On Sunday I visited an extraordinary school on the side of a motorway. Neither I nor the teachers or children knew it would be its final day.
The school was part of the Eko camp in northern Greece, home to around 2,000 mostly Syrian refugees. The camp’s title came from the fact it was built around an Eko petrol station.
Its inhabitants had travelled up the motorway in the hopes of crossing into Macedonia then on into wider Europe. However, after Macedonia sealed its border in March, thousands of refugees found themselves stuck.
Those at the camp on the border itself at Idomeni were moved to official camps last month. Those at Eko, 20 minutes’ drive away, were left in limbo, unsure where they would end up next.
Yesterday morning riot police arrived without warning to clear the camp, and get the refugees onto buses back south to an official camp near the city of Thessaloniki.
But the day before no-one at Eko knew that — and at the camp’s makeshift school it was just a normal day.
My wife and I had spent a few days visiting friends who were working at the camp, and had rented a van to transport supplies.
We had noticed a strong police presence on Friday, as our van was pulled over four times on the way to and from the camp.
“Organisation?” the police asked, each time, while recording our passport details. We explained, in a very friendly way, that we were not with an organisation, we were just visiting friends who worked at the camp. “Organisation?” they asked, again. “Um… They’re not with an organisation either.”
That was Eko in a nutshell. None of the major charities you see advertising on the TV in the UK appeared to be there. Medicin Sans Frontiers had two tents and provided food and medical support, there was a good clean-up team organised by a French charity, and you could see tents left by the UNHCR and Samaritan’s Purse. But that was about it for the big organisations.
The rest was run by an incredibly loose collective of young, proactive volunteers, largely Catalans, some Palestinians and a mix of European nationalities.
Our friend Giada, an Italian, had set up and ran the women’s tent while a young Frenchman, Quentin, oversaw the food tent (he was profiled by the Israeli photojournalist Dan Haimovitch, who we met on Lesvos, as part of his beautiful Good Souls project).
A clothing and supplies service was run by a Palestinian, Mohammed, and the school tent another Palestinian, Shireen, who agreed to let me join lessons on Sunday morning.
A normal school day
The school was open every day, except Friday, running lessons from 11am, usually following the same daily timetable.
On its last day, lessons began with an hour of beginners’ English, which attracted a class of more than 24 pupils of infant school age, who learned about words for family members (“father”, “mother”, “grand-father”) and question words (“what?”, “where?”, “why?”, and “how?”).
It was followed by an Arabic lesson, in which the teacher read from a children’s book then analysed sentences on the whiteboard, then a maths lesson involving challenges around addition, subtraction and multiplication, and a second English lesson, exploring action verbs. In the afternoon there were English lessons for adults, and art and art therapy for the children.
The makeshift school tent was hot, with outside temperatures around 26 degrees, and the pupils had no compulsory reason to attend, so a few boys and girls slipped in and out of the back of the class, or peered in through the door.
But the lessons were no less orderly than I have seen in many primary schools in Britain, with the vast majority of pupils staying in their seats and putting up their hands eagerly when they wanted to ask questions. Even the boys in the back row of the class wanted to show off their artwork to visitors.
The beginner’s English class was led by Lewis, a Catalan political scientist who had not taught before coming to the camp.
“My friend! My friend!” yelled some of the pupils trying to get his attention.
“We are not your friends.” he replied, with a smile. “We are your teachers!”
He was assisted by Mohammed, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee, who offered Arabic translations when certain concepts were lost on the students.
Mohammed later took over as the maths teacher for the most engaging — and raucous — of the lessons. Switching the seating format from rows of desks to a horse-shoe he divided the class into two teams, and got them to compete answering strings of questions, using his mobile phone as a countdown timer.
When the time was up he marked the answers on the board, ticking the correct ones and explaining the mistakes. The teams got more excited with each answer, with louder cheers and groans each time, until one girl had to be asked to stop jumping up and down on her desk with sheer excitement.
After the lesson Mohammed explained he had actually never been a teacher before either. Before escaping Aleppo he was an engineering student. He had wanted to volunteer at the school to help the children. “I do what I can,” he said.
The stories of the children’s families are terrible. Many of the children had lost parents or siblings or uncles or aunts. Two of the parents I met elsewhere on my visit had been shot by snipers, and continued to suffer from their wounds.
Yet the children themselves managed to buzz with delight, both in the classroom or outside it. It was hard to walk for more than a few minutes without a child running over for a chat or a handshake or surprising you with a hug.
Their relaxed attitude to the camp as they played hopscotch or volleyball, or kicked a football around, seemed to infect the adults. They and the school made a place that wasn’t normal feel like it was.
That illusion of normality was shattered at 7am yesterday when police arrived to begin evicting the refugees from the camp.
Any silver lining?
The volunteers at the camp have been devastated by the eviction. Some, including our friend Giada, were taken away by the police and detained when they tried to say goodbye to the refugees, though they were later released.
They are deeply concerned about the conditions at the official camps, where there have been reports of overcrowding and poor sanitation, and little access has been given to volunteers. The charity Lighthouse Relief, who we volunteered with on Lesbos, tweeted:
The one potential positive of the eviction is it should, in theory, speed up registration for the refugees.
My wife and our friend Johnny and I spent Saturday afternoon shifting boxes of supplies for the camp in and out of vans with a handful of young Syrian men. Two of them had decided to leave their country after being jailed for refusing to join the Syrian army, punished not wanting to risk killing other Syrians.
One, aged 30, had been a postgraduate student of applied chemistry. He had travelled without his wife and two children because it was too dangerous to take them with him — danger he said was proven when the van he was smuggled in across the border to Turkey was shot at by guards.
He had been terrified by the boat crossing from Ismir in Turkey to Lesbos, crammed onto a seven-metre long rubber boat with 50 other people, unsure if the engine would stop and the boat would drift off in the darkness.
“What month did you get to Lesbos?” I asked. In March, he said. “Ooh!” I said cheerfully, like a holiday-maker who’d been to the same destination, “I was there in March too!”
Since then, though, he had been stuck in Greece, frustrated, and uncertain when he would reach a place where he could be reunited with his family. His concern was that the refugees who had been moved into official camps would already be getting appointments for registration, while those at Eko would end up at the back of the queue and face months more waiting. Why, he asked, could the registration not happen at Eko?
If the official camp can significantly reduce the time the refugees are left waiting to be be settled safely, then some good will come from yesterday’s heavy-handed eviction.
But it’s a big if. It is unclear at this time what facilities the camp can provide, and the reports about its conditions are deeply worrying, with photos from it showing a converted factory with rubbish strewn outside.
Odd though it sounds, the new camp will be hard-pressed to provide as welcoming a space for the children as the school at the petrol station.