A girl on a bicycle, photographed at Ritsona Refugee Camp in Greece on August 31, 2021.
At Ritsona Camp it has been three years since child refugee Leila was last inside a classroom
There is no reason for the refugee children in Europe to be denied an effective and equal education
A full 20 minute drive from Chalcis lies a Greek town old enough to be described in Homer’s Iliad with a surprising feature intruding into its mountainous landscape: the refugee camp of Ritsona, home to three thousand people who have faced their own odyssey.
They have fled Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, and other lands of struggle. Scores of people wait year after year for documentation, stuck in a purgatorial in-between that seems never to end. There is much suffering in Ritsona but one primary problem is education: for the 840 school-age children of Ritsona, the classrooms of Greece become tantalisingly out of reach.
Seven years ago, twelve year old Leila braved the tedious 2,338 km journey from her hometown in Syria to the overcrowded camp. Her family sought freedom, security and opportunity. However, what they found in Europe differed from many of their expectations, especially in this important aspect: it has been three years since Leila last stepped foot inside a classroom.
Under UNHCR rules it is obligatory for receiving states to provide asylum-seeking children with access to public education. Yet, the prospect is an elusive one for nearly 37,000 refugee children in Greece. Only one third of them have the opportunity to attend school.
But why is this? Why are these children not being incorporated into the education system of the receiving country, equipping them for their new lives in Europe? Ritsona Camp offers a glimpse into the challenges which thwart this process.
Children sitting on the bench at the Ritsona Refugee Camp on August 28, 2021
A girl on a bicycle, photographed at Ritsona Refugee Camp in Greece on August 31, 2021.
August 31, 2021, Greece. The wall stretching around the Ritsona Refugee Camp.
Parwana Amiri (R) and one of her neighbours take a break from the heat. Ritsona Refugee Camp in Greece, August 28, 2021
August 31, 2021. Posters in a classroom in the Ritsona Refugee Camp in Greece.
Transportation is one of the most obvious obstacles. The youth of Ritsona are not offered transport links between the camp and the local school, where Greek children and the promise of integration await. There is no public transportation from the camp, its residents rarely have access to cars and taxis are entirely unaffordable to those who receive only a small monthly allowance.
Previous attempts to resolve this situation have been made but constantly been abandoned. For instance, in the spring of 2021, a Greek couple provided funds for several buses to transport the students of Ritsona Camp to the local schools. Unfortunately, this plan was abandoned after a mere month, supposedly due to the start of summer vacations and the harsh reality that some children were unable to attend schooling in English.
This attempt to provide transportation however, proved the possibilities for further fruitful investment. Only within a month this transport had resulted in numerous benefits: not only did the children of Ritsona have access to proper education at an accredited school but their mental health and wellbeing improved, most likely due to the fact that refugee youth were finally able to integrate with local students.
Parwana Amiri, a refugee from Afghanistan, photographed at Ritsona Refugee Camp on August 31, 2021.
There are many reasons to suspect that the government simply does not want to prioritise the education of refugees. There is evidence that many schools and Greek parents do not favour this influx. In some cases, a lack of school capacity is used as an argument to mask an underlying unwillingness to take refugee children.
Given that it is obligatory for asylum-seeking children to obtain a Greek education, it is a testament to a lack of governmental will that no transport system has been provided to the camp. Furthermore, the intention to physically isolate the inhabitants of the camp has been exacerbated by a government attempt to construct a large concrete wall surrounding the camp with the aid of the military. It was a seemingly bold statement on the government’s true opinions towards the migrants.
This severely increased tensions within the camp, leaving the refugee community feeling alienated and rejected by Greek society and the European Union. Parwana Amiri, a 17 year old resident of ritsona camp, notable member of the community and activist, launched a movement with a fitting slogan: “Build schools, not walls”. The movement garnered mass amounts of public support, successfully preventing the government from continuing construction. Nevertheless, as the wall sits incomplete, so too does the path to education for the children of Ritsona.
At the heart of this fleeting dream lies a harsher, more painful reality: The children of Ritsona desperately want to learn. As one young girl that we interviewed to further understand the situation said, in simple terms: “I just want an education”.
Athena, one of the residents that we were able to interview, spoke tearfully about how the kids in the camp receive only three in-camp classes a week, each only forty-five minutes long and courtesy of a partnership between RUN and the NGO Solidarity Now. This fervour for learning is perhaps most evident in the linguistic talents of young people within the camp. The dearth of teachers and formal curriculums has given way to an informal process of education, whereby young people within the camp trade skills and proficiencies.
One example is Fareshta, a 17 year old who is self-taught in English and now offers English classes to children within the camp. Fareshta also learned some German from her self-taught sister, who now provides lessons in this as well. Indeed, the process comes at a cost; these teachers are students themselves, who are often unable to seek support to transfer their skills proficiently. Spelling and grammatical mistakes are found on the walls of these in-camp classrooms, signs of a desperate attempt to obtain knowledge in an unwilling and unresponsive environment.
Despite being trapped by distance, having a lack of Greek cultural knowledge, a reticent government, years of missed schooling, and most often a past filled with pain and hardship, the children of Ritsona continue to face many hurdles in their pursuit of education.
Worse of all, the European Union has the means, resources and capacity to rise to these challenges - there is no reason for the refugee children in Europe to be denied an effective and equal education.
It is imperative we prioritise the unification of refugee children within the Greek education system. Although many refugee families ultimately do not wish to remain in Greece, the formal education provides children with an opportunity to be examined and credited for their efforts. Moreover, since many of these children remain at the camp for months or years at a time, the local schools of Greece provide the best chances for integration with the receiving society.
With greater willpower, the issue can be tackled with a hybrid approach recognising the importance of integrating refugee children into Greek schools, while continuing to value in-camp preparation and supplementary assistance.
Firstly, education within the camp should be preparatory in nature and established with a goal of preparing the children of Ritsona for formal education in Greek schools. This in-camp preparatory work will require teachers and volunteers to prepare Ritsona’s youth in the Greek language, regardless of their native tongue. Later, their education in the public schooling system can be further supplemented by preparatory classes which sometimes already exist within Greek schools. Secondly, the issue of transportation must be solved in order for refugee children to be physically able to attend the schools.
These issues are not only faced in Ritsona Camp, but the camp is a microcosm of issues faced across camps in Greece and other EU member states. This issue however, should not be left to fester over time but solved head on with a sense of urgency. Otherwise, it would result in the creation of a truly lost generation.
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Born in 2004 in Geneva, Switzerland, Polina is in her final year of high school. At Harbingers’ Magazine she writes about society and is attempting to raise awareness regarding topics requiring focused attention, such as inequality and the refugee crisis.
Always interested in the humanities and linguistics, in the future, Polina plans to study sociology and French. She speaks French, English, Russian and Spanish. In her free time she is working on developing her skills in photography.
Ritsona Refugee Camp, Greece
Parwana Amiri is a refugee student, journalist and activist. Having been forced to flee Afghanistan, she and her family arrived in Greece, where they live in refugee camps.