My last blog as a VSO volunteer

My time in Ghana has come to an end – I flew back to the UK 2 weeks ago. Today is also my last as a VSO volunteer. I continued to volunteer remotely since arriving back, although to be honest, I didn’t have much to do other than fill in some end of placement reports and tidy up a few bits and pieces. I’ve been pretty exhausted since arriving home anyway so it has been nice to just relax.

In March I returned to the UK to see Faye, who’d returned in January for medical reasons. It was the longest we’d been apart and it was tough but I was reasonably busy with my project and had enough to distract myself most of the time. Being back in the UK and ‘on holiday’ was great – I caught up with family and I indulged in all the home comforts I’d missed: cheese, fresh bread, pizza, craft beer, walking in the countryside. Faye and I got engaged, which was a highlight of course. It was too much fun really: I reluctantly flew back to Ghana for my last stint.

Faye at the Tate Modern

With only a month left of my placement it was a case of seeing what I could get done. Before I left for my March UK holiday, a school had requested some basic ICT training – so I found an ‘open-source’ course, which had been designed for people whose first experience of the internet is through mobile phones. I adapted this course to make it more suitable for Ghanaian teachers and ran a session on my return. The training went well (although I would have liked more time).  I handed over some pretty extensive notes and slides to the local education authority, so that they can repeat the course in other schools if they want.1

Me delivering an ICT training course to a group of teachers in Talensi

I then returned to Accra for my last week and spent a rewarding two days with OLE Ghana – the partner doing the bulk of the delivery on the project. We spent some time being quite honest about what had and hadn’t worked on the project and then planned some of the activities for the last 3 months. I was given a lovely Ghanaian shirt as a leaving present. I will really miss these guys – they are fantastic: enthusiastic, passionate and determined.

My last visit to education technology specialists OLE Ghana

And with that done, I boarded my flight and returned home – arriving at a cold and wet heathrow airport at 6:30 am. I am slowly getting over my reverse culture shock. With our travels now over, at some point Faye and I will probably write a final blog for this site (unless we decide to do it all over again in a few years).

A curve traced out by a point that moves so that its distance from a given point is constant

Are you confused by the title? Bear with me..

I’ve been working with my colleagues to write a series of online modules aimed at teachers in Ghana. When signing up to become an ‘ICT in Education Advisor’, I never expected to be helping to author courses dealing with practical topics such as ‘classroom management’, ‘getting to know your pupils’ and ‘lesson planning’. But it’s what needs to be done so I’ve researched, learnt and worked on training that explores the best approaches to educating children. And I’ve found that maybe coming from a different background and not having the preconceptions of someone with a history of working in this area, might have helped. The theories that claim to backup successful education approaches are naturally areas of great interest to teachers, parents, researchers and just about anyone. Some theories can become so widely accepted, that casting a critical eye on them can be surprisingly emotive. I recently became embroiled in a debate over whether the theory of individual learning styles is a useful way to describe how we absorb information. This came up when we were developing the course focused on  ‘getting to know your pupils’ and my colleagues wanted to include videos about learning styles in the module.

If you are unfamiliar with learning styles, it is a theory that states we each have a preferred sensory mode when it comes to taking in information. Some flavours of the theory are complex, but the most popular and simple version is that there are 3 main types of learner: audial, visual and kinaesthetic. So, an audial learner prefers to learn by listening; a visual learner prefers visual styles of information delivery; and a kinaesthetic learner likes to touch things and ‘learn by doing’. The critical part of the theory, from the perspective of an educator, states that if you can deliver information that targets an individual’s preferred sensory mode, he or she will learn faster than if you target other senses.

I’m a learning styles sceptic for three main reasons: there isn’t much evidence that it works, I don’t think there is an adequate method to determine a person’s preferred sensory mode and finally, I’m not sure it makes intuitive sense (more about that later). It turned out my colleagues were not sceptics – far from it: they passionately defended learning styles. In fact, I was at risk of offending them when they started to cite their personal experiences as teachers and parents.

