Ioannina, Greece – Sarah hands out slips of paper to her class, each with a verb in the present tense. Her 13 students must come up to the whiteboard and write the appropriate past tense for their verb, and then pronounce it.
Reza, from Afghanistan, correctly writes “tried”, but says, “I cried to learn.”
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Riat, a Somali, the star of the class, laughs.
She whispers everybody’s answer correctly to herself, but even she doesn’t understand how leave can become “left”.
Nor does anyone else. “Left, right?” asks one student.
Sarah is an English teacher for Second Tree, a volunteer aid group.
Her students are adult refugees from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
They assemble every weekday morning in a 25-square-metre schoolhouse of unfinished lumber hammered together by volunteers. It sits in the parking lot of a defunct furniture factory across the street from Katsikas refugee camp, near Ioannina in north-west Greece.
These students all grew up in classrooms thousands of kilometres apart. Displacement has brought them together, where they must prepare for the challenges of a second life in Europe, and it is into this endeavour that the volunteer organisation Second Tree has thrown itself.
“Greece cannot solve this on its own,” says Dina Pasic, one of four volunteers who founded Second Tree in early 2016.
That is when Austria and the former Yugoslav republics disrupted the Balkan route refugees had walked from the Greek border into Germany, sealing 60,000 of them in Greece. The EU-Turkey Statement came into force a month later, making it easier for these refugees to be deported back to Asia Minor.
These two developments fundamentally changed the nature of the refugee crisis in Greece. Rather than catering to the food and clothing of a population on the move, Greece had to settle and integrate them.
“I thought I was going to cry when I walked into Katsikas,” says Pasic. “Twelve hundred people, twelve toilets. No flooring. People were digging trenches, everything flooded. The response was these tents and people dropped off there. People thought they were going to the border. They had no idea, no information of what was going on.”
The crisis nearly overwhelmed authorities. It took the Greek Asylum Service months to register who was in camps around the country and start collecting applications.
In September 2016, the government offered refugees public schooling, but managed to enrol only about a quarter of the estimated underage population.
By the end of the year, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees had taken some 5,000 out of sodden tent cities and put them in rented apartments, far short of the target of 20,000.
Nonetheless, this helped Second Tree move towards its true goal – the integration of refugees into Greek society and empowerment to rebuild their lives.
The first step is refugee integration with other refugees.
“In Agia Eleni, we had some tense reactions to the gender-integrated classes initially,” says Giovanni Fontana, a Second Tree co-founder. “They then said, ‘we will come but we will have men on the left and women on the right.’ And we said, ‘fair enough’. This was the status quo for a while. But then the [Greek migration] ministry moved 200 African refugees to the site, and they came to join our classes.
“They had no idea about this self-imposed gender divide, and sat wherever they wanted, as they should. “In our classes your identity is as a student, not a nationality. Young guys from the Congo sat next to Syrian ladies, asking them for help or to borrow a pen, the women had no idea what to do … they looked at the teacher with confusion, and the teacher laughed … and all of this tension just melted in one second.”
Pasic remembers an occasion when Second Tree couldn’t meet the demand for English lessons. She told two refugees that they could take lessons with Mustafa, a Syrian with excellent English.
“They said, ‘yeah, but you know, he’s a refugee,” she recalls, laughing.
“I said, why does that matter? If you’re a refugee and are an Arabic teacher, and you’re here as a refugee with a legal status, and Mustafa is a clever person who is going to be a physicist one day, why is the refugee thing being used against their skills? You’re doing exactly what we’re saying Europe is doing to you.”
Language is key and Second Tree runs Greek and English language lessons for adults and helps them to write resumes.
At Agia Eleni camp north of Ioannina, it organises Greek, English, science and art classes for children. Its community centre in Ioannina houses a kindergarten, a library and even a kitchen for homeless migrants.
Katsikas is no longer the muddy field Pasic encountered in 2016. Its tents have been replaced by container homes with electricity, heating, cooling and satellite TV. But it is an isolated ghetto and suffers from lawlessness.
“Some people fight, tribe against tribe, Afghans versus Arabs or Afghans versus Kurds,” says Mustafa Ibrahim Ibrahim, a Syrian Kurdish father-of-five. “Sometimes people use cannabis or other drugs … Sometimes in the middle of the night, all my children wake up and they are scared and terrified.”
Ibrahim Ibrahim spoke to the camp manager and the police who keep watch outside the camp gates during the day.
“All of them see what happens in the camp but they stay outside and don’t care about anything. How can I live in this country if nobody can take care of us?… I came here for freedom but I see violence and I am confused.”
Refugees who live in EU-subsidised apartments in Ioannina speak with Greeks every day, but the hardest challenge to them now is the economy. Even for those who learn Greek and develop friendships, work is elusive.
Said, an Afghan baker, has been taking Greek lessons for six months.
“Now we are solving our problems … We can go shopping and meet our friends,” he says. But work is another matter.
“I have friends in Logades,” a village near Ioannina. “They are always asking, ‘what can we do for you?’ I said, ‘find me work.’ They said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry we can’t find work for you because we have lots of people searching for work.’ Greek people are very kind and Greece is a beautiful country, but they don’t have work.”
Nationwide unemployment stands at 18.5 percent, and in Ioannina it is 21.3 percent – the highest in the country. Although the ruling Syriza pronounces the crisis over, Greeks are still emigrating at a rate of 100,000 a year.
The dire state of its economy stands in contrast to Greece’s asylum credentials. It is currently processing more than 11 percent of EU asylum applications, far above the 1.6 percent the European Commission calculated as its share on the basis of population and GDP.
