Greece’s child refugees are at risk of becoming a ‘lost generation.’

Is education the answer?

By Hayley Roth and Iris Samuels

 ATHENS, Greece –– Two young boys with skinny frames, buzzed hair and bright t-shirts jostled beneath the hot Greek sun. But as humanitarian workers approached, it became clear the children weren’t playing.

One, originally from Afghanistan, jabbed his finger at the other and yelled, “Kurdish, no good, no good!”

“They started getting aggressive,” recalled Sultan Ozcan of the aid organization Save the Children, who witnessed the scene at a refugee camp in the Greek village of Oinofyta. “They don’t know what is right and what is wrong.”

She places much of the blame for that and similar incidents played out across Greece on a lack of formal education, and the absence of the social cohesiveness nurtured by group learning activities. That vacuum in education is a looming challenge that threatens to set a generation adrift, according to interviews conducted across Greece with top government officials, academics, aid workers and refugees.

Since the escalation of the Syrian civil war early last year and a rise in violence throughout the Middle East, more than 1 million people have fled to Greece, their gateway to the European Union. Most migrants considered the debt-ridden Hellenic Republic as just their first step in a long journey north — not a destination for families looking to rebuild their lives.

But earlier this year, Europe closed its internal borders to undocumented migrants, effectively stranding 60,000 inside Greece. Some now are beginning to realize that they may be here for a very long time – if not the rest of their lives.

Nearly half of the stranded migrants are thought to be children under the age of 18. On average, those juveniles have not seen the inside of a classroom for a full 18 months, according to a recent study by Save the Children. Young children like the Kurd and the Afghan have not had the chance to start school at all, leaving their education in limbo at a critical stage in their intellectual and social development.

Experts said that is not only bad for children, it is also bad for society. Education helps shield against the kind of disenchantment that can breed violence, they said. And over time, education has the potential to transform new immigrants into key contributors to society, rather than a ­­drag on its resources.

“If education is not possible within a country of asylum, families become disillusioned,” explained Sarah Dryden-Peterson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who researches refugee issues. “Rather than being able to contribute to society, refugee children and families are left out. The marginalization is not good for kids, families or countries.”

Shareen Elnashie, who works on education issues at Kara Tepe, a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, agreed: “As soon as you have people staying longer-term, I think you need to start thinking about investing in them.”

The Greek Education Ministry recently announced an ambitious plan to provide a year’s worth of preparatory classes before integrating all 30,000 child refugees into the national educational system next fall. But skeptics point out that few speak the Greek language, and that austerity measures aimed at containing the 2010 economic crisis have left the country’s education system in tatters.

The Greek government estimates that it needs at least $34 million [ €30 million ] to get its plan off the ground – not a staggering amount in the U.S., perhaps, but a huge sum for a country that in the last five years has closed more than 1,000 schools and slashed more than 15,000 teaching positions. Greece already ranks last in the European Union for the percentage of government money spent on education.

The study by Save the Children found that three-quarters of school-aged refugees described going to school as one of their top priorities, a sentiment echoed in an interview with one teenage migrant. He arrived in Greece alone from Afghanistan earlier this year and now lives in a group home in a downtrodden neighborhood of Athens. He asked that his name not be used to protect his family, but stressed that he is eager to resume his education. “[I] want to achieve my goals for a better life,” he explained.

To tell the story of child refugees now languishing in Europe, student journalists working with Princeton University’s Global Reporting initiative this summer visited eight formal and informal refugee camps in and around Athens and on the island of Lesbos. They also interviewed dozens of refugee children, parents and aid workers; toured living facilities for unaccompanied child refugees; reviewed documents and data regarding education efforts; and interviewed top government officials, including the minister of education.

The journalists found reason for hope – cheerful homes for children run by dedicated volunteers, teenage refugees bursting with anticipation of a bright future in Europe – but also uncovered daunting challenges related to culture and, in particular, funding. Some camps resemble minimum-security prisons, others offer little to occupy children who have been living there for months. The lack of services can be traced to the Greek government which, since nearing bankruptcy six years ago, has wrestled with harsh austerity measures that have mandated deep budget cuts and sharp tax increases.

Refugees pass the time in an Athens camp by diving into the bay

Refugees pass the time in an Athens camp by diving into the bay

Giulia Clericetti, a worker for the Swedish humanitarian organization I AM YOU, warns that even a well-funded school integration effort might not go smoothly. Between shifts recently at the rustic Ritsona refugee camp north of Athens, where children spend their days playing in the dust and transforming sticks from the surrounding forest into makeshift toys, she explained that many children she works with have never entered a classroom and effectively have grown what she calls “wild.” She worries about their ability to succeed in a structured setting after so long on the road.

