At 9:50 am, Khaled* takes the bell -- a hulking metal mass, oversized for his small frame -- and starts walking past each tent, striking the heavy, metallic form, sending a clang resounding. No words are needed as he passes, because everyone knows what it means: Class is starting.
Learning here in Katsikas refugee camp, a former military base 20 minutes outside the northern Greek regional capital of Ioannina, may not look like school back in Syria or Afghanistan, where many of the residents come from. But it’s learning nonetheless.
Everyday, Khaled and his classmates travel through with the bell. When it sounds, it means something: It means that for the next few hours, children are studying and adults are adding to their professional skills. And for people who four months earlier had just trekked over 1,000 km and survived a life-threatening journey over the Aegean Sea, that means a lot.
The Lighthouse Relief school started in April, but from small beginnings, it has now developed a packed programme for children including language lessons -- Arabic, Kurdish, English and German -- and math, science, arts and crafts, and sports. In parallel, it runs English, French, Spanish and computer lessons for adults. From 9:30 am until evening, about 70 children and 30 adults have their eyes and ears trained on teachers from the camp community and Lighthouse Relief.
Everyday, they sit on benches in tents purpose-built by a construction team comprising members from the population in the camp, patiently absorbing the knowledge, and continuing a process that was shortstopped when the politics and bombs got in the way.
The school, however, didn’t always look like this. It was, according to Mie, a Danish social anthropologist who helped found it with other volunteers, a labour of love and collaboration between Lighthouse Relief and the community.
“When we started teaching in April, it was hard to get the children to sit still. They were everywhere, running around and throwing stones" she says.
Furniture and supplies went missing. "They didn’t like that we were setting up something more long-term, and I can understand why,” she says. “That we were creating this -- it signified a degree of permanence, and no one wants to think that they are going to stay for long in a refugee camp."
The volunteers from Lighthouse kept trying, but items kept disappearing. "I remember I became so frustrated one day, that we bolted the benches to the floor,” she says, laughing. A few days later, she learned that someone had torn them out. "By that point, I wasn't sure what else I could do."
A group of residents gathered to discuss how they could resolve the impasse. "We saw how hard the volunteers were trying," says Firaz, an electric engineer from Bosra City who now heads up the school together with Hasan, another Syrian resident, "so we held a meeting with other residents who were motivated to make a change to discuss what we could do."
The adult residents started going to the tents to talk to parents and encourage each child to go to class. When several days went by and they did not see a child, they would speak with their parents. They tracked schoolbooks that went missing, and redesigned the classroom setting. Instead of one large tent, with support from Lighthouse Relief, they built smaller structures, positioning them in a semi-circle around a yard for a sense of community. The breathable netting allows for airflow in the Greek summer heat, but can be adapted to winter with wooden cladding. Teaching assistants were recruited from the camp population to address classroom behaviour. In Mie's words, the community teachers "got really involved".
The team also switched the microphone for the bell.
"This bell means a lot," says Firaz, whose mother had been headmistress of a school, "It's a sign of familiarity, of how children are used to being called to school back home."
Mie, now educational coordinator, agrees. "The bell and classes symbolise expectations -- there are things you have to do, things you are not allowed to do, things that you have to prepare if you are going to progress."
Firaz and Mie agree the madrasa bears an importance beyond the knowledge gained. Firaz says it eases the strain of living in a refugee camp, helps instil discipline, and allows for new friendships to develop. Mie sees it as a transition ground where children get a taste of what school is like in Europe, and a space where both children and adults can have their capacities recognised and developed.
Abdullah, the father of the boy with the bell, says the classes have given his two children who attend a measure of normalcy. "In an environment like this, they have nothing to do," the Syrian furniture salesman says. "There, they learn, meet friends and do something positive."
- Names have been changed to protect the identity of the children involved.