More than a million refugees have crossed the border into Greece in the past few years, reports the UN Refugee Agency. Many are escaping the war in Syria; others are fleeing from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and even the Congo. All are trying to survive, to find some peace and safety for their families and a chance of living a normal life away from the horrors they faced back home.
One of the major stops along the way is the island of Lesbos, which serves as a temporary home for tens of thousands of people, who are still streaming in – even if less so than a year ago – with no end in sight.
All around the world people are sending in food, clothes, money, volunteers – anything that might help make the situation there a little more bearable. But what could really help make the refugees’ time on the island more akin to life, rather than just survival? Perhaps education, suggests one group of Israeli volunteers, a cooperation between Jewish youth movement Hashomer Hatza’ir, its Arab counterpart Ajyal, and Natan – The Israeli Network for International Disaster Relief.
“A little over six months ago, some of us [at the youth movements] started asking ourselves what we could do, together, to help with the Syrian refugee crisis,” recalls Yair Leibel, one of the project’s founders and managers. They had an idea to focus on education and with that idea in mind they contacted Natan. Natan found local partners with whom they could potentially build and operate a school, and the group flew right over.
“Our first month in Greece was spent mostly in getting to know the community. We spent a lot of time having conversations with local parents and children, trying to understand in what ways an educational project could be beneficial to them,” says Leibel, 28, who lives in Kibbutz Hamehanchim in Givat Haviva.
“We imagined we would be arriving at a place with no educational activity whatsoever, but quickly discovered we were not alone there; of course we wanted to make sure we were not creating anything unnecessary or that already existed.”
Their survey’s conclusion was that while other groups do work on refugee education on the island, none offer a full educational framework in the children’s own mother tongue. Without using the mother tongue, explains Leibel, you could easily fall into the trap of just providing babysitting services, when so much more than that is needed.
The group then realized what they need to create is an actual school with actual classes, taught to the children not by outside volunteers but by members of their own community: the teachers are the same people they see hanging around them, living just like they do, hoping for the same escape as them.
“Most humanitarian organizations bring in their own independent staff from the outside. It does make it easier in some ways, as you get full control over the thing you’re building. But that is not what we were looking to do.”
When it comes to humanitarian work, says Leibel, the people doing the work are those holding the power. “I could run a school for refugee children, help them, but as long as I’m the one doing the work, I’m also the one learning from it, getting value from it, finding meaning in it.”
That meaning should belong instead to the local community, he explains. The group wanted to restore the community’s life, even if it is only a temporary community, constantly changing. “Whenever a teacher leaves the school and the island – and five have already left – the school pays a price. But it’s a price worth paying, because the children understand this type of goodbye.” It’s the same “goodbye” they all wish for themselves: the next stop on their journey.
Moments of happiness
Getting to know the refugee community in Lesbos is in itself a meaningful experience, says Ranin Kahil, 21, from Ramle, another member of the group who has been there since day one and currently works from Israel, managing the volunteer base and making sure enough people are aware of the project.
“People over there have been through so much. You hear some terrible stories, even from children under 10 years old. They all know what’s going on at home, but at the same time choose to move on. That’s the nice thing about it – the refugees there take every moment of happiness and optimism they can find. Children play, women build friendships, everyone cooperates.”
As any educator knows, the job is not always simple. Leibel says not all children took to their new school so easily. The girls from Afghanistan, for instance, had never been to school before, having lived under Taliban rule, and didn’t quite know what was expected from them.
Another child in particular caught his attention.
“We had a boy who had gotten used to getting adult attention with violence,” he says. “He wanted to join the school, but on his first day he was very violent, even throwing rocks into the classroom. We told him if he did it again he would be removed from the school, and as expected he nodded but went right back to checking our boundaries a minute later.”
“We told him that was enough and we would have to take him back to camp. He ran away, and even when we caught him he struggled violently, biting us, spitting on us. Everyone around told us to just get him to calm down, but we weren’t there to calm children down, we were there to give them an educational process. We took him back to camp by force. The next morning he showed up at the school at 7:30. Within a day he just changed his entire behavior. I think that’s because he finally met an educational framework that respected him.”
The school has been operating for three months now on a full Monday to Friday week. It currently has 60 pupils, boys and girls, divided into three classrooms: Arabic, Persian and Congolese. The activity is coordinated by six group members from the two youth movements, who bring in their knowledge in education, and by additional Natan representatives, who know all about running humanitarian aid projects, but the work itself – the teaching – is done exclusively by 15 local refugee teachers.
