Foster Teachers delivering summer support classes to a group of unaccompanied children in the shelter run by Arsis in Tagarades. Photo courtesy of Arsis.
The start of a new school year is usually filled with joy and anticipation. When a child that reached Greece as an unaccompanied minor manages to register and attend school, this sense of joy is shared between many people: the children themselves, their relatives living far away, and the people that have supported them in their new home. Among the latter is a group of volunteer teachers, called ‘Foster Teachers’.
The story of the Foster Teachers’ team started in the summer of 2018 in Thessaloniki, Northern Greece, when Olga, a computer science teacher and then Refugee Education Coordinator, met Maria Eleftheriadou, coordinator of the shelter for unaccompanied children run by NGO Arsis in Tagarades. While exploring how unaccompanied children could be better integrated into public schools, the idea of a summer school at the shelter came up. Volunteer teachers were easy to find amongst friends and colleagues.
Since then, the team has expanded to cover more shelters and locations, offering classes covering computer science and biology to foreign languages and music. This has been a truly collective effort with the aim of not only helping children with their homework, but mainly empowering and supporting them in order to enrol and stay at school. To create a bridge between schools and shelters for minors that may have otherwise remained ‘invisible’ to the formal education system.
“When I started classes with them, I didn’t even realize how quickly I learnt Greek. This helped me so much that I could raise my hand to participate when my teachers were asking questions. Just like my Greek peers!” said Omer, who arrived from Pakistan alone three years ago.
Omer was just 15 years old when he came to Greece. After spending a few months at the reception centre in Evros region, he was transferred to a shelter in Thessaloniki, where he stayed for almost two years. His first year at a vocational school did not go smoothly. He struggled to communicate and regularly missed class for this reason, so did not pass the year.
But he did not give up. He learned about a Greek language program carried out by the NGO METAdrasi and started attending afternoon classes. The next year he enrolled back in the first grade of a general high school.
“Foster Teachers initially started delivering computer classes at our shelter. When they saw that I am having difficulties with school, they started teaching me maths, physics, biology, and other subjects” says Omer. “From morning to 2pm I went to high school. From 3pm to 6pm I attended Greek lessons with METAdrasi, and from 7pm to 9pm I had classes with Foster Teachers” he says.
As soon as Omer reached 18 years old, he started working in a construction site and was later employed as an interpreter with an NGO. Still, he continued attending school in the evenings and is now planning to complete his high school degree in Thessaloniki.
Olga, Vasilis and Marilena, founding members of the Foster Teachers group, meet regularly to discuss issues of the team.
Classes during the summer school run with the support of Foster Teachers in a shelter in Tagarades, Northern Greece. Photo courtesy of Arsis.
Classes offered by Foster Teachers are covering from computer science, mathematics and biology to foreign languages and music. Photo courtesy of Arsis.
Each foster teacher undertakes to support three or four students with the aim of facilitating their daily learning, helping them face school challenges and supporting them in their communication with the school staff. “The work of the Greek teachers is hard. There are many challenges in the schooling of unaccompanied children, such as the lack of fluency in the language of communication,” they explain.
“Apart from the age-related difficulties all teenagers have to face, these children also have to deal with the stress around their legal status, the changes in their life and the frequent transfers from one facility to another,” Marilena, a member of Foster Teachers explains.
Ahead of the new school year, Foster Teachers are waiting, like everyone else, to return to some normality after the disruption of the pandemic. Asked what kind of support their network needs, they spontaneously answer: “Everything! – We need more teachers to join our team, those who specialise in sciences and other technical fields, as well as elementary school teachers and language teachers.”
Thanks to their accumulated experience in the educational system, Foster Teachers also support public interventions and proposals for the education system. For example, in the case of one of their students who was deprived unexpectedly of the right to participate in the national university entrance exams. Foster Teachers started a petition on his behalf. Another request that they are working on is for the establishment of a special category for non-Greek speaking candidates who join the national university entrance exams.
Omer dreams of studying to become a nurse or a social worker one day, so that he can continue to help people. “I can speak good Greek, but there are some things that as a foreigner I will never be able to learn the way I would have if I were born here,” he explains. “If we had a different entry base, that would help us a lot” he says.
“I know that the Foster Teachers will be there for me, they will help me through the university entrance exams,” he adds without losing his smile. “Foster Teachers have played a very important role in my life, and other Greeks alike. There is so much hardship, but I do not want to focus on the difficult moments. Many times, I feel as if I was born here and that these people are my people.”