Many very busy weeks have passed since we last gave an update on our English language classes with the Yazidis that we have continued to support since they left Nea Kavala camp back in August 2016. The community were returned to an upgraded Serres camp at the end of March after spending the winter in emergency hotel accommodation in a different town, having been evacuated from their tents in Serres in the minus degrees of December 2016.
With the tents replaced by containers with kitchens, bathrooms, electricity and air-conditioning, the conditions in the camp are so much better than they were when they lived here last. To us it may appear depressingly utilitarian, but it is telling of their history of persecution that a high fence around their living area, and police on the gate of the entry, seems to them to feel more like protection than detention. At his link you can see some more photos from inside the camp: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-06/18/c_136373880.htm
From May until the end of the school term, the children in the camp were also finally, after months and months of waiting, able to attend local schools. Watching them excitedly boarding the buses in the afternoons was an incredible moment.
After the move back to the camp from the hotels, we applied to have access once again to the camp, but this has so far not been accepted, and we are not confident that it will. This is fairly typical for groups working in camps that have been evacuated, renovated with containers, and then reopened. The idea is that the services be replaced by local groups, but the reality is that this is slow to happen.
So, like always, we have had to be flexible and resourceful. Having looked at options within Serres itself, we decided it better to base ourselves in the closest possible location to enable as many people as possible to come, with as little travel time as possible. Which is how, ever-adaptive, after ‘school in a box’ and the pop-up learning cafe, we have since April been holding our language classes in a park! The public park is a 10-15 minute walk from the camp, which is located just outside of Serres town. We feel very grateful to be able to use this beautiful, shaded space that we share withÂ Lifting Hands International, another grassroots group whose readmission is still ‘pending’ and who offer a range of educational and creative activities.
Not being inside the camp means that we do not have the air conditioned containers, tables, chairs and electricity that would make an easier, cooler learning space and the possibility to make use of all the resources that we have. It also certainly means that not all people who would like to attend classes are able to, especially those with young children to keep an eye on. However, for the moment at least, it comes with its own positives. It generally means a calmer environment without too many people coming and going. It means the simplicity of a tarpaulin sheet ‘classroom’ spread out under the shade of a tree, with cushions for seats and a whiteboard leaning against the trunk. And it means getting people who might otherwise spend most of the day inside their containers or in a camp with few trees to spend a couple of hours outside – surrounded by, and learning in, lush green nature.
Our students are as education hungry as ever, something that never ceases to impress us. We have increased the number of classes that we run, as new students sign up. It is great to have teenagers tracking us down for classes, and in turn for them to see their own parents learning. Our oldest student is in his seventies, and we collect him from the camp gates each day as it is too far for him to walk. This community-wide commitment to learning, plus the routine of daily classes Monday to Friday, helps keep the momentum when other factors are obstacles. Bad news from home. Another goodbye to a close friend in the camp who moves a step forward in the process and leaves for Athens. A wave of despair at the current state of limbo. Frustration that family relatively close by remain out of reach.
Luckily during Greek summertime there tends to be the occasional very heavy downpour rather than regular drizzle, and that often later in the evening after a hot day, so so far we have not had to cancel too many classes due to rain. What has a much bigger impact on learning is the heat. At his time of year, even shifting the classes to have them in the morning and then the early evening, we are still often teaching and learning in the high thirties with humidity, and several times over the last month it has reached the forties.
At these temperatures it can be uncomfortably hot, and difficult to focus for long. In our ‘Baba’ class, often now we take a little rest in the middle, and listen to one of the students play some music on an Iraqi guitar. Several of them are very good musicians, and the music seems to transport everyone back to a different world. You cannot help but admire the determination to learn of those who leave their air conditioned containers in this kind of heat to walk to the park to study. We don’t know yet what we will do later in the year, once the rain and colder weather comes again. During the most extreme temperatures, when much of Europe was in a heat haze, the Yazidis in the park were quick to think of the many others from their community, under tents in the refugee camps of Iraqi Kurdistan in 50 degree heat and often little or no electricity.
But even that extreme discomfort is relative. Sometimes spoken of and sometimes not, but ever-present with us on the tarpaulin is the painful knowledge that, back in Iraq, many Yazidi women and children remain captives of ISIS. This Thursday 3rd August will mark the third anniversary of the latest genocide in a history of persecution, when ISIS attacked their ancestral homeland of Sinjar. Over the summer of 2014, an estimated 9,900 Yazidis were either killed or taken into captivity. The stories of those who have managed to escape are harrowing, as covered in a recent article by the New York Times.
This Thursday there will be no classes. The community are organising a march in the morning from the camp to the town of Serres and back, followed by a candlelit vigil outside the camp in the evening.