What It's Like to Run a Swimming School for Refugees in Your 20s

Helen Nianias

Helen Nianias

Meet the young volunteers working to undo the damage that a perilous journey across the ocean has done to refugee children fleeing conflict in their home countries.

Seventeen-year-old Mohammed, who fled Syria alone, takes part in a swimming lesson organised by volunteers from Proem-Aid (All photos courtesy of Gordon Welters/UNHCR)

Three boys stand on the beach, the wind whipping around their heads, facing each other in stony silence. A Mexican standoff. One of them starts crying. The other two have rubber rings, and he doesn't. He's not happy.

About 20 other children are screaming, running in and out of the sea, laughing and singing. It's hard to believe that, just a few months ago, these kids would have been being hoisted out of the same water by aid workers, having made the dangerous journey from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesvos by boat. The children, and a handful of adults, are being taught to swim by volunteers. And, apart from the child without the rubber ring, they all look joyful.

But the reminders of the journey they've been through are constant. One young Pakistani guy flings a clear, A5-sized plastic wallet at me, asking if I will look after it for him. He had been wearing it on a string around his neck, but he can't take it into the water. I nod and he runs into the sea. Inside the wallet are his identity papers, a bank card and a few phone numbers written in biro on lined paper. I basically hold his entire official existence in my hands.

Panagiotis Koulakos, a 20-year-old fireman and lifeguard with volunteer group Lifeguard Hellas, travels from Athens to Lesvos every week to teach the kids to swim. It's a big commitment, "but we have to do it", he says. The swimming lessons have roughly one teacher for every two children, and they encourage the kids to get into the water by splashing and bobbing up and down in the waves. Most children are desperate to get in, and have been impatiently waiting in the refugee camp for up to an hour – swimming costumes and all – so they can go and play in the sea.

It wasn't like this when Panagiotis started teaching the lessons three months ago. "At first, they were afraid of the water and they didn't know who we were," he says. "The first day they were very suspicious of us and wouldn't get in the water. Many of them were sitting on the beach and crying. They didn't even want to step in the water. But now they see us and they start yelling. And there were many kids, who I can't really call kids, they were like 18 years old, who didn't even know how to swim. In the first few days they learned how to float, and then they learned to swim by themselves. It was amazing." Now when the volunteers pitch up at the refugee camps, they can barely get the flotation devices out of the van before the kids mob them.

Manuel Blanco, another lifeguard volunteer with Spanish organisation Proem Aid says the swimming lessons were also designed to take children out of the tedious refugee camp routine. "Keep in mind that most of them had never seen the sea until the day they made the crossing from Turkey to Lesvos. Many of them were scared, because they first saw the sea at night, in the cold darkness. With classes we've managed to stop them being so afraid. We are changing that darkness with fun, games and light."

Refugees have been coming to Lesvos from Asia Minor for generations, but by the time migrants that started arriving in bigger numbers in late 2014, the island was woefully unprepared. Lesvos had only two working ambulances to serve its 86,000 residents. Years of government cuts and shaky employment across Lesvos and Greece itself have meant that the local response got off on the wrong foot and then hopped along on the wrong foot until August 2015.

Local hospital workers and coastguards became hugely overstretched, meaning that volunteers – who started to stream in from across the world last summer – and a bolstered NGO presence were crucial. As awareness of the crisis rose, so did the international response. "More than 850,000 refugees arrived in Greece during the course of 2015," says Roland Schönbauer, UNHCR spokesperson in Greece. "With ordinary services overwhelmed, support from local communities and volunteers was vital."

Despite the volunteer effort, many refugees find themselves at a dead end. Lots of those who arrived last summer have reached their European destinations, but people who arrived more recently find themselves in asylum limbo. Borders are closed and many people who are waiting for their asylum applications to be processed are stuck in Moria camp, a repurposed prison that refugees describe not as limbo but as hell. In mid-September, Moria was set alight after protests by asylum seekers who were stuck in the camp and feared they were about to be deported to Turkey. Some 4,000 people were evacuated.

The kids I watch being taught to swim are residents of PIKPA, a camp for vulnerable refugees set up by a psychologist. PIKPA's set in a former holiday camp, and kids have access to a small playground, regular meals and a steady stream of volunteers. But the fact is that they are still stuck. Refugees I speak to at PIKPA speak openly about the psychological trauma they endure. One Syrian woman tells of how she found the body of a person killed in an airstrike – "it was like mincemeat". She sees it in her sleep.

Mainly, the negative connotations of water crossings are what make the lessons here so important. Epilepsy, intellectual and developmental disorders and severe emotional disorders are the most common among children, according to a 2015 report I was shown by the International Medical Corps. PIKPA is a great example of mental health being prioritised, but it is a small camp and far from the normal refugee experience.

Volunteer Sarah gets stuck in, helping a young girl ease into the water

"Previous trauma – or survival of incidents at sea – mean that high numbers of refugees, both adults and children, face mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder," UNHCR's Schönbauer says. "Although mental health and psychosocial support activities have been implemented in most camps, there are still sites where these services are not offered."

The international response to the refugee crisis has been somewhat lacking, but the volunteer enthusiasm has provided a contrast. "We have many teams - we have many people from all over the world who come, we had some from Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the USA," Panagiotis says. The groups of young volunteers also, crucially, know how to make it a bit of fun for the kids. "The easiest way to teach them how to swim is not with pure teaching. They're kids, they want to play."


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