By Josh Hill, ONE Congressional District Leader in Mississippi
We sat down on milk crates, under a shelter that was a tarp pulled across four posts. I had interviewed several refugees by this point, so I knew some about how the trip from Syria goes, but Ingrid* started with something different – the conditions in Homs, the city in Syria her family had left.
The town was under siege, and the prices for normal goods – food and clothing – had increased 10-fold. They were facing regular shelling from a variety of groups, and after Adnan’s* electronics shop was bombed, it became impossible to stay.
The story of their journey is harrowing, and worthy of a separate telling, but the thing that struck me was their rationale. It wasn’t the bombing, nor was it the increased prices. Ingrid is a school teacher, and one of the problems with staying in Syria – the problem that she most focused on when telling me their story – was the inability to get her children to school regularly, or to teach other students. She fled because she knew her children needed a better education than they could provide in their home.
It’s hard for me to imagine being in a place where education was both that valued, and completely unavailable. But Ingrid, Adnan, and their children fled their home because of it. When they arrived in Turkey, they took up residence in a camp. There were problems there, too, but at least they were mostly safe. Adnan found work in Istanbul, temporarily, and Ingrid settled into camp life with the kids.
Here too, however, she found that the children couldn’t learn to read. School was only two hours a day, and the curriculum was not well established – teachers changed all the time. Adnan’s job didn’t last long, and he realized he was being paid one-third of what he should have been. Any type of private education was out of the question. They asked Adnan’s parents to sell their car (which was left behind in Syria) and used the money to pay a smuggler to get them to Greece where they hoped to be able to leave for Germany.
Their trip across the Agean to Lesvos mirrors so many of those I heard from other refugees. The boat was too small, there were strict rules regarding the children, and though their journey was less eventful than others, it was still harrowing. When they made it to Moria, a camp on Lesvos, they were some of the last out of the boat. This meant that they couldn’t take the ferry that was leaving that afternoon – they had to wait for two days until the next ferry could allow them to pass.
Those two days would cost them.
By the time they arrived in northern Greece — where I spoke with them in a semi-circle of brightly colored camping tents placed on dirt in a forest clearing — the border to Macedonia had closed and they were unable to go any farther. They had arrived the night before the borders closed, and waived off a journalist friend who said they should cross the border that evening. When they attempted the next day, they were told that they couldn’t cross, and that the borders would not reopen.
As we spoke, Adnan made us some tea, provided by one of the many “unofficial” NGO’s that were operating in the open-camps (non-military camps) at the time. Many of these NGO’s had come (or had been developed there by volunteers who came and saw a need), and some focused on education, but proper schooling was basically impossible to come by for the family. When the open-camps started being closed, and residents being evicted, Adnan and Ingrid decided to pay a smuggler to get them to Serbia, where they thought they could get to Germany.
Both attempts at crossing failed, and after a short time – about two weeks after I met with them – they were evacuated to a military camp in northern Greece that had been hastily constructed by the government. The conditions there were deplorable — and perhaps worst for Ingrid and Adnan, there was still no regular schooling for the children.
While their situation has improved, education remains incredibly problematic for refugees. During the research trip when I spoke with Ingrid and Adnan, I spoke with refugees in three countries, many of whom were traveling with small children themselves, or had close friends or relatives traveling with school-aged children. Few were receiving education on a regular basis, and those who were got it from NGOs with a position often as precarious as that of the refugees they served.