I'm sitting in a pair of thermal leggings, surrounded by Arabic dictionaries, listening to nine Syrian boys slowly chanting the same sentence over and over again. "The penis in the box." "The penis in the box." They are, I eventually realize, supposed to be learning prepositions: The pen is in the box.
In the next room, children from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, dressed in soccer jerseys and donated raincoats, are designing a business plan for an imaginary cafe. In any other school this would be useful real-life advice, but here it feels like teaching a dream.
This winter, I have been volunteering at a school for refugees on the Greek island of Chios. Under the twinkling of fairy lights and to the strains of Wham's "Last Christmas," I've been making jam sandwiches, learning the Farsi for "point," and teaching percentages to 16-year-old girls from Damascus.
The school, which was founded last year, is run by an organization called Be Aware and Share, set up in response to the changing problems facing refugees after the 2016 EU-Turkey deal. To say that refugees in Chios have been banjaxed by the EU-Turkey deal is like saying haddock are a little put out by deep-fat fryers. Since March, anyone found trying to cross from Turkey to Greece can be sent straight back, or even detained. If they manage to stay, they may well be stuck here for years without hope of ever reaching mainland Europe. It's all particularly perverse because, when I go outside for a cigarette, I can see actually see Turkey. The snow on Turkish mountains, the lights in Turkish houses, and the smoke from Turkish chimneys.
But freedom of movement is the privilege of the wealthy. So while thousands of refugees have, over the last few months, risked life, lungs, and loved ones trying to make it over to Greece from Turkey, for many of them, it has been a fruitless journey.
As the Norwegian Refugee Council dispassionately puts it: "Those who arrived after the 20th of March are not allowed to leave the islands unless they get a special permission." They are trapped. Stuck. Held in a cold and wind-blown limbo, sometimes for years at a time, and often (in the case of the Afghan refugees fleeing a country ravaged by war) end up being sent back to where they came from.
The school was set up in an old brick building that, judging by the industrial-size sinks, used to be a cafe. Its pupils are hundreds of young people who have fallen out of education while trying to walk, run, and swim to the safety of Europe. Learning English, we hope, may help with future asylum interviews, and help if they ever find refuge in mainland Europe. But at the very least, it takes them away from the mud and metal of the camps for a few hours.
Some, like the 16-year-old Iraqi man who comes to school every week carrying a rucksack decorated with Disney's Hercules, haven't been faced with an exercise book since they were about eight. The young people here are clever, canny, polite, endearing, dedicated, and charming, but many of them haven't had much opportunity to learn English, and they sometimes struggle with simple mathematics.
There have been some very successful lessons. Vowel sounds, days of the week, a brief stroll through family relationships via Romeo and Juliet, a geography lesson in which everyone recognized the outline of Syria from a simple line drawing. But my favorite was when I asked the students to come up with a resolution, a dream, or a hope for 2017.
Abdullah, a refugee from Syria who sits in a white T-shirt as the rest of us huddle around pod heaters in three jumpers and thermal socks, wrote out in clumsy, felt-tipped script: "In 2017 I want peace for all country, and I want go London."
Abdullah's classmate, a freckle-faced young woman from Afghanistan who I met one day down by the sea, wrote that "my dream for 2017 is to go to England, because I would like to be a policewoman." I wanted to hug her, and not just because she correctly used the clause construction "I would like." This girl gets the coach—which is laid on by the school—from the island's second refugee camp, Vial, about 5 miles out of Chios city, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to come to our lessons.
Vial is a grim place by all accounts. From the outside, it looks like an industrial estate, surrounded by wire fences, with young men wandering aimlessly between bits of dismantled cars and puddles, as guards stand at their kiosk frowning at the entrance. When the primary school children approach Vial by bus, they fall silent, looking at the large metal gates. When the EU-Turkey deal was first passed, Vial was used as a detention center. Refugees detained in Vial said it made prison "look like a five-star hotel."
On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, we teach students from Souda, the refugee camp made infamous by fascist attacks in which members of Golden Dawn are suspected to have participated. Souda is basically a collection of hastily assembled white plastic tents in the moat of an old castle, which bends around to the sea. Some of my students are sleeping under nothing but nylon, on a hard pebble beach, in the snow, just yards from the very ocean they arrived from.
One of these Souda students, Manir, is about the height of my elbow, fair-skinned, with a close-cropped haircut, pale blue down jacket, and a drawn-on earring (I think he borrows one of the felt tip pens in the entrance hall to trace it anew every morning). His dream for 2017, according to the small note pegged to the classroom wall, is "to come to England and meet Cristiano Ronaldo." Manir helps me hand out the jam sandwiches and half a banana we give out each morning and afternoon break time, while his friend, Mahmoud, pours water into small plastic cups, on which the smiling face print has been nearly rubbed away by so many young fingers.
There is far more to a school for refugees than what happens in the lessons, of course. Much of what Be Aware and Share is doing is simply giving young, traumatized, disoriented, and disappointed people the opportunity to be in a safe environment. For students, it's about wearing your donated Brecon Climbing Club hoodie during the gnawing cold of a math lesson. It's about inviting new European strangers to drink tea in your white plastic UNHCR tent. It's about shouting out the days of the week as you walk back to your camp arm in arm with a young boy wearing sandals in December. It's about watching a room full of Farsi-speaking teenagers fall silent in front of a David Attenborough documentary about iguanas and snakes.
In an ideal world, English volunteers like me would be able tell our classes that, one day, they will be able to go to London, on a double-decker bus, like they hope. We would be preparing them for jobs in shops, on building sites, in hospitals, where they can use the sentence structures and vocabulary we spend all day practicing. Raabia would get her New Year's wish and be able to watch a film on television. But that doesn't seem likely—not at the moment, anyway.
Every month a few families pass their asylum interviews and get a place on the ferry to Athens. But many more are left behind on the marble slabs of the dock, watching the boat pull away, without them. Most of them, for now, are stuck here, on this small wind-blown island, eating out of tin-foil trays and dreaming of a future where they can travel to Europe and see their cousins.
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