An Afghan girl learns how to write her name in Greek at the non-formal education center operating in the RIC of Chios island. October 2020. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis.
Each weekday morning, before the Covid-19 pandemic changed routines for millions of children around the world, 12-year-old Nigin awoke early and prepared for her classes. “I love school. I’ve made new friends here and started studying languages. My mom says that it is important to speak a foreign language, which will really help me in my studies. When I grow up, I want to be a doctor,” the young girl declares.
The 12-year-old asylum-seeker from Afghanistan, who lives with her family in Greece’s Reception and Identification Center (RIC) on Chios, attends classes at the non-formal education center located next to the camp. There, Nigin and her classmates are taught Greek, Math and English just like other youngsters in Greece. During breaks the courtyard is flooded with children, running around and playing hide and seek. Their happy voices are heard all over the facility.
The center, adjacent to Vial camp, started operating in February 2018. The education programme is coordinated by METAdrasi, with the support of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and co-funded by Education Cannot Wait. Six teachers work in the center at Vial, which enrolled up to 270 children each week prior to Greece’s lockdown restrictions. METAdrasi provides the young students with learning materials such as school bags, notebooks and pencils.
“The goal is to prepare children for public school. Here, we make a start. We offer basic skills, but the kids eventually have to go to school and sit next to their classmates”, says Pola Liberta, of METAdrasi, head of the educational center.
“In addition to lessons, children learn that there are rules they must follow. They learn that they must take care of their books and notepads, that they have not only rights but also obligations.”
Children from 6 to 14 years old and teenagers from 15 to 18 years old attend non formal education in Chios.
METadrasi collaborates with Action for Education, a volunteer-based organization providing non formal education activities to adolescent and youth on Chios since 2016 to provide the classes for teens.
In addition to the basic subjects, teenagers attend sessions on chemistry, vocational training and take environment classes where they learn about the fragile ecosystem and about the recycling of paper, plastic and glass.
Young students also have the opportunity to become familiar with the history and culture of Chios through educational visits to cultural sites, such as the Citrus Museum and the Mastic Museum. Among those excursions beyond the confines of the crowded Vial site, Mrs Liberta says the most memorable was when the refugee children visited one of the public schools on the island, where they had the opportunity to meet the local students.
“It was a special moment, as the children met local kids and all played together in the schoolyard. For the first time, some ordered a cheese pie from the school’s cafeteria. Experiences like this help empower children” Pola Liberta says. “Of course, we also experience difficult times. Our students talk about their dreams, but also about the difficulties they have faced…”, she continues.
Classes at the Vial camp have been suspended since early November 2020 because of the restrictive measures imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the center implements a distance learning program. Children are provided with workbooks with exercises for Greek, English and Math and must complete the distance-learning lessons three times a week. METAdrasi teachers also use online applications to share educational videos with their students.
“My husband and I did not go to school, but we want a better life for our children. I often tell my daughter that education paves the way and gives opportunities. Life in the camp is not easy, but school is a window into the future. Nigin studies her lessons and loves Greek and English,” Zahra, Nigin’s mother, says.
UNHCR estimates that there are more than 4,000 school-aged children on the Aegean islands and very few of them go to public schools.
Learning helps bring normality back to the lives of refugee children, many of whom may have had traumatic experiences. Beyond that, refugee children, like any child, need education to make the most of their potential. With non-formal education centers, UNHCR and its partners are helping to bridge this gap and prepare refugee children to one day attend regular school.