As EU prepares for Brussels Afghanistan conference, Afghan refugees weigh returning to homeland consumed by violence.
Skaramagas camp, Greece – The sun set behind a Syrian child pushing her friend on a small swing in the middle of a large, concrete yard, as others chased a small girl riding a bicycle through the narrow corridors between housing containers.
The Skaramagas refugee camp – near the port of Piraeus, not far from Athens – is home to nearly 3,000 Syrian Arabs and Kurds, Iraqis and Afghans, around half of whom are children.
Deyaa Orfali, 28, a Syrian from Homs, fled his homeland earlier this year after he was summoned for military service in the Syrian government’s army.
Since April, he has worked as a teacher at the Hope School, a refugee-led initiative to provide classes for children between five and 13 years of age in Skaramagas.
Walking through the fenced-off camp, Orfali greeted children and parents as he made his way to the waterfront, where a row of makeshift stores has popped up in recent months and created an unwelcome feeling of permanence in the camp.
“Sometimes I see kids playing with mutts and rocks,” Orfali told Al Jazeera, explaining that the challenging humanitarian conditions of the camp have rendered life more difficult for vulnerable groups like children.
“Most of the people here are waiting for relocation or reunification [elsewhere in Europe].”
Orfali and 21 other teachers give lessons in art, maths, English, Arabic and Farsi several times a week in a pair of small, cramped containers they have turned into classrooms.
He said the school has provided children with a welcome respite from playing in the streets or sitting in their families’ crowded containers all day. “They have become more organised,” he said. “They know how to write [and] to read now.”
Orfali said the Hope School’s role is doubly important. Many parents are hesitant to let their children attend Greek schools because they hope to move on elsewhere in Europe. “If they send their kids to public school, it will take at least a year to teach them Greek. So, what’s the point?”
In September, there was strong backlash from many Greeks when the government announced a plan to allow up to 22,000 refugee children to attend local schools.
At the time, a group of parents in the western Greek town of Filippiada decried the Education Ministry in an open letter that stated they “will not accept, under any circumstance and without any compromise, that the children of so-called irregular immigrants” in their children’s schools.
‘Didn’t even know how to pick up a pencil’
Upwards of 62,000 refugees and migrants have been stranded in Greece since Macedonia sealed its borders in March, effectively closing the Western Balkan route to Western Europe.
More than a million refugees and migrants reached European shores by boat last year, according to the United Nation refugee agency UNHCR. More than 352,000 have arrived so far this year, while at least 4,773 people drowned at sea making the treacherous voyage.
Basel Shrayyef, 28, a former coordinator at the Hope School who has since relocated to France, said the largest challenge for teachers was working with children who have missed years of school because of the ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
With the Syrian government and Russian warplanes pummelling opposition-held parts of the country, many schools across the country have closed since the bloody civil war started more than five years ago. Syrian armed opposition groups have been accused of shelling schools, as well.
More than three decades of conflict has limited access to education in Afghanistan, while the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq – as well as the subsequent armed conflicts – has decimated much of the country’s educational system.
“Many of them didn’t even know how to pick up a pencil,” Shrayyef told Al Jazeera, recalling that nearly 700 children registered for school when the initiative was launched six months ago.
“This is about the children learning and doing something, rather than sitting around and doing nothing,” he said. He added that the teachers divide students by education level rather than age because many children had never been to school or had missed several years.
“Not all of us were teachers in our home countries. Some of them were teachers in their countries, some us came from university. I was an engineer,” Shrayyef said, explaining that among the teachers are former journalists, researchers and medical professionals.
The Piraeus Open School for Immigrants, a local volunteer-administered school founded 11 years ago, has partnered with the Hope School to provide language courses for those who are at least 14 years old in the Skaramagas camp.
“We came and saw the children … and we decided together we had to do something for the children here,” Nikos Agapakis, of the Open School, told Al Jazeera.
“We will stay here as long as we believe we have a reason to be here,” he added. “But we must also fight against the reasons that create refugees.”
The humanitarian catastrophes many refugees and migrants were already enduring in Greece are now compounded by the onset of winter.
Although the UN and aid organisations have scrambled to move many residents of impromptu camps and tent cities into better camp sites, temporary apartments and other alternative residences, the UNHCR says many continue to dwell in substandard camps that lack “proper protection” from the cold, rain and snow.
Among those in desperate need of improved housing are at least 1,200 unaccompanied children who the UN says lack “appropriate accommodation”.
Roland Schoenbauer, an Athens-based spokesman for the UNHCR, said there is an urgent need for action by European authorities.
“The winter is here now. We urge all actors to find alternatives to camps, particularly where people and children are living in tents out in the open,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that there are refugee centres on the Greek islands with as many as three times the number of residents they are designed to house.
“These are horrible living conditions, and children are among the most vulnerable people enduring them.”
Last week, the European Commission recommended sending some asylum seekers back to Greece from other EU countries starting in March. The announcement was condemned by rights groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“It’s astonishing that the European Commission thinks asylum seekers should be sent back to Greece, where thousands are already suffering as a direct consequence of the EU’s policies,” Eva Cosse, HRW’s Greece researcher, said in a press release .
“Instead of adding to Greece’s burden, EU governments and institutions should be working to alleviate it, by relocating asylum seekers from Greece to other EU countries,” Cosse added.
Sitting in the Hope School’s administrative office back in the Skaramagas camp, Orfali admitted that the Hope School cannot be a substitute for an institutional education programme.
“We are just filling the gap between the time they stay here and the time they move to their new life and get into real school,” he said.
“But sometimes when we open the school at 9:00am, the kids are waiting and solving their homework. It’s nice.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_
Disclosure: Patrick Strickland moderated a panel discussion with Deyaa Orfali, Basel Shrayyef, the Piraeus Open School for Immigrants and UNICEF in Athens on September 21.