You really contribute something as a volunteer

‘Working as a teacher in the Moria School of Hope can be very challenging but highly rewarding. At first it was difficult for me to find a balance between being strict and showing empathy. You know what many of these children have been through and understand their behaviour, but at the same time you have to be firm from time to time to provide them with the structure they need so much. What I find amazing to see is that despite everything they have been through and despite their current situation in Moria camp, the children still come here to school to learn and play. They walk through the mud, the tents and the barbed wire to get to our community centre, as if everything is normal. I remember seeing a father walk his daughter to school on her first day, carrying her school bag and nametag and handing them to her at the door. With a kiss on the cheek he let her go into the community centre. For me this is a reminder that above all, these people are simply parents, looking after their children, trying to give them the best life they can. I also think it is astounding that people who are currently living in Moria camp are willing to volunteer as teachers in our school. Despite everything that is going on in their lives they are happy to teach in classrooms that are often quite challenging. Their strength and kindness is amazing.’

This is what teacher Richeal from Dublin answered when I asked her about working in Moria for the Boat Refugee Foundation (BRF). It was hard for her to summarize her feelings, she said. I reassured her that I would get the gist of her answer. But I was so moved by every sentence that it was very difficult for me too.

Richeal symbolizes for me what I noticed immediately about the work of BRF when I arrived on Lesvos as a media volunteer. This foundation uses talented volunteers and offers them the opportunities and freedom to be a unique part of the mission. During their stay they add their own, unique experiences, skills and expertise. With all their hearts. This leads to well thought-through programs and high-quality support. I saw Richeal working at school and we talked about her input in the curriculum.

‘Hello, how are you today’

On a Wednesday morning a few days after my arrival, I went to the BRF’s community centre in Moria. This is an iso box (a kind of container) with three small rooms. From this centre the foundation runs their psycho-social mission. The primary school is part of that mission. Refugees, who worked as teachers in their home country, teach children aged 6 to 10 every weekday morning in the Moria School of Hope. These teachers are supported by BRF volunteers like Richeal. 

Richeal has been on Lesvos for two months and she is the so called ‘focus person’ for the primary school. That means that she is responsible for this part of the mission. She is leaving in a week, although she is not going home. She wants to continue to do more volunteering, preferably with refugees who are further on in their asylum procedure, in order to get a more complete understanding of what this group of people, close to her heart, are going through. She wants to volunteer in Italy, because she wants to learn Italian. After that, her sabbatical year is over and she will return to Dublin, where she teaches in an Irish-speaking primary school. For the past few years Richeal has been teaching 4 to 5 year olds in the school. These children speak English at home but they are taught every subject through Irish in school. Therefore, Richeal must only speak Irish during her lessons. Communicating with children in a language they are not very familiar with, is something she is used to and she uses this experience while teaching in Moria.

That was very clear that Wednesday morning. Calmly, and using hands, feet, and facial expressions, she made sure the children of Moria were lined up nicely to enter the community centre. ‘Hello, how are you today?’ was heard by every child as she shook their hand on entering the school. Most children replied with ‘Fine, thank you, how are you?’ and a wide smile.

It was a strange sight: the line of laughing children, standing in the mud between the broken tents and barbed wire. If I ignored the surroundings it looked like an ordinary school, just like that of my nephew in the Netherlands. When I talked about this with Richeal she expressed that this is one of the main goals of the school. “This school has to be a happy, structured place like any other school, where the children can feel safe and get to act like children for a while.”

She also explained that it took a while to turn the pushing and pulling at the door around. Many children had never gone to school, have been living without structure for a long time and experience tension and aggression around them all the time in the camp. These factors can have a huge influence on the emotional wellbeing of these children. Their behaviour resembles that.

Richeal: ‘As this is the first school experience for a lot of the children, some have great difficulty with paying attention, working quietly, sitting still, sharing and working in close proximity to other children.’

More focus on structure and social skills

Besides providing a safe place, offering structure and teaching social skills became the most important goals for the school in Moria. Structure gives children a grounded feeling and is very important for a healthy development. Social skills are needed to survive here (and later on in society).

‘These skills are also taught in schools at home from a very early age’, Richeal says. ‘But learning and developing these social skills can be quite challenging for the children in our school in Moria because a lot of them are used to having lots of freedom to do their own thing on camp.’ That is why she increased the focus of the curriculum on these subjects.

She did that for instance by making a list, together with the other teachers, of behaviours that they felt were important to create structure and encourage proper social interaction at school. Things like keeping your hands to yourself, sitting up straight, raising your hand if you know the answer to a question and not shouting in class were some of the main behaviours they wanted to focus on. She put up pictures of them in the classroom and has the children practice these every day. The progress is remarkable! 

Practising these basic behaviours like sitting straight in your seat and keeping your hands to yourself might sound like small things, but the effect is huge. By giving the children structure and by setting clear boundaries, the children’s social skills and the general school atmosphere improves greatly. This gives the much-needed space to safely learn and play.

To be a child.

You can make a difference!

Do you want to put your experience and unique skills to work to improve the work of BRF in Moria? Please apply as a volunteer

Text: Suzie Geurtsen
Photo’s: Kathelijne Reijse Saillet