It has been a hot summer in the local park, but although the heat slowed us down at times, it did not stop us or our students. And we had some new students too, once Save The Children had left at the end of July. Like many NGOs, they have lost their funding since the responsibility and funds have been turned over to the Greek government, and gaps have appeared in services long before replacement services have been put in place. This is why also having small, grassroots groups like ours is vital –we crowd fund, we run on little and our services don’t get cut off when the major funding does.
In addition to us teaching, we were also fortunate enough to receive some more training for volunteer teachers, ran by an experienced teacher trainer. The Global Issues Special Interest Group – GISIG of IATEFL has been working to support We Are Here and other groups providing English classes to refugees in Northern Greece – thank you!
We Are Here and Lifting Hands International were also on a Serres local radio show. We talked about our project and the work that we do with Praxis, a small local organisation which runs a learning cafe in town where some of the people from the camp go to access the computers, loaded with educational material, and informal language classes.
A more sombre and significant date was the 3rd of August. All the community came together to hold a vigil for the third anniversary of the 03-08-14 genocide, when ISIS massacred many and took thousands more into slavery. Many of the community in Serres fled their homes at this time and have been living in camps ever since. One student wrote ‘They killed many of my village. The men were killed and the women were taken away… I have nothing left so I left my country’
Class and camp numbers decreased with the many goodbyes throughout August and early September – as the last of those who are part of the relocation program are moved on to Athens to hear their destination country and to wait out this last period in the capital – and are now growing again with some new arrivals. Goodbyes are always prolonged and full of emotion. Everyone shares in the jubilation of those who finally reach their country (Germany for most Yazidis) and the celebratory messages and accompanying photo are typically shared all over facebook each time someone arrives there. But there is also a heavy sadness as they have been through so much together. Some families are a mix of the two systems , with the parents and younger children in the slower family reunification process, and any older brothers and sisters who are over the age of 18 and therefore part of the relation process. The anguished sobbing of a young girl, 18 on paper but in reality younger, who had to say goodbye to her parents and leave with her older brothers for Athens was particularly heartbreaking to watch. Still in the camp is a father who is also with his own parents, who are frail and elderly. They, he was told, must soon travel before him and without him.
For our classes, from the beginning of September the public park was no longer an option, but fortunately Lifting Hands International, who we work closely alongside, have managed to rent a field very close to the camp. There are few trees and little shade, which means that until a more sustainable solution is put in place, we have had to be resourceful in providing quick shading during the last part of the summer heat – hanging shading from ropes and trees and over cars. When we joked that they had had many classrooms over the months, one of our students told us, as she was helping to deconstruct the ‘car class’ after her lesson ‘this is my favourite one – it’s not boring!’
Classes have to be taken as they come – it is never certain what the weather will be like or if only half the class will come because of one reason or another, or if they will be joined by the latest addition to the camp – a rather naughty puppy who often follows people to the field and invites himself to class! We have also started a new absolute beginner class formed mostly of new arrivals – which we had to start a week earlier than originally planned because they came every single day with someone to translate, to ask when they could start learning English.
We say it again and again in each update, if only because it never ceases to amaze us. This community’s commitment to learning is incredible. It’s not just about having to help build the classroom each time or sitting on an inevitably dusty tarpaulin. It’s also the determination to fight for your education and your future, despite all of the news that continues to come.
September has been a time of increased fear with the Kurdistan independence referendum, and many Yazidis in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan are faced with an impossible choise. Staying, with the possibility that the situation for them there may deteriorate rapidly, or heading back to Shingal, from where they had fled ISIS – with few provisions and no more promise of safety. Many are choosing to flee into the unknown.
Not having camp access over the past few months has had its restrictions. Outreach is much harder, and it can be frustrating working in a field under the baking sun when you know that there are empty air conditioned containers inside the camp. However, not being inside the camp also comes with greater flexibility and freedom, and the change in location – added to the ‘here and now’ focus of a lesson – helps people to escape the burden of other thoughts, at least for a while. With the sourcing and adaption of some large tents in progress by LHI, the space is on its way to being the best non-formal learning environment this community has had access to since they arrived in Greece. It already has the feel of a welcoming community space, and we often sit with the women in the field after classes are over – laughing, sharing, drinking some tea.
With all this change comes change too for our project. We have worked alongside LHI for many months with the Yazidi community and seen them evolve and grow in capacity to take on a similar role to the ours in Nea Kavala camp. Having stayed with most of the community for most of their time in Greece, with Serres camp due new arrivals soon, and having had to finally say goodbye to some of our core long-term team back at the main project, the time seems right to begin gently phasing our English classes here in Serres over to LHI’s teachers. As we have already been doing for several months now, our teams will continue to support each other with resources, curriculum, ideas and good energy, and at the end of October, we will ‘return to base’ at the community centre in Nea Kavala.