Edlumino Education Aid recruits volunteer teachers to teach in refugee camps. We take retired teachers, volunteer teachers and teachers who negotiate blocks of time from their schools. We take former teachers who have left the profession. We even have a small group of teachers who alternate work with us in the field with blocks of time doing supply in England, in order to re-stock their finances.
One of the most visible differences between working in a mainstream school and working in a refugee camp is the physical conditions. Depending on where we have worked, we have had to teach outdoors in fields and on hill sides. We have sheltered from rainstorms huddling under overhangs. We’ve used tents and wooden sheds. We’ve used lean-to’s constructed from scaffolding and draped canopies. We just make the best of what we find in each location.
Sometimes it has been too cold. Sometimes the sun has been unbearable. Sometimes the rain has soaked our teaching materials. Sometimes rats have nibbled the books. Sometimes we have electricity. Sometimes we have running water, sometimes we just have what we can carry.
The most fundamental attribute which teachers need is therefore a positive mindset and a can-do attitude. One of the few things which we can guarantee is that there will be obstructions and frustrations to be encountered at every point. And what makes it even more challenging is that they often come from kind hearted people who mistakenly believe that they are helping. I’ve lost track of the number of times we have had a class focused and working hard, only to find a visiting clown turn up and put on an impromptu show for the children which immediately empties the classroom. When that happens it is a case of taking a deep breathe, reminding ourselves that the clown is trying to be helpful. Then, as soon as we can, getting the children back on task and learning.
The safeguarding situation is nightmarish at best. Smugglers and traffickers lurk on the periphery of camps. Children go missing regularly and children will tell us of attempts to entice them into vehicles. Often it is almost impossible to get officials to take the details or follow up. We watched a suspicious man turn up to a refugee camp every day and take a boy away each time, allegedly to ‘go swimming’. Hours later the child would be brought back with an armful of presents but he would refuse to talk about what had happened. This went on day, after day, with different children taken away for their ‘swimming.’ It looked highly suspicious to anyone who has done Safeguarding training. We alerted everyone we could think of, but no one seemed able to do anything. Sometimes we were successful in warning children ourselves. Sometimes the lure of ‘presents’ meant that our warnings went unheeded. Watching these kinds of appalling avoidable safeguarding failures is one of the saddest and most depressing aspect of our experiences in the field.
Educationally the children have often missed a lot of school and are significantly behind where they should be for their age. In France we found children who had typically been out of school for a couple of years. Some 10 year olds had never even actually started in a school before. Their very first taste of schooling took place in our rickety tent. In Greece the children have been out of school for an average of 19 months by now. But we are also finding many more extreme examples of educational deficit in Greece. Just a few weeks ago I encountered a group of 15 year old girls who had never attended a school before. Some of the differences between the needs and backgrounds of the children are enormous. What is common to all of them is the educational peril which they are facing.
In the UK we know all too well that if children drop out of education and fail to get qualifications, then it can have a disastrous impact on their life chances. A study a few years ago showed that children who are not in employment education or training between the ages of 16 and 26 have a 1 in 7 chance of actually being dead by the age of 26. This is a mortality rate hundreds of times higher than the normal population suffers from. We should therefore be in no doubt that denying children an education is potentially disastrous for the children.
Yet this is exactly what is happening with many refugee children. Even in Greece, which is now receiving EU support to help the refugees, the situation remains extremely poor. The EU provided some 75 million Euros to the Greek Govt to get 5-15 year olds into school for the Autumn. As we approach Christmas, the vast majority of the refugee children which we are in contact with are still waiting to go to school. No one can tell us when specific groups will finally get the chance to go to school.
Most worryingly of all there is absolutely no plan for children aged 15-18. In Greece the school leaving certificate is a baccalaureate style qualification which must be taken in Greek. There is no way that the refugee children can learn enough Greek and catch up enough schooling to be able to do a school leaving certificate. And so there is no plan. As far as we can see, the international community, has effectively abandoned these older children and written them off as an unsolvable problem.
All that the older children can look forward to educationally, is the ad hoc efforts of small charities drawing upon the generosity of donations and teachers who can volunteer their time. We do what we can, but it is a small drop in the enormous ocean of need. All in all it is a desperately sad situation. The saddest thing of all, is that the problems are avoidable and solvable, but only with significantly increased funding and radically different thinking in the field by the major Aid organisations.