Hope: Reflections on working at a refugee camp

By Adeline Thompson
Special to The PREVIEW
One day, during our class with the oldest age group (12-15 years), we started the class with a simple activity. We went around the circle and each student talked about what they wanted to be when they grow up. Its intention was to practice vocabulary and talk about different occupations, but as each child talked about their vision for their future, the reality of the situation sat heavy in the air.
As a child, I remember being told that I could be anything I wanted when I grow up. However, my childhood was privileged and my family has been able to support me as I am still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.
That is not the childhood these children have had. Their entire lives have been turned upside down. They have left their home, their schooling has been interrupted and I have no idea what their future holds. Since I worked with children as young as 3 years old, some of them have been born as asylum seekers. They have never known a home. As Makmoud tells the circle that when he grows up he wants to be a scientist or Tulin says she wants to be a teacher, my heart lurches just a little bit. They have dreams just like any other young person, but where is the hope in the situation?
I spent the time in between classes outside playing lots of games and a lot of the girls loved these hand games. Many of them were different variations of the same clapping patterns I had played at summer camp when I was their age. One of the games involved an elaborate scheme of hitting, pinching and grabbing each other’s hands, which ended in each of you making a wish and if the stars had aligned and you were able to uncross your hands in a certain way then your wish came true.
I was playing this game with a young girl named Tulin. She was an absolute class clown, but smart as a whip and always trying to beat the boys in all of the games. She has five brothers and sisters who also attend Happy Caravan. Her family is among one of the families that have been in the camp the longest.
There was a time when her family had been told that they were moving out of the camp and that they were getting a house in Athens. They packed up their things and made the bus ride to Athens, but when they arrived, there seemed to be a lot of confusion and instead of admitting to the family they had made a mistake, the authorities told them they were bringing them to their new home, but instead just drove them to another camp in Athens.
This camp was mainly Afghani refugees and the Kurdish family immediately felt unwelcome and so they made their way back to Thermopylae, where they at least had a community. By the time they had come back, the isobox they had been living in had already been filled by another family. Kindly, another family invited them to share their iso box until they were able to get their own.
When I played this game with Tulin, we made our wishes and we closed our eyes tight, but our hands were tangled, which signaled we hadn’t done it correctly and so our wishes were deemed to fail.
After our failure, Tulin asked me what my wish was and I answered, “I wish we had ice cream!” and asked what she had wished for, “I wished my family could go to Germany.”
When I looked at her, I knew this was no longer a game, but a moment where she was sharing with me her hope. Throughout my month at Happy Caravan, Germany came up a lot. Many of the students asked me if I knew German and could teach them or they spoke about what they’ll do once their family gets to Germany. It had become this place in their consciousness that was safe and welcoming. If they could just make it to Germany, everything would be OK. Germany meant hope for their future.
At the school, we had two “helpers” who were young adults from the camp, Hammid and Raya. The school paid them weekly and every day they would work with us, mainly being in charge of managing the door. Kids constantly were knocking at the door asking if it was time for class or parents would come by to ask a question, and it was Raya and Hammid’s job to answer the door and help with these questions. They both also spoke English well and would help with interpreting when we needed it.
During the month I was there, Raya’s family was moved to Germany. She had been in the camp for nearly two years and had been in a camp in Turkey before that. She spoke Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish, English and was learning Greek. She told us she was really nervous about learning German. She said she was scared, sad, but also excited. Her family packed up the little amount of things they had for their flight to Germany. There were lots of tears and hugs, but I felt hopeful that maybe this time things would get better for Raya and her family.
There was also a man named Khalid who worked with us. At first, I was really confused about what his position was because he lived in the volunteer house in Kamena Vourla with the rest of the volunteers, but he knew everyone in the camp and told me that he, too, was a Syrian refugee. Eventually, I found out that he had actually been living in that camp when he first started working with the school and then he moved to Germany, but had come back to work at the school again (this might’ve been because of an epic romance, but that is a story for another time).
Khalid talked about moving from Thermopylae to Germany, but it wasn’t the story I was expecting. I had a naive vision in my head of refugees finally finding a new home. That after long and treacherous journeys, it was finally worth it. For Khalid, he talked about how Germany made him hate carrots because every day at dinner they were served carrots. He talked about how things didn’t get much better. He had been at a camp and now he was just in another camp this one just happened to be in Germany.
At first, I was taken aback. I thought about all of those who were dangerously traveling along the Balkan route in hopes to make it to Germany. I thought about Raya’s family who had been so excited and hopeful to be going to Germany. I thought about Tulin who after everything she had been through, was wishing that her family could just make it to Germany.
I pair these stories with the ones I read in the books “Lights in the Distance” and “The New Odyssey.” Story after story, I’m left in awe at the barriers and difficulties that those seeking asylum have to go through. As it is put by Patrick Kingsley, ”There is a crisis, but it’s one caused largely by our response to the refugees, rather than by the refugees themselves.” Yes, the number of people seeking asylum in the EU is great, but they are numbers that should be easily manageable for the world’s richest continent to absorb if we had a different response. The physical barriers of migration are turned violent by the bureaucratic system. The system has forced people into systems of exploitation for survival. The moral consciousness that post-World War II Europe has tried to obtain is sinking in the Mediterranean.
This is where I find myself- overwhelmed, frustrated and face-to-face with a generation who has had their homes and futures stolen from them. This is no longer a theoretical discussion in a classroom, this is the child I’m giving an apple to who clung to dead bodies for six hours in the Mediterranean to stay afloat and survive. It’s in these moments of sober reality that I struggle to believe in the human rights framework that I at one point championed. We have not done well.
One cannot hear the stories of travels through the Sahara or read about the shutdown of rescue missions in the Mediterranean and believe that this situation has been handled with compassion and kindness. Yet, the reality is that the situations of war or totalitarianism that refugees are leaving make the risks worth it. Even if every part of the system is unwelcoming to these populations, they are still coming. We are faced with the fact that these numbers will only increase in the future as climate refugees become a serious reality.
In this situation when everything feels broken and every story is filled to the brim with pain, what is the function of hope? Did it matter that Germany wasn’t necessarily everything it promised to be or does it function more as a source of hope? For the students I worked with, hope wasn’t a cute phrase cross-stitched on a pillow, but a survival method, a reason to believe that tomorrow could be better.
In a system against them, I aspire to be a harbinger of hope. I know that I personally am in no position to create much change in this situation, but I am convicted to continue working with this school. I cannot give them back their home or change their status, but I can help them feel like kids again. Happy Caravan aims to provide a safe place to educate, inspire and lead children. While it is by no means a perfect organization, they saw a severe deficit of education for children living in refugee camps and have tried to fill in the gap. Happy Caravan is a place where these children still have futures, a place where there is hope for a better tomorrow.

This story was posted on December 7, 2019.