Israeli volunteers for running the project are hardly scarce, says Kahil.
“As youth movement members, our education from a young age was always about giving to the community, so naturally as soon as we started getting the word out about the school a lot of people came to us wanting to help. Because [both movements] are countrywide, they’re like families all across Israel. So if one person joins the project, suddenly another friend from the other end of the country wants to join, too.”
The refugees were actually a little surprised to see this cooperation between Jews and Arabs, but for the most part no major objection was noted.
“When we first arrived they would ask us questions about ourselves,” says Kahil. But perhaps not the questions they imagined they might be asked. “They would ask where we’re from, what we do in life… The type of questions you ask another human being, not another people.”
Occasionally, though, other voices did emerge.
“We once heard a rumor going around that we were there to brainwash the refugees,” says Leibel. “Rumors can be very effective in this type of atmosphere, so we hurried to get a letter out to tell them who we are and to explain that our purpose was not to erase the past but to create something new side by side with them. We invited them to an open conversation about it.”
Trust is key, explains Leibel. “Today they all know it’s a shared Arab-Jewish group and they all accept it.”
While cooperation is readily available, money is a different matter. Youth movements in Israel don’t have a lot of funding, explains Leibel, and are not high priority for the country in any way. In looking to budget for the project, they turned to an alternative route – a crowdfunding campaign, which will still be running throughout next week.
“We consider this school a project that concerns the entire Israeli society,” says Leibel. “We needed the public to give us the mandate for it, to send us on this mission, not only financially but in terms of awareness and support, too.”
In fact, the school’s entire budget comes from their crowdfunding work. They tried turning to the UN for funds, says Leibel, but to no result. Budgets there usually go to the major organizations, while the refugee school is considered very small scale, he explains.
Their first campaign was a sort of experiment to see whether they could actually afford the project, in terms of resources and societal approval. Some 1,800 people from across Israel (and a few from other countries) came together and managed to collect NIS 250,000 .
“While running the campaign we realized how strong the forces in Israeli society are that want something like this to take shape,” says Leibel. “People are looking for ways to express and feel hope and connection in this world we live in, which is so often torn apart and feels disconnected. Even in the discourse itself you constantly feel this question floating: ‘What can we do?’ The war in Syria is a huge humanitarian crisis. It’s not the first one, but it’s so close to us, just over the fence… It managed to release some compassion and human solidarity, even for people who are our so-called enemies.”
The project is currently undergoing a second crowdfunding campaign, asking to raise enough money to continue its activity for five more months.
“In our fantasies we saw the school running for a few months, and then the island slowly clearing of refugees, and we would be standing there waving them good luck,” says Leibel. “But that never happened. The island is still taking in refugees, about a hundred every week.” Money, then, is a very real necessity, and they call everyone to give their campaign what they can to help make a difference.
Unfortunately, there’s no telling how much longer the school will be needed. The group is collecting money to buy themselves a few more months while they work on the project’s long-term plans.
“We have no idea what the future holds,” says Leibel. “Once we saw the school’s profound effect on the lives of all those families, we realized we can’t just let it die out. We’re now trying to think of ways to raise funds in a continuous way, and to make it a permanent thing. [The current crowdfunding campaign] is the first stage. Once we manage that, we’ll start dealing with our ability to sustain this project not just for a few months but much longer, in hopes it won’t be necessary for long, but also with a realistic understanding that it probably will be.”
ANOTHER PLACE that’s already feeling the difference is the group’s home – Israel. “The very fact that it’s a cooperation between Arabs and Jews already means a lot,” says Kahil.
“We all have a goal in mind, we all want to coexist peacefully and this project and others like it help a lot. We left the country to go to Greece together, worked together, volunteered together, even lived under the same roof.”
“When we returned to Israel, we didn’t let it stop there. We created more and more joint projects. When two separate groups work together and become one, where gender or race don’t matter, that’s when you can begin talking about other things like learning values and giving back.”
But those who benefit the most are no doubt the group’s pupils in Lesbos. After everything they have been through, adds Kahil, it’s amazing to see them smiling and happy.
“You arrive at the school in the morning and you see children happy to start their day. You can’t help but like what you see and want to see more and more of it. Just imagine what we could have had if every person would say, ‘I want to give something from myself to a project of this sort.’ How much better the world might be.”