Said received asylum three months ago for himself, his wife and two small daughters. This is not entirely good news. It means his EU-funded cash and housing allowances will run out in three to five months, and it is already barely enough for his needs.
“They give us 400 euros ($448) for a family of four,” says Said. “My small daughter still drinks [formula] which is very expensive – 11 euros and 80 cents ($13.2). Every four days she needs a [box] of formula. My second daughter wants every day two euros ($2.24), because the Greek children buy every day their lunch from the [school] canteen. But we can’t pay for her. We say, ‘no, you have to take food from home because I am not working. When I find work, I will give you every day 2 euro.'”
Refugees say they are offered two kinds of work – an overnight shift at a local chicken processing plant, or seasonal work harvesting crops.
But these pay in the neighbourhood of 15 euros ($16.79) a day, which does not begin to cover the cost of rent and food for a family.
Samad Hosseini, an Afghan kickboxer living in Katsikas camp, has taken part in professional tournaments without being paid, “just to stay in shape,” he says.
“I could teach kickboxing, but I couldn’t find a gym that would hire me. My coach’s salary is just 200 euros ($224) a month … Greek friends told me, ‘I am a Greek and don’t have a job here, and you, a refugee, are hoping to find a job? That’s radical.'”
When refugees try to pull themselves up, they often come up against the law.
Abdulhazem and Yasmin, from Syria, opened a grocery store and restaurant inside Katsikas camp last year. They cooked falafel and kebabs in their housing container and served guests through the window in a makeshift courtyard.
Volunteer aid workers thronged there, and other refugees came to spend their monthly cash allowance. But it all came to a halt when police ripped down canvas sheeting they had set up for shade and shut them down.
It was never clear to them whether the problem was the unlicensed sale of beer, non-payment of social security, the lack of a health certificate, or all three.
All that remains of their operation is a garden, and cable spools that were used as tables.
The only real chance refugees have to work for pay that will sustain a family is to join the organisations that help them.
Fatima Ibrahim works as an Arabic interpreter for Solidarity Now, a Greek aid group providing housing, jobs and legal aid for refugees.
Her husband, Majid, is an artist who exhibits and sells his work in Canada and the US.
They have learned Greek, their English is excellent, their children are successful in Greek school and the family loves Ioannina.
“We feel this city is our city,” says Fatima. They enjoy asylum and a decent income. If there is a refugee success story, this is it.
But a recent ordeal with Greek police has made them feel like outsiders again.
In late March they travelled to Athens to receive their asylum certificates, but returning to Ioannina on the bus they were stopped at a police checkpoint and returned to police immigration headquarters in Athens while their papers were checked against a database. They were finally released onto the street at 2am. By the time they got home, they had been awake for a day and a half.
Fatima is furious as she recounts the tale.
“Until three days ago we decided to stay here and work here. After these three days we decided against it … I decided to leave the minute I get my ID card,” she says.
The Ibrahims were the victims of European refugee politics.
Greek police were trying to forestall a mass movement towards the border, after anarchists posted messages on social media urging refugees to stampede across Balkan borders.
Against these challenges of an unfamiliar language, security, post-traumatic stress, uncertainty, poverty and helplessness, Second Tree’s founders often feel as though they have taken to a forest wildfire with a garden hose.
Their programmes depend entirely on funding. Their immersive and interactive Greek classes, which have proven immensely popular, have stopped twice because sponsorships from the University of Ioannina and Terre des Hommes, an aid group, ran out.
Even a family-twinning programme Second Tree conducted for UNHCR ultimately failed to achieve its full potential of creating a lasting friendship between Greek and refugee families because its funding was mistimed.
“In 2017 … there was money for integration, but there is none now; which is crazy because at the time people were leaving,” says Giovanni Fontana, a founding member of Second Tree.
“The funding for this response here is always short-term and condensed,” says Pasic. They want that money spent, but they’re not thinking, ‘is this feasible?’ or ‘is this the best way forward?’ It’s more, ‘let’s spend two months’ worth of funding and tick the box of integration.'”
As it tries to empower men, women and children in separate ways, Second Tree is discovering that displacement has turned the traditional power hierarchy on its head.
“The kids are becoming the interpreters for their parents because they are going to school and have interactions, and because they are smarter and quicker,” says Fontana.
Take Ronar, a 14-year-old Kurdish child whom Second Tree appointed scout leader to help others.
“When I came I had Turkish and Kurdish. Now I speak English, Greek, a little Farsi and Arabic. When I first came I had no friends, and now I have a lot of friends,” he says.
Refugee children integrate not only with each other but with Greeks.
Twelve-year-old Kurdistan spoke only Kurdish when she came from Iraq. Now she’s learning English and Greek in Second Tree’s evening classes. During the day she goes to refugee classes held in Greek schools, and meets Greek children for soccer during recess. They invite her to their birthday parties.
In contrast to her parents, she could have a life in Greece.
“My father stays home now. He drinks tea and plays football,” she says. “I don’t want to leave here, but my mother and father do. They want to go to Europe,” she says, explaining that by “Europe” she means Germany.
We asked Afghan pre-schoolers to draw their national flag. They said, I am from Greece and Afghanistan, and drew both flags.
Greece’s obvious surplus of skilled adults, native or refugee, may give the impression that integration is pointless.
But its economy is gently improving and the current lull may be giving refugees the time they need to prepare for the day when they can play a role in this economy.
But even if it turns out to be no more than an incubator for their children, it is a safe haven those children are growing to love.
Fontana explains what happened on Greek national day, March 25.
“We asked Afghan pre-schoolers to draw their national flag. They said, I am from Greece and Afghanistan, and drew both flags.”