Part One: Chios, Greece, May 2017 – Each morning we wake to the contrasts of this place. A sea of luminous blue, rugged mountains, and clear skies – these surround a lively tourist strip along the water, with its overpriced but friendly cafes and restaurants. From the vantage point of a cafe chair, it is hard to imagine the underside of this place. If one ventures just a bit further down the coast, though, one finds a long strip of UN tents and “containers” – large plastic boxes that serve as tiny temporary houses – awkwardly set beside the remains of an old castle wall.
Down the inland road, too, one finds another collection of tents and containers, this one surrounded by a tall wire fence that bars any visitation.
From the outside, these camps seem desperate enough. Ragtag and dirty, concrete and plastic, they are desolate holding places for people the world seems to want to forget. But from the inside, the picture is far worse. These camps are places of deepening hopelessness, unprocessed trauma, and violence. The human spirit is strong, though, and even in these circumstances, we find love and tenderness, humor and resilience. But as these people wait and wait and wait, what they endure – in past and present – slowly and painfully erodes their capacities.
For the Greeks living here, all is not peaceful either. Chios is a smallish town that is struggling, as all of Greece is, with a difficult economic situation – compounded by the drop in tourism caused in no small part by the presence of more than 60,000 refugees countrywide.
The locals have a wide range of feelings about their new neighbors, and I don’t blame them. The people of Greece have been saddled with the lion’s share of this crisis, and this country is one of the least able to manage it. As the U.S. and the rest of Europe look the other way, both the Greeks and the refugees are suffering through what seems to be an impossible situation.
It is within this context that we go to the refugee school each day. There we find the children – smiling, rowdy, scared, timid, eager, enthusiastic, and (often) hard to manage. Most are excited to come to school, and complain about “no school” days. They are surviving ongoing trauma, and their responses to that are varied. Many act out with nearly unmanageable behavior, others shrink inward, and others (though few) put on their best school faces and do everything they can to please the teacher.
Every day we have new children who have just arrived, and many days other students are transferred to Athens. It is unpredictable, and non-stop.
Quite a few of the children have never really been to school, since the war in Syria has been raging essentially since they were born. Many are quick to fight when they think they have been pushed or slighted. They come to school carrying not only the loss of their homes and communities, but also the immediate experiences of the camps. There is much violence in the camps, and they see it, experience it all. Most are quick to fight; this has become survival for them. Because we have so little language in common, often the most we can do is read their faces and do our best to comfort and love them.
Classes run six days a week – two camps each getting three days a week of this tiny, volunteer-run school. The teachers are bionic – luckily they are mostly in their twenties – surviving on very little sleep and working long, challenging hours. They are an inspiring group, mostly from Europe, and deeply compassionate, visionary, and committed. They have come to Greece to help offer a small piece of schooling, which neither the Greek government nor the UN are providing.
Isa and I teach one six-to-eight-year-old class, three days a week, and do our best to integrate our Montessori materials. On the other three days, we take small Montessori groups from all of the classes. It is amazing that even in this context, I am seeing the kind of deep concentration the Montessori teacher is always looking for. Their minds and hearts need this kind of constructive, hands-on engagement, and I wish I could give them more.
Isa has, as expected, become a little-girl magnet. One girl in particular has really taken to her. Each morning this little child’s eyes scan the room as soon as she enters, looking for her big-girl friend. Then she runs to Isa and throws her arms around her. I wonder, in these moments, if we do more harm than good by coming, and then having to say goodbye. Sometimes I think so; sometimes I trust that the love we bring will stay with them when we leave, and that the small windows of calm and nurturance they experience with us are worth the partings.
Last night, three children from our class were transferred to Athens. One of them was the best friend of another child who remains. The latter arrived at school today, looked up at me, and said quietly, “Yousef Atina?” “Yes,” I said, “Yousef Atina.” He looked down and was quiet for some time. It took him a long time to be ready to engage in the class activity. My heart broke, again.
But then today, a little six-year-old Syrian boy silently reached up to my neck, pulled my head down, and kissed me on the cheek. Then he smiled, and went back to his work. At lunchtime on Monday, he had noticed I didn’t have any food as they were eating lunch, and he broke off some of his pita and gave it to me, saying in Arabic, “Eat.” Then the other two children nearby did the same, making sure I had some of everything on their plates. So it has been full, moving, difficult, wonderful.
Part Two: On the Mainland, Greece, May, 2017 – Last weekend, we spent a day in a camp north of Athens. Our Syrian friend snuck us in the back way, as it was unclear whether the guards would let us in through the front gate. Once inside, many families warmly took us in – offering coffee, friendliness, and curiosity. We heard many stories – of Syria, of escape, of the search for safety, of the hope for a place they could remake their lives – but one thread kept repeating itself: “We escaped the swift death, but we came here to the slow death. We thank God anyway.”
The camp provides some basic necessities – containers to live in, very small amounts of money and some clothes. Medical care is entirely inadequate. But the real problem is that Greece does not have the capacity to offer these families sustainable lives. There are few to no jobs, not enough room in the schools for their children, and the camp is situated far outside the city limits with little access to public transportation. Over and over they told me they feel they are in a prison, month after month, not allowed to leave Greece, but not enabled to really live here either. They don’t need – or want – to be handed money; they want to be able to work to support their families. They feel trapped, desolate, despairing. A number of the families have tried to illegally travel to other parts of Europe, and many have been turned back.
I listened and listened, and Isa played outside with the children. When I went to find her, she was inside a tiny tent made of blankets, making bracelets with her Syrian friends. The kids had created a kind of simple loom out of old cardboard and yarn scraps. The other two children in their little fort were playing with a skimpily dressed Barbie doll – a strange sight in the context of hijabs and conservative Muslim dress.
We presented the Montessori materials we had brought for the children. Etched in my memory are the moments I shared with a deaf Syrian boy who has had no resources for his condition. Restless and squirming, he immediately calmed when I showed him our math activity, and set about trying his hardest to do what I modeled. After composing each number he would look up at me, and we would share an enthusiastic thumbs-up and a big smile. After the lesson I gave him the activity box; he took it in his arms like a teddy bear.
Toward the end of the day, we were informed that a family was cooking for us, one of the countless expressions of Syrian hospitality. Sitting on the floor, we ate the best stuffed grape leaves I have ever had. After dinner, as a thunderstorm rolled through, we sat with the family, and I dutifully drank my fifth cup of coffee of the day.
Once again, I was grateful, moved, and heartbroken. These people should not be stuck here; these children should have school and safety and nurturance; these families should have the basic building blocks necessary for a sustainable and healthy life. And these stories should be known. When we know the stories, it is more difficult to turn away.
I pray that I can keep my eyes open. ~~~
Carin Anderson is a Montessori teacher and mother. She has worked with children in the United States, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Palestine, and Greece. In May, 2017, she and her 11 year-old daughter Isa took Montessori materials to Chios, Greece. Carin is a member of Chico Friends Meeting in Chico, California.