“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday”
Chios refugee school sends out an emergency signal!
When I first set eyes on the camp, I thought that it was the last time I would have to witness such a refugee crisis. The situation demanded an immediate response, but it was almost unbearable to face the reality of it, and I felt an immense wave of confusion. At that time I was in Dadaab, Garissa County, Kenya, looking at the UNHCR camp populated by over 500,000 Somali refugees who had fled to Kenya. Ever heard of the way being stranded in the desert will make you hallucinate and see an oasis? This is what I felt I was looking at… A milky sea made of thousands of white tents lay ahead of me.
This shocking picture, though on a smaller scale, became my Greek reality over a year ago when I, as a journalist, was called to cover it. It was the time when thousands of —mainly—Syrian refugees made it to Greece from Turkey. In Idomeni, in the north of the country by the Macedonian border, and on the island of Lesbos in the Northern Aegean Sea, I was reminded of what I had seen in Dadaab. The picture of people in pain and dire need, souls who would never forget their war-torn countries, and empty-of-feelings babies looking straight into my eyes, as if they wished to shake me out of my indolence and whisper “If you, too don’t help us, then nobody can. Nobody will”.
Not long ago, I experienced the same conditions on the island where I am from originally, Chios. Way less tents, but refugees and migrants all over the place, arriving in distressingly high numbers on a daily basis until March 2016.
Unfortunately, no one could have expected the extreme deterioration which followed the deal struck between the EU and Turkey regarding this issue.
It was partly the results of this deal that prompted the need for a school, or at least a place resembling an educational space, free of social pressure, inhumanity, and racism. It was about time that someone reminded the refugee children of their real age and of the fact that during these years they have the right to play, be full of mischief, learn things, be educated, and dream. Most of them had never even set foot in classrooms or at least a proper—that is, not bombarded—school.
In comes Nick the dreamer
Nick is a young, passionate man full of energy. Born in a wealthy and supportive family, he was, until not long ago, a promising City of London employee.
“I went to a very multicultural secondary school which had just about every religion and nationality represented. It was a wonderful experience growing up learning about different festivals, religions, languages and I have fond memories of eating the most incredible food at my friends’ houses. I think it was a very unique upbringing in this sense, as I lived in this bubble of multiculturalism where difference was valued and appreciated.”
Nicholas Millet is one of a few. Although many young Europeans decide to help refugees by coming to islands such as Chios, few are those who leave their resumes aside and create roots in these places.
Nick was ready to make a difference. Not for himself but for a very special community; that of the refugee kids stranded on the island of Chios due to the latest circumstances surrounding the migrant crisis in Greece.
“If Calais is the head of an arrow, then Greece is the start of it.”
“My real travelling experience began when I was 18. I went travelling around the world on my own for 6 months (India, South East Asia, Australia). It was an incredible journey that further opened my eyes to a plethora of themes that I am still exploring today regarding religion, race, nationalism, injustice, poverty, equality, inequality, but also humanity in general.
I went to Cambridge University where I studied Politics, and then studied Japanese in Japan for 6 months. Every University holiday I would spend in a different country, developing experience in a variety of fields. In Hong Kong and China, I taught a course on Politics, in Bangladesh I interned in micro-finance for an organisation set up by one of my role models, Professor Muhammed Yunus, while in India I worked with farmers in a very rural area of Gujarat where I developed a tool for farmers to communicate to each other.
After University and Japan, I became a Management Consultant in the City of London where I specialised working with the UK Government. I was promoted in October 2015 and it was in November 2015, after visiting the Calais Jungle one weekend to drop off aid, that I knew I had to do something. I quit my job the next day, and in December 2015 moved to Calais. I volunteered in the Jungle alongside the Sudanese community leader, helping with distributions every day.
Calais was a real eye opener and whilst I only planned to volunteer for one to two months, I knew that my journey had only really just begun. In February, I decided to visit Chios to understand the crisis a little better. If Calais is the head of an arrow, then Greece is the start of it. I arrived in Chios and instantly knew I was going to have to stay two weeks. Two weeks turned into four weeks. Four weeks has now turned into nearly eight months. I became one of the coordinators of a volunteer group and operated the central coordination system that responded to boats arriving.”
Nick found out Chios needed more help than Lesbos, so he gave it a shot. But things did not go smoothly as “guilt and responsibility were overpowering feelings” when he arrived.
“I could not understand how the EU was not responding to the hundreds of thousands of people taking the perilous journey from Turkey. The words Safe passage became extremely meaningful and imprinted in all our minds during these long night shifts. People would arrive daily from Turkey to Chios on these infamous inflatable dinghies that we have all become accustomed to seeing in the media. Boats suitable for around 20 people would be packed with up to 50-60 people or more. Babies, children, men and women young and old.”
Moreover, Nick often felt deeply uncomfortable as “the responsibility on an untrained individual such as myself is quite surreal and unimaginable but has been essential. I could list multiple times where if it were not for the volunteer community as a whole, the death toll and overall suffering would be much higher than it already is.”
A school is born
“Every time I thought I was going to leave, some new event took place that kept me here. When we thought the EU-Turkey deal was going to end the need for us, more boats came and this time the refugees were stuck on the Island”, remembers Nick, adding that “a series of events took place that constantly required volunteers to be on the frontline reacting.”