I started to realise that this ‘belief’ in learning styles might be a wider problem in the education field. Indeed, a bit more googling, and it turned out there were whole TEDx talks, articles and blog posts dedicated to both questioning learning styles as a theory and providing ways to sensitively broaching the topic with die-hard adherents. Clearly this theory is incredibly appealing to lots of people – but why do people love it so much?

One reason might be that learning styles seems to make ‘intuitive sense’ to them – unfortunately, whenever anything makes intuitive sense, I think that alarms bells should start to ring, because it means you may well skip an important step – demanding and examining the available evidence. As I said, the evidence is almost non-existent. That is reason enough for scepticism, but I don’t think it does make intuitive sense.

My take on learning styles is that selecting which ‘sensory modes’ to target is far more dependent on the information you are trying to communicate than the individual you are communicating with. For example, what did I describe in the title of this blog? ‘A curve traced out by a point that moves so that its distance from a given point is constant.’ Get someone else to read the words out loud – does that help? I’m sure most people will get it, but it would have been faster if I’d just drawn a circle. That’s not because you are a poor audial learner, it’s because some types of information are slower to process when described than when visualised.

The exception is when communicating with someone who has impairment in one or more of their senses – then of course some modes may be inappropriate.

Ultimately, although I failed to convince my colleagues that learning styles theory may not be as helpful to an educator as many people believe, I was able to convince them to drop all mention of it in the module and instead focus on the importance of getting to know your pupils on an individual level with respect to their motivations, interests and personality.

I’m still pretty new to all of these education theories so I’d be interested to hear from anybody with strong views or experiences to share. What’s your take on learning styles?

 

Links to other articles, talks and blogs:

Learning styles & the importance of critical self-reflection | Tesia Marshik | TEDxUWLaCrosse

All you need know about the learning styles myth in two minutes

The concept of learning styles is one of the great neuroscience myths – QZ

Can neuroscientists dispel the myth that children have different learning styles

I only have a yam

“I only have a yam” is what Ghanaians say when they don’t have a smartphone. As you’ll see, this is one of the challenges we are dealing with in a technology project, but first..

Yams by C Ford (shared under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license)

It’s been a while since I talked about the project I am working on in Ghana. In part because of personal circumstance since Christmas – see the most recent blog post from Faye2. But it’s also because things moved relatively slowly in the first few months – it can certainly take a while to find your feet in any new job but even more so when working in a country that does things so differently to the UK. Well anyway, I am starting to make progress so now seems like a good time for an update.

My project seeks to improve teaching standards in marginalised rural schools – something people have been trying for years with varying success. One of the proven ways to rapidly enhance the abilities of a school’s existing teachers is to fill the school with highly experienced and motivated people to act as coaches, mentors and trainers. It’s a pretty labour intensive and therefore expensive way of doing things – there are also questions about its sustainability: what happens when those coaches leave? My project – TEST, which stands for Teacher Empowerment (through) Support and Technology – has been asking the question: What if technology could play a role in reaching those schools and its teachers instead?

The early part of the project focused on familiarising the teachers with the use of tablets, projectors and a new website which allowed them to download (hopefully) useful resources. The idea was to make their lessons a bit more exciting and interactive for kids, and also to get the teachers comfortable using the various bits of tech they’d been supplied with. Now we have started to tackle the hard part – the teachers’ skills gaps.

Last week we launched the latest phase: vocational training for Ghanaian teachers, heads and district education supervisors – all delivered through an online training platform. We’ve been heavily influenced by the style and format of the increasingly popular Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) currently found on platforms such as EdX, Coursea and Udacity.

