Teaching English to refugees and migrants – Greece

by Vafeidou Avgi, Aristotelio College, Greece

A road that is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery (C.P. Cavafy, Ithaca)

One of the biggest problems for the thousands of refugees and migrants that came to Eidomeni and Diavata– Greece in 2016 is language. All of them are from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan where the Greek language is definitely neither spoken nor taught. Luckily, most of them speak some English, German or French. However, success in the “harbours they’re seeing for the first time” will depend on them communicating with comfortable intelligibility in a language that is widely spoken, and this is definitely English. Beyond any doubt, one thing is clear: the refugees in these camps will have long term needs such as life skills, language skills, access to ways to earn a living, and education for kids.

According to data from the government’s coordinating agency for the refugee crisis, the number of refugees and migrants trapped in Greece due to the closure of borders in the north on Saturday 16th April 2016 came to 41,464.  In Eidomeni and Diavata, the energy and efforts of the volunteers are usefully employed in manifold activities. PRAKSIS (Programs of Development, Social Support and Medical Cooperation) which is an independent Non Governmental Organization as well as R.S.M.T (Refugee Solidarity Movement Thessaloniki) and Humanity Crew (Help#Crisis#Worldwide) which are organizations of enthusiastic volunteers from all over the world consolidate and coordinate the efforts of activists concerned with the rights of refugees. Three axes constitute their job: a) prevention, b) direct intervention/support and c) lobbying and advocacy. They all try to cover most of the refugees’ basic needs: psychological and social support, housing, legal counseling and basic hygiene services (clothing, hygiene kits, etc). Additionally, creative workshops for little kids and teenagers provide some of the keenest participants with many opportunities to develop their English language skills.

Teaching the English language to the refugees in Eidomeni and Diavata does not require specific skills, just a desire to help and a friendly smile. Six volunteers (including myself) try to help with the migration crisis by teaching English at a very basic level and mostly by offering children and adults the opportunity to spend some time in a creative way. The volunteers who teach English are not necessarily qualified; anyone who speaks the language is welcome to offer their services, mainly because the whole “project of providing schooling for those interested” is still in its infancy.  However, it has to be said that some of the refugees are highly educated, keen to start a new life, have specific aims for their children, their friends and themselves and are thus emotionally available and very cooperative.

The refugees might have felt disillusioned when they first arrived in Greece, at the ‘sunny land of hope and promise’, but with the help of the volunteers they soon realized that they would have to be patient because the Greek refugee reception centres are far from being organised. So two ELT colleagues and I, who all belong to R.S.M.T, agreed to design and run “The English teaching project”: we decided to meet some of the refugees and migrants twice a week for a couple of hours to teach them the basics, get them started. No official organisation, nothing formal, almost zero equipment. This situation is unique in that we almost never have the same ‘students’ between one week and the next, so we repeat the same lesson over and over again. The lessons consist of the English alphabet, the numbers, simple verb specific sentences, and ‘survival’ everyday questions and answers. News of us is spread by word of mouth, some children and/or adults turn up and disappear again, others are very regular attendees and have become a close-knit group. Sometimes the ‘classes’ have an intergenerational nature: younger learners and older adults with different motivations and aptitudes coexist in the same EFL classroom context and struggle to absorb the necessary knowledge with Jovian patience. We all find the experience rewarding as it gives us the ability to help practically and possibly enable our ‘students’ to communicate beyond their own group and to move about independently.

“Why do I do it?” –  I have increasingly realised that I do it not for altruistic reasons but because it makes me feel good. No matter what the difficulties are (including the distance to Eidomeni and Diavata), I try to keep my thoughts raised high and a rare excitement stirs my spirit and my body. It is satisfying for me to see that some of the ‘students’ have made small progress steps with the language. Helping them with various practicalities and seeing them respond to each other and to me in a relaxed and happy atmosphere for a couple of hours is indeed time well-spent.

It goes without saying that all the volunteers aspire to be a bridge between the refugees’ old life and their new life, help them recover from the post traumatic stress disorder most of them are experiencing, aid them with their daily struggles, and generally help with transition, integration and intercultural understanding. Therefore, all the participants involved, i.e. organizations, movements and individuals, among many other things organise play time for smaller kids and all kinds of activities for older kids in English with a view to making things easier for children to both learn a new language and make new friends, and maybe “feel at home”. Knowing that they can express themselves in even minor ways will hopefully build their confidence, make them feel good about themselves and help them integrate better. I wish more people would realise how rewarding it is and that no specific skills are required: just a desire to help and a friendly smile.

The author

Avgi Vafeidou has been involved in English language teaching for twenty eight years. Vafeidou speaks French, Serbocroatian, English, Italian and Esperanto, has a bachelor degree in English Philosophy and Literature from the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, a postgraduate diploma in Education Psychology from the National and Kapodistrian University in Athens, a full DELTA diploma from Cambridge University, an MA in ELT from Leeds Metropolitan University and is now doing a PhD on Intergenerational Classroom-based Studies in the University of Thessaly.

5 Responses to Teaching English to refugees and migrants – Greece

  1. Catherine Gnocchi October 17, 2016 at 6:35 am #

    Hello,
    I am an English teacher (TESOL/RSA Dip), based in Thessaloniki. I would love to volunteer to teach English to refugees. Please let me know how I can get involved. Thank you.

  2. Cassie March 10, 2017 at 5:23 pm #

    Hi, I would also like to be involved. Please email me with detailed thanks, Cassie

    • Joan Beach April 4, 2017 at 11:48 pm #

      Hello I am a retired teacher living in California interested in teaching English to Syrian refugee children. I have experience with second language learners. Please correspond as I am planning a trip to Geeece in the fall and hope to connect with a teaching opportunity and will forward my credentials to any person or facility that may be able to help me secure a volunteer position
      Thank you
      Jo Beach

  3. Eleni June 4, 2017 at 6:55 pm #

    Hello I am an English Teacher in Athens that would love to help refugees learn and improve their English. I have been teaching for a number of years both inside and outside Greece and I have been working with NGOs as well.
    Let me know if there are any available posts I could provide my aid.
    Cheers,
    Eleni

  4. Keary Ritchie October 8, 2017 at 5:39 pm #

    I am an ESOL teacher in America and presently teach Syrian refugees who have arrived in my city. I am looking for a summer teaching opportunity (June or July) and am considering Greece. I am also studying for my Masters degree in Applied Educational Psychology and am studying reslience amongst Syrian refugees. I would love to talk with you more. Thank you!

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