dinghy boats often filled with 60 or 70 people – a high proportion of whom were children and young adults. Their lives even before this journey were universally traumatic, though very different – the refugee camp here is now home to many different nationalities including Syrians, Iraqis, Kurds and Afghans. These people have been shot at, trafficked, lost loved ones, and witnessed unspeakable things.
And then, on arrival at the gateway to Europe, they are warmly welcomed into a former prison camp – their home for the many months they are here. The Chios ‘transit’ camp, Vial, is the embodiment of despair. On the drive up to the camp, an imposing, grey warehouse rises out of the gloom of the mountainside, its perimeters lined with tall barbed wire fences. It is floodlit, and in this harsh, cold light, it is possible to make out the ‘overflow’ of people living under tarpaulins outside the perimeter, huddled around small fires. Volunteers are not permitted inside, but the perceptible change in the mood of the students as they near Vial on the return from school each day speaks volumes. The words “Vial, very bad”, accompanied by shaking heads and downcast faces, echo throughout the group.
And it was this environment – the incredible emotional and physical hardship of living in such a deprived refugee camp – that initially kicked off the project, with its broad aim being to tackle the alarming mental health crisis developing amongst young people. It has since evolved into two formal institutions – an English school and a youth centre – and has provided a safe, stable, nurturing space away from the for more than 2000 children and young adults over the past two years. Children living in the camp are not eligible for any kind of formal education in the Greek system – and many have been out of education for the months or years over the course of their journey. It is impossible to overstate the impact this project is having – and over the few months I have been here, I have witnessed time and again the incredible social and emotional impact of the work Action for Education are doing – on both a personal and a collective level.
Even in my first week, I was surprised not only by the ease with which we could communicate with the students who came to school but also by the real depth of that communication, despite the language barrier. Before this, I’d never appreciated how much of a human relationship is built on shared experience, a smile, or eye contact, and just how little language is actually needed to create understanding. On my second day of teaching, I began drawing a sea scene on the chalkboard and some of the students joined me. We named the different animals in English and Arabic, but it was the drawing that formed the basis for the real connection – that no matter where we’d come from, we could share such simple common interests, and appreciate them together. Even humour doesn’t need language – there are so many smiles, and so much laughter in our school, based on often very little English language or Arabic communication. I couldn’t explain it if you asked me to – I usually have no idea what we’re laughing about – but sharing even something that simple totally throws into relief how our differences are just completely non-existent on a human level. People really are just people.
One of the very best moments of the past month was a truly uplifting end to a school day. One of the teachers had taught a guitar and ukulele class with some of the more advanced musicians, composing a song called ‘Habibi’ (which means ‘my love’ in Arabic – something you’d call a good friend or partner). Kind of spontaneously, a couple of them started singing, and within minutes we had all 25 or so students in the room, some playing small drums, some on the guitar, others just clapping or dancing all with huge smiles! Students from Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and beyond, united and wonderfully carefree – such an ordinary, happy moment untainted by the difficulties of life outside the school. It was amazing!
Language can be, however, an incredible tool of empowerment – something all too visible both in our school and in the Women’s Centre for refugees. One day last week, I was sitting at the end of the lesson with a wonderful Afgan woman in the centre, who did not yet know the English alphabet. With absolute beginners, I try to isolate some time at the end of the lesson to give them some one-to-one help, and on this occasion I was teaching her to write her name with English letters. I wrote it on a whiteboard for her to copy, then asked her to trace it out several times before she copied it into her workbook. The way her face lit up at being taught such a simple skill is indescribable – and yet again, makes me realise how much we really take for granted; I’d never even thought about how being able to write one’s name is genuinely empowering! At the end of the class, she leapt up and threw her arms around me, beaming. Her excitement was contagious, and yet again made me realise the magnitude of the impact these projects are having.
In a different but equally powerful way, language learning in a safe, supportive, unpressured environment transforms the confidence of students at the High School. Over the months they are here, their language skills improve dramatically, enabling them to engage with each other and with teachers on a deeper level, as well as giving them a real sense of achievement as they move up through the levels. Life in the camp is often hopeless and purposeless, but education – both social and linguistic – provides students with a purpose, however small, as well as a weekly structure, the impact of which is immeasurable.
It’s been a truly incredible, eye-opening experience that has, without a doubt, given me the motivation to pursue humanitarian work later in my career.