One of the greatest issues that cropped up was which activities to occupy the children with, by whom and where. I still remember how Nick told me, during one of our first meetings, about his wish to create a space for these kids and the difficulty he had in finding it. Local authorities were lost in the whirlpool of the crisis while at the same time appearing incapable of reacting fast to problems that required immediate solutions.
“After the deal, I would spend hours every day in the camps with families. It was one story in particular that really moved me. A father of three would tell me often that he left Syria because the schools were shut. That he came to Europe so that his children could have a future. And now that he was faced with the conditions of Souda camp and the fear of uncertainty and unrest, he was not sure what to do. We both agreed providing his children and those in the camps with education was essential. Moreover, there were many qualified teachers in the camp who we could work with to make this happen.”
Nick acutely felt the “desperate need to take the children out of the camps and to provide a safe place for them. To provide them a sanctuary where they can just be kids.”
“The heart of what we do”
Nick has not embarked on this journey alone. Alongside Nick were Bastian Seelhofer, a 29-year-old Swiss man, founder of the Humanitarian Aid Organisation “Be Aware and Share” (2015), and 28-year-old Jacob–Johannes Rohde from Germany.
“The idea of allowing kids to be kids is at the heart of what we do. Our project is about restoring innocence and providing a relief from the terrible conditions in the camp. It is an oasis in a very dry desert… It is about relieving parents, and taking away the stress of their children not receiving an education. Most of the children under the age of 12 have not been to school before, or only a year or so. As such, we are desperately making up for lost time. However, we are not so much focused on academic progression in as much as just allowing the children a chance to feel like children again. For many of the younger ones, it is about getting them ready for when they enter mainstream formal school.”
Nick also pinpoints the following:
“The innocence and childhood of the children who live in the camps in Chios and around Greece has been stripped away from them. They have been denied the right to a childhood, to safety and protection that we all take for granted. I believe it is an absolute priority to get these children and their families into safe housing away from the dangers of the camp… Those who have family in Europe and are eligible for reunification should be processed. There are unaccompanied children who have their parents and other family members in Germany and other European countries and have been living in informal settlements here for 6 months on their own without any protection. This makes absolutely no sense and is complete neglect by the state and the EU”.
Last but not least, Nick stresses that “the children should have access to formal education as is written in the law. There can be no excuse to deny these children access to the state education system and rely on NGOs and volunteers to fill the gap. We fully support the transition of all children into the formal education system and hope it will start in the very near future.”
Has media coverage been harmful or wrong until now?
These three young men are dealing with the absurdities, abuses, and injustices of the migrant crisis on a daily basis and are doing their best to show to the wider public that this school should not be holding centre stage for the wrong reasons. We journalists tend to emphasize the project itself and underline its amazing qualities instead of focusing on the dire realities that the project tries to tackle.
Beyond the significance of this undertaking, let’s not lose track of the bottom line: after they leave Chios in the future, these children should be afforded a safe future and humane life conditions away from racist behaviors. Many in Europe seem to forget the importance of the help we can bring to refugee children now, and which affect children’s lives more than any of us who live in safety and comfort could ever imagine. The light at the end of the tunnel should be visible. However, instead of that, Europe is discussing putting up more fences and shielding itself from an existing problem. This problem will not go away, no matter how deep in the sand European leaders wish to dig their heads in order to avoid dealing with it.
“The media have not sent the wrong message, but it is time for the state and the EU to step up to their obligations and duties. Whilst our school is a fantastic initiative, it is not the long-term solution for educating children from the refugee community. The state must step in and pressure must be applied to ensure they [the European leaders] fulfil their legal obligations. We must start thinking about integration and how we provide a somewhat stable life for these children and families”, Nick responds.
Which future for the school?
“Funding initially came from private donations”, says Nick. “We did not work with local authorities and have not been supported by them. We received mostly positive support from the local community, and even had local teachers asking to volunteer with us.
We have a range of short to long term volunteers who come and support the “Be Aware and Share” project project from all over the world. We have had volunteers from Switzerland, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, France, the UK, Lithuania, Turkey, the USA, Germany, Luxembourg, Greece, and Ireland.
Our approach is community-driven and, as such, our team has always included volunteers from the refugee community. Many of them are qualified teachers from their home country.”
As families come and go, the number of students is never stable. At the moment, around 170 kids aged 6 to 20 attend the school and the youth centre, hailing from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan.
Future plans sound promising, and the creators of this venture are full of hope:
“We have now signed the lease for a second building on the same street as our current school. The aim is to expand the number of weekly days of schooling we provide the children. Hopefully, by mid-October, each child will be able to come at least 3 to 4 times a week. We also hope to provide more skill-oriented lessons where students can develop skills and hobbies they can carry on once they leave the Island. This is especially important for the older teenagers who are starting to think about their future and might be considering what kind of career they want to pursue once they are settled.”
This school project has earned extensive attention from the media and has been widely covered by Reuters, Al Jazeera, ERT Greek National Broadcaster and others. The world wants to know and people are hungry. They are asking what is happening and are wondering if and how they can help, or how this crisis could be ended. But what about Nick himself? What meaning has this experience had for him?
“The experience has completely changed me. I never planned to open a school. This was a reaction to the needs of those around me and the knowledge that I had the power and resources to make a difference and help. However, seeing the importance of education on a child’s development especially for those who have fled conflict has been extremely inspiring. As such, I want to pursue graduate studies in the field of child development and education amongst refugee communities. I want to use the knowledge and skills developed through this project to help more people, as this crisis is not going away and education will certainly be key to providing many of the children a future.”