The MOOCs model is appealing but we have had adapt it to fit with the local context. It is an interesting challenge to think through all of the ways that this part of the project might fail in Ghana and then attempt to counter those. The list of potential stumbling blocks is very long, so I’ll just give a few examples:

Motivational issues

There are systemic issues relating to pay, conditions, the value Ghanaian society places on teaching as a profession, the ‘politicisation’ of education, etc. that our project can never hope to overcome. We have to accept that a certain proportion of teachers will never be reached or influenced by our efforts. Therefore, we have to make sure we focus our time and energy on those who do care (despite all the challenges they face) and to support them as much as possible through our presence, guidance and encouragement. We have introduced a competitive element to the entire project (prizes for the best teacher for example) that is linked to participation in the online courses. For those with motivation, we hope to help them maintain it during their attempts at online learning.

Technical

We’ve designed the platform and the courses it hosts for the devices people use. The vast majority of teachers do not own a laptop or desktop computer and although smartphones are increasingly popular amongst teachers, I would guess that about 50% of teachers only have a basic phone – known locally as a yam (after the popular vegetable). Each school has been given 2 tablets to use though, and teachers have access to them, so our online courses are designed with tablets and smartphones in mind. The course materials (videos) etc. are low resolution and will work on even the most basic smartphone.

Practical

Internet is almost exclusively over cellular networks and signal strength is variable in rural areas. Teachers are also poorly paid and most are extremely careful with their money – every Cedi (worth about 18p) counts and data is always ‘pay as you go’. Therefore, we have to keep download sizes as small as possible, which means low resolution and compressed video. It also means enabling the entire course to be downloaded in one go (at a time when the learner is in a place with good connectivity). So, our introduction course is only 6MB in size, which will cost around 0.16 Cedi, or 3p.

Teachers, Heads and district supervisors in West Mamprusi get to grips with how to access the online courses

So there we are! This is not the first attempt at online learning in Ghana – a university already offers degrees – but as far as I am aware, it is the first time it has been tried exclusively for teachers. We ran training events last week and I ran a session for teachers, heads and district officials on how to access the courses and get the most out of them. The first course is now live and over the next 4 months we have to author and launch a further 15 courses to a set timetable. It’s a lot of work – so I better get back to it.

A practical session in Talensi taking people through the first course. Note – tucking your shirt in isn’t required in Ghana – honest. Photo: Gilbert Akolgo

Mole National Park

Last weekend we travelled to Mole National Park for a quick break. It was the first bit of travelling we’ve done in Ghana purely for leisure.

Getting to the park wasn’t comfortable, but it was quick. We caught a ‘trotro’ at 7am from the centre of Tamale. A trotro is basically a minibus with too many seats, no air-conditioning and questionable roadworthiness. We were lucky though; trotros always depart full, which means you sometimes have to wait hours for enough passengers to show up. We only waited 15 minutes before setting off in the pins-and-needles-inducing back seats, with our bags squashed on our laps.

The trotro routes don’t go directly to the park. After 2 and a half hours, we got off at the nearest town called Larabanga. Departing the bus, we were mobbed by local ‘guides’. It was a bit much and we tried to encourage them to give us some space, a request they mainly ignored. Larabanga is famous for its mud and stick mosque, which might be the oldest of its kind in Ghana, but no one really knows. We looked at the mosque (from the outside only!) and were made to pay a “community development” fee from some insistent and aggressive (by Ghanaian standards) young men. The hassle didn’t make for a pleasurable experience, but the mosque was interesting. You are welcome to look at the following photo for absolutely no charge 🙂

The mud and stick mosque at Larabanga

The mud and stick mosque at Larabanga

From Larabanga to the park, we had to catch a local taxi at the extortionate price of 25 GHC (£5) – that distance in Tamale would’ve been under a fifth of the price. If we were regular tourists, we probably wouldn’t have felt hard done by, but because we are on local salaries, every penny counts. Once in the park, our moods lightened as we caught a glimpse of several elephants drinking from a watering hole.

Standing on the ridge with the park behind us

Standing on the ridge with the park behind us

We stayed in the park’s more budget accommodation (Mole Motel), but despite being a bit run-down, it proved to be a charming and relaxing location. It was built on a ridge, with great views of the park. The nearby visitor’s centre is where safaris depart from, so we wandered over