“What they lack is not just knowledge, but the ability to sit and learn,” Clericetti said. Their teachers’ patience and understanding, while essential, could prove insufficient.




Site visits conducted over more than a month show that humanitarian organizations such as hers are fighting an uphill battle at cash-starved camps that sometimes have families squatting outside their gates, waiting for tents and modular housing units to become available.

On a recent morning at Athens’ Port of Piraeus, children ran freely between tents pitched under a freeway overpass, forming an unofficial encampment. They played amid rolling 16-wheelers and in the shadow of heavy port machinery. The risk of falling into the sea was ever present and adult supervision at times appeared nonexistent.

An independent Greek charity reported in June that 165 of the 835 refugees living at Gate E2 of the port were less than 11 years of age. (In the continually evolving situation in Greece, authorities in recent weeks relocated families from the port to other, “official” camps, where similar scenes can be found playing out.)

A day-long ferry ride away, on the island of Lesbos, the Kara Tepe camp boasts prefab housing and white-stone walkways, making it appear almost homey compared to the port. Even so, its “classrooms” are in small modular boxes, which can accommodate no more than six students at a time. An aid worker said that, despite the relative order, residents complain of mosquitoes, rats and snakes.

A few miles away on the island, a camp at Moria presents a bleaker picture. On a recent day teenagers languished behind fences topped with razor wire. Last spring, there were 180 teenagers living in the camp when a full-scale riot broke out, according to Ilektra Koutsoumani, who has worked at the camp since December 2015 for the French charity Médecins du Monde.

There was “blood everywhere,” she said. “I was scared.”

As the violence escalated, Koutsoumani said she and other volunteer workers fled for the night.

“You could see that it was an outbreak of anger, a release,” she said in an interview just outside the camp’s 12-foot-high steel-mesh gates. “The injuries were extreme.”

“It’s a big problem that people stay here for so long time because that was meant to be a transit camp, not a permanent camp,” she said of Moria. “Having teenagers locked up in a small space with nothing to do, it’s insane.”

Across Greece, shelters designed exclusively for children traveling alone have hundreds of names on their waitlists.

In this delicate situation, Ozcan sees the lack of education and other organized activities as a looming threat. Without government-managed learning spaces, she and other experts argue, children will remain unable to focus their attention and at risk of becoming intolerant of children from other nations and regions. “They are not disciplined,” she said. Indeed, outbreaks of violence among refugees from different nations is increasingly common in the camps.

Clericetti explained: “The kids can’t play (together) if they don’t speak the language.”

An hour-long food line at a refugee encampment outside the Greek town of Moria, Lesbos island, on March 16, 2016

An hour-long food line at a refugee encampment outside the Greek town of Moria, Lesbos island, on March 16, 2016


“What do you wish for?”

“I wish for pace. No, no, I wish for peace.”


“What do you want?”

“I want to go to Germany.”


“What do you like?”

“I like English.”


“What do you hate?”

“I hate ISIS.”


Under a flapping canopy at Ritsona on a recent morning, an adult man in a baseball cap and flip­flops responded to questions in halting English. His teacher was a woman volunteer, significantly younger than he. Nine other men and women sat next to him on folding chairs, writing carefully in notebooks.

To date, education efforts in the camps such as this have been led almost exclusively by volunteers and large Non-Governmental Organizations. During a recent visit, education here was run by I AM YOU and focused exclusively on adults. Children played elsewhere in the camp or squatted idly nearby in the shade. Similar scenes can be found at other camps.

The classrooms at Ritsona are open-air tents. The camp has six showers for 600 or so migrants. Residents, rebelling against pre-packaged rations, cook food themselves over small fire pits. Aid works said the unsterile cook sites are thought to have contributed to a recent outbreak of hepatitis.

I AM YOU is one of 76 organizations ­­ including NGOs, universities and small so-called “solidarity” groups ­­ that hold classes in refugee camps across the country. But they operate without any central coordination or formal standards, and the private groups have tended to cluster disproportionately in just a few camps.

Refugees at some sites have watched as an alphabet soup of NGOs chaotically vied to attract adult students to language classes. At some other sites, no classes are offered at all.

“There is an awful lot of competitiveness, unfortunately. Coordinating is very hard,” Clericetti said.

