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© Niki Inglezou

essays

Dispatch from Research in Thebes Camp, Greece

by Niki Inglezou
June 16, 2019

Niki Inglezou is a human rights specialist focused on migration and refugee education issues. In this piece, she describes the findings of her research conducted in Thebes camp from 2017-2018.

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Over the past decade, Greece’s economic crisis has severely afflicted certain populations within the country, bringing about dramatic changes in its political and social spheres. Then in 2015, a surge of refugee arrivals overwhelmed the country and turned Greece from a migrant sending country into a migrant and refugee-hosting one. The Greek state had to adjust its institutions accordingly to accommodate the influx of foreign populations, at both an administrative and a practical level. Educational policies had to accommodate the inclusion of hundreds of children coming from different social, political, linguistic, cultural and economic backgrounds, according to their fundamental right to education. This essay is based off of field research conducted between fall 2017-summer 2018.

The United Nations Refugee Commission (UNHCR) estimates of 22+ million refugees, over 50% are children. In under resourced environments typically hosting such populations, access to basic social services and goods, such as healthcare and education, is often limited, especially for minors.

50% of refugee children attend primary school

22% receive secondary education

no more than 1% continue to higher education

According to recent rates 41% of the minors living in Greece have not received any type of education, 63% had access to non-formal educational activities, while the average refugee child in Greece has been out of school for a year and a half. Of the 27,000 children stranded in Greece, at least 18,000 are thought to be out of school, forming a new kind of generation, a lost one.

The integration of refugee children in Greece is limited and informed by a 2016 national policy that instituted the Refugee Training Host Structures Program (DYEP). A segregated school system where refugee students are excluded from regular morning classes and are taught separately from Greek students in afternoon classes on language, as well as basic literacy and numeracy. NGOs and other organisations in Greece also attempt to improve the education refugee children receive through the provision of informal and non-formal learning opportunities.

Refugee education in Greece is an understudied topic – when it has been examined, few researchers have dedicated much time to speaking with refugee students themselves. To rectify this gap in research I attempted to investigate the perceptions of refugee students who attend afternoon preparatory classes (DYEP) on the educational opportunities they have in Greece and more specifically, on the lessons given in these classes and camp where they currently live.

My research focused on the perceptions of children between 12-14 years old, and was conducted in Thebes camp between September 2017 and June 2018. I constructed the main research questions using qualitative methods and semi-structured interviews.

From the first moment, it became apparent that some of the informants developed a defensive stance towards me because they assumed there was a connection between the interviews with their formal asylum service procedures (which are facilitated by the Greek government). As soon as it became clear that the sole purpose of our interviews was academic, the informants felt more comfortable and relaxed to connect and have a genuine conversation with me.

The first important finding had to do with my informants’ attitudes towards the lessons inside the refugee camp. They expressed a partially negative attitude (with few exceptions).

The fact that the population of the lessons was constantly changing and the same lessons had to be repeatedly taught was a major dropout factor.

Furthermore, the fact that these lessons were conducted inside the refugee camp did not render them attractive enough for students to attend. They wanted to escape their surroundings. Their whole life felt enclosed within the camp. They expressed desire to skip school not to stay inside the camp all day long. Therefore, the afternoon classes could function as an escape to the society of Thebes and create a sense of belonging. Additionally, informants reported feeling that the afternoon school felt very formal (indeed, the program was introduced by the Ministry of Education, therefore they constituted the formal educational proposals of the state on the education of the refugee students in Greece), and the formality may not be as facilitative of learning for given their psychosocial needs as refugees.

The second important was a connection between learning the Greek language and staying in Greece. In our conversations, the study participants expressed the difficulties they were facing in learning Greek and that they would have to learn the Greek language only if they and their families were going to stay in Greece. While expressing their perceptions towards the lessons in the afternoon schools, they proposed different methods of learning Greek. The difficulty they were facing could be attributed not only to the uncertainty of their staying in Greece, but also to the fact that the applied teaching methods in the afternoon school were not suitable for them.

At the end of our discussion, my informants expressed their ambitions for the future, as well as their goals regarding the education they receive in Greece. Most of the students claimed that the teaching methods should change and adjust to their abilities in order to have a better educational outcome. When it comes to their staying in Greece or not, the answers of the study participants were uncertain. Only one of the informants expressed a clear desire to stay in Greece and he asked me if I could convince his mother to stay in Greece. Another informant would stay in Greece, as her father had decided that it would be better for the family’s future to remain at a specific place, rather than moving constantly.

The main goal of this research was to listen to the voices of refugee students who attend the afternoon school in Greece and to attempt an analysis of their beliefs and notions on the education they receive. It is fundamentally important to take into consideration their attitudes towards specific issues of discussion, such as the superiority of the English language and of the school subjects related to science.

They were fully aware of the political and economic situation of Greece, which leads to the conclusion that those children have grown up rapidly and had to create forms of survival through education. Not a single informant complained about the lessons, or the fact that they have to go to school. On the contrary, they seemed to enjoy schooling and be able to recognise the form of education they like the most. It is fundamental that these beliefs should be researched in depth in future projects and studies. Finally, it is essential that those children be given the floor to speak and express their beliefs, especially when it comes to a field to which they dedicate most of their everyday time.