The Critical Community-Building Element of Education in Emergencies
by Giulia Duch Clerici
It's called NeaKavala, and this summer it was the biggest refugee camp in Northern Greece, even though neither the UNHCR nor the military would be able to tell you how many people lived there exactly. The estimates were around 3,000, but as volunteers we knew people regularly left to try to cross the border with smugglers or to search for a job in the black market.
The camp is set up on an old air base and our community center is a fenced area on the side, with a wood and tarpaulin hut and two domos as classrooms. The We Are Here project was set up by volunteers Anja Borejevic, a civil engineer, and Eliza Winnert, an English teacher, and it holds educational lessons for children in the mornings, teenagers in the afternoon and adults in the evening. The classes are all taught by people in the camp, who take pride in being able to contribute and are happy to have something to do. We do our best to ensure they feel ownership of the project - even when we disagree on how something should be done - and we get creative to find a way to let everyone participate - hence all the doormen and art lessons.
The curriculum is barely existant, but even if the self-proclaimed English teachers are doing the ABCs for the twentieth time, it is still better than no teacher at all. In fact, even if often frustrated and not always feeling well, Mahmoud, Amir, Gadir and Hussein are the loved and essential members of our team. It's difficult to ask for committment in a situation like that that, and no matter how closely we work to understand them, we must constantly remind ourselves that we will never be in their shoes.
The strength of the project is that it is flexible, and that it is there. It may not be fully functioning, it may not have all the materials needed, it may not have developed a set curriculum, but this community center has become an epicenter in the lives of hundreds in the camp.
Like the mission of the Global Campaign for Education emphasizes, educating during emergencies to ensure this generation doesn't fall behind is crucial to any long-term solution for the displaced. But education in emergencies is so much more than staying up with the curriculum or preparing for the future:
A school is structure, comfort, friends, and mentors;
It's an identity and a physical safe space;
It's a routine morning dance party as wake up call;
It's registers for each class with names, last names, age and photos so they are no longer "refugee kids" but Sami, Armanj, Suheila, Rzgar, Khadia, or Hassan,...
It's a way to keep track of families and to recognize problems;
It's a group mission to find a home for a rescue puppy;
It's a soccer team every kid can stand behind in the camp league;
It's a garden that grew sunflowers as tall as our farmer Abu Ahmed.
A school is a community and there is no bigger need in a refugee camp than to have a place in a group that gives you purpose and dignity.
Giulia Duch Clerici, Spanish-Italian Economics student at Tulane University, in New Orleans, LA. Spent summer volunteering in the refugee camps in Macedonia, Greece and focused on the coordination of the educational project in NeaKavala, which is supported by the Intereuropean Humanitarian Aid Association.
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