The turmoil at times makes it difficult for refugee parents to find suitable classes for themselves as well as their children, Clericetti said. Many speak only Arabic or Farsi, and struggle to find teachers fluent in their native tongues.

“It’s really tricky [to organize] because we’ve got so many different languages, so many different abilities,” Elnashie explained.


The challenges are apparent to a worried father on the island of Lesbos, a primary landing site for migrants crossing from Turkey, just six miles or so away by water. The father declined to give his name to a reporter, saying he wanted to protect his family. But he readily described how, three months earlier, he had arrived from Lebanon, where he had felt threatened by ISIS because he is a Christian.

He was accompanied on his journey by his wife, an infant son and a 10-year-old daughter, whom he would like to see earn a degree in medicine or engineering. They now live together with other refugees, somewhat incongruously, in a former tourist resort called the Silver Bay Hotel. After tourist traffic evaporated in the face of the refugee crisis, a charity rented the entire seaside facility and moved in vulnerable migrant families.

“If there is a chance to send my daughter to a school, I will,” the father vowed.



Greece’s Education Ministry has its hands full. Pressure from the European Union, the Greek citizenry and the growing refugee population ­­ each with its own competing priorities ­­ has sparked frustration among administrators at what they see as a lack of adequate funding from the European Commission.

The Greek authorities already had reported a 36 percent drop in spending on education from 2009 to 2015. The portion of public expenditures that goes to education is the smallest in the EU, just 7.6 percent compared to an EU average of 10.2 percent.

In the background, Arabic-speaking refugees vie for snacks tossed from a van by an informal network of Samaritans from central Athens. This girl, who spoke no English, scored her cookies and juice box early, and insisted on documenting her success in a photo. March 18, 2016

In the background, Arabic-speaking refugees vie for snacks tossed from a van by an informal network of Samaritans from central Athens. This girl, who spoke no English, scored her cookies and juice box early, and insisted on documenting her success in a photo. March 18, 2016

A U.S. News and World Report ranking placed Greece’s education system in 24th place out of 60 nations reviewed, just behind the Czech Republic and ahead of Hungry.

The ministry recently established a blue-ribbon committee to investigate the refugee situation in Greece.

“After evaluating the adequacy and suitability of all sites that have been created to accommodate activities with children, basic deficiencies have been found,” the committee said in a report. The committee highlighted “unsuitable conditions” that it said it had discovered, “which in many cases are deemed to expose participants to risk.” Problems cited included a lack of schoolrooms, deficient equipment, poor hygiene and a vacuum in supervision.

In an interview at his expansive paneled office in Athens, Greek Education Ministry General Secretary Yannis Pantis explained that the committee set in motion an ambitious plan to provide a year’s worth of preparatory classes to refugee children before integrating them into the national educational system alongside Greek children.

“These children have no experience in school,” Pantis said, echoing Clericetti’s concerns. “They have totally different habits.”

Given that, Pantis said, the ministry’s focus for the coming year will not be on how much refugee children learn, but on achieving “education normality.”

However, implementation might prove a challenge.

“We’re not living on a pink cloud,” stressed Panagiotis Georgopoulos, a special advisor to the Minister of Education. “In some places there will be problems.”

“We have three problems to solve,” he said. “The first is financial. The second is the chronic deficiencies that the state has in being able to adapt to a changing emergency situation. And the third is to make the necessary legal changes to do all the things that we’ve planned to do.”

The Greek government is seeking at least $34 million [ €30 million ] of direct funding from the European Commission to launch its ambitious plan. However, the EU typically dictates the manner in which its funding to Greece must be spent, and the education of refugees is not an official EU priority.

“The EU is using the migration crisis as a bargaining chip,” charged Marios Andriotis, a senior advisor to the mayor of Lesbos. “It’s using refugees to get what it wants.”

This article was produced in conjunction with Princeton University’s Global Reporting initiative and under the direction of Joe Stephens, Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton and a veteran reporter for The Washington Post. Funding was provided by Princeton’s Ferris Seminars in journalism and the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies.

Student journalists participating in Princeton University’s Global Reporting initiative visited eight formal and informal refugee camps in and around Athens and on the island of Lesbos; interviewed dozens of refugees, their children and aid workers; toured living facilities for unaccompanied child refugees; reviewed documents and data regarding integration efforts; and interviewed top government officials, including senior government ministers.

 Princeton student Amanda Blanco contributed to this article. More information can be found at