Syrian children fleeing war alone find a welcome in Spain
Taking a broom and pretending to sweep the floor of the classroom, volunteer teacher Bienvenido Ortega takes a playful approach to language instruction.
“Where will you be tomorrow?” he asks the students, sitting at desks in a room decorated with world maps. “In class!” they respond. “Will you be studying or will you be playing around?” he asks. “Studying!” comes the reply in a chorus of laughter.
Bienvenido’s name means “welcome” in Spanish, and his gentle rapport strikes a chord with the Syrian children in his class, who fled their country’s civil war alone.
“He’s not like a teacher, he’s like a father with his son,” says 16-year-old Mahmud*, who fled the slaughter and chaos in Aleppo alone. “He’s always laughing, talking and making jokes. He’s great.”
The regional government of Andalusia last year became the first in Spain to host unaccompanied Syrian refugee children such as Mahmud. Since September, it has welcomed eight youngsters aged 15 to 17 – six boys and two girls – all relocated from Greece.
The aim was to provide a safe, nurturing environment in a residential setting with social, health, education and culture and leisure resources designed to “favour their social development” and help them feel integrated.
“Our task is to support them in an environment where they feel safe.”
Chatting under the protective eye of a care worker at their residential home in Motril, a group of the youngsters spoke of fleeing fighting, murder, forced recruitment and desperate poverty at home, dodging armed fighters to slip into Turkey.
Crammed into overcrowded dinghies, they reached Greece, where some roughed it in tents at a chaotic camp near the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
“It was very, very, very bad,” Mahmud recalls. “People robbed, killed, did bad things to the girls. Lots of bad things … It’s not a place for children … Sometimes we would sleep hungry.”
Now they live at a group home in a quiet backstreet where the loudest sound is a trilling canary. The youngsters share spotless rooms, sit together for meals and attend secondary schools, in a project run by the regional government of Andalusia and supported by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
“Our task is to support them in an environment where they feel safe, to enable their social development and help them feel integrated,” says Margarita de la Rasilla, a UNHCR legal officer in Spain.
The children are offered after-school activities as part of the effort to integrate them into the town of 60,000 inhabitants south of the provincial capital, Granada. These range from Spanish evening classes at the Club UNESCO Motril, where Bienvenido teaches, to work experience and volunteering.
“We’re completely delighted with them, and hope they never leave!”
Tareq, 17, from the Syrian capital, Damascus, is doing work experience at a local restaurant. Donning a black apron, chef’s hat and a tie, he heads into the gleaming kitchen to prepare locally sourced produce. Initially not too keen on the Spanish diet rich in fish, he says he is starting to like the food and is widening his circle of friends.
“It’s been good… I’ve met a lot of people here,” he says. “Both at school and in the restaurant. Little by little I learned a lot.”
For restaurant manager Alvaro Garcia, having the conscientious, well-spoken youngster on the team has been a good experience and one that he believes other local employers should try.
“People might think that it will bring problems, but it’s been quite the opposite,” he says, sitting at a table set with a white tablecloth in the cool interior of the restaurant. “They come to learn, not to be a bother. It’s been very positive.”
Ylias, a 16-year-old who fled war-ravaged Qamishli with his younger sister, now volunteers once a week at CONECTA, a local non-profit organization bringing children with autism together with youngsters of their own age. He recalls how he struggled to express himself when he first arrived in Motril, and looked for ways to bond with Juan, a teenager who lives with non-verbal autism.
“I felt some empathy for him,” Ylias explains. “I communicated using my hands and my eyes.”
Now, he says, the weekly social event held in a building behind the town’s small port, is “the best thing I do.” Amid the hubbub and chatter, he and Juan shoot basketball with other children or sit side-by-side buttering bread at a “merienda” or snack break.
For the founder and president of CONECTA, Elisa Salamanca, seeing the children interact with Ylias and another young Syrian volunteer is a joy.
“They’re friendly, very proactive and super affectionate with (the kids), and they bring a lot of happiness,” she says with a broad smile. “We’re completely delighted with them, and hope they never leave!”
"I can study and do my things like everyone else. For me, that’s enough."
In 2016, Andalusian authorities made 24 places available for unaccompanied Syrian child asylum-seekers, and looks forward to welcoming a further 16.
UNHCR has urged states to increase the pace of relocation for eligible asylum-seekers in Italy and Greece, including unaccompanied children.
UNHCR has been contacted by other regional governments interested in following suit, including Catalunya, Cantabria and the Basque country and has been providing specialist training to partners preparing to host them.
At first, some of the children in the pilot project struggled to adjust to life in provincial Spain, unhappy with the unfamiliar food and the loss of independence. However, de la Rasilla says, “you can see, little by little, how they are changing their minds and seeing the opportunities that they have”.
All the children interviewed said they had, in different ways, come to like their new lives. “At first I didn’t like anything, I didn’t want to live here,” says Mahmud.
“I didn’t like the house, I didn’t like anyone, but now everything is perfect. There’s food, there’s water, I can take showers, sleep and look for a job. I can study and do my things like everyone else. For me, that’s enough.”
For Tareq, a thoughtful, precisely spoken young man, relocation to Motril has “changed everything”.
“Here in Spain, we have a daily routine to follow. We have to go to school, we have to sit down together to eat, to go to work.”
He pauses, then for a moment, the child inside the self-possessed young man shows through. “It’s important because we are still children.”
* Names have been changed for protection purposes