ATHENS – Tucked away among the mid-century apartment blocks and shuttered shops in the once upscale Athens neighborhood of Victoria, a brightly colored neoclassical house buzzes with life.
It is the office of Melissa, a support network for migrant women set up and run with the involvement of women from the migrant community. Inside, a group of 15 refugee girls aged between 14 and 25 gather for an evening of Greek language lessons and film screenings at a nearby cinema.
Last August, the Greek parliament passed legislation calling for the enrollment of all refugee and migrant children in schools. The law envisaged children in refugee camps and other housing around the country taking afternoon classes to get familiar with the language. Extra teachers would be recruited from a pool of state-registered supply teachers.
At Melissa, more than 100 refugee girls receive lessons in Greek, as well as psychosocial support, art therapy and yoga classes, among many other programs.
Marzia Jamili, a 16-year-old Afghani, arrives at Melissa straight after her school ends at 2:30 p.m. While the Greek government has only committed to offer education to children up to the age of 16 – it is very difficult to attend Greek high school without advanced knowledge of the language – Marzia is determined to go to school in Greece, having missed out on education for most of her life.
Members of Afghanistan’s Hazara minority, Marzia’s family fled to Iran before she was born. She and her two siblings were born in Iran, where she attended school for two years and her father had work. They “had a good life,” she says.
When Marzia was 10 years old, the Iranian government “closed the school for refugees,” she said. Although born in the country, the siblings’ refugee status left them with no access to schooling. “My dad tried to get us registered to a proper school, saying we were born there, but he couldn’t because we were considered Afghan,” Marzia said.
In Greece, it took an initiative by the Melissa network to get Marzia a place in an “intercultural” school, part of a fading education program introduced three decades ago designed to offer children of migrants arriving in Greece in the 1990s basic education so they could enter the regular school system.
The school she attends is located in the Athens suburb of Elliniko. There she is taught in Greek at a slower pace, alongside kids from all over the world. “The teachers are patient,” she said “but sometimes they can’t translate in English some of the harder stuff.”
Marzia initially lived in the nearby refugee camp, but she and her family have since been moved to an apartment about an hour away, so every day she takes the bus to Elliniko and back.
“I’m happy with life in Greece,” she said. “People don’t stare at us or anything, some even give us their seats.” For her and other Afghanis, this is quite a departure from the discrimination they faced in Iran, where Marzia says, “people would shout at us and tell us we shouldn’t be there.” The memory stirs tears in her eyes, but she composes herself immediately.
The number of refugee and migrant children between the ages of 6 and 15 who are eligible for the school program is estimated to be around 10,000.
Children over the age of 15, like Marzia, do not receive any assistance under the scheme, which includes extra tuition and free transportation to schools. The E.U. has funded the program to the tune of 2.8 million euros ($3 million).
By Christmas, fewer than 1,500 children had joined the afternoon classes. The education ministry currently says 2,500 children are enrolled in schools, with another 9,000 receiving informal education.
Some NGO workers doubt these official figures and estimate that around 2,000 kids are currently enrolled. “Some don’t attend, others have left or have been relocated,” said one NGO worker close to the subject.
The effort to integrate refugee children has been mired in delays. In Malakasa camp north of Athens, children were told they’d be in school by December last year, but only started in March – a problem faced across Greece, mostly due to delays with staffing classes.
There have also been sporadic hostile reactions by locals across the country against integrating refugees into schools.
The effort is now expanding. This week, more children from refugee camps, including Malakasa, will be inducted into the school program.
The International Organization for Migration, which provides transportation for refugee children to schools, emphasized that many of them have never been to school at all, including young children from Syria who have only seen their country at war.
The challenge that Greece will increasingly face is how to also provide education for students like Marzia, who fall outside the limits of its school programs but remain determined to continue their education.
‘Everyone Should Be Free’
The glacial pace of relocations to other E.U. countries – only 14,500 people have been moved from Greece and Italy out of 160,000 originally envisaged in 2015 – means thousands of children face several years of limbo.
Greece’s refugee education programs are at least providing a basic outlet for children who are fighting desperation and boredom in camps across the country.
The uncertain future facing young asylum seekers often also affects their ability to learn, says Vicky Koursoumi, who teaches refugee girls at Melissa.
“Girls who don’t think their future is here don’t pay as much attention during Greek classes,” she says.
For Marzia, this uncertainty should soon be over. In a few months, she and her family are going to join her 17-year-old brother in Sweden, among the few to find a way out of Greece under the E.U. relocation scheme.
Marzia’s brother shares her deep desire to study. Aged 14, he worked as a construction worker in Tehran. When his boss denied him his wages, using the fact that he didn’t have any papers as an excuse, he made his way first to Turkey and then to Sweden via Greece. His family only found out that he had left when a smuggler called them from Turkey, to ask for the money required to take him across to Europe. Now in Sweden and also in a refugee education scheme, he is looking to pursue higher education and go into politics.
Marzia’s favorite classes are English, biology and history. Supported by her family, which firmly believes in the value of education, she wants to study politics and make a change back in Afghanistan, if her family is able to return one day.
“My first policy would be to tell everyone that they are free,” she said. “Women should be free. All children should go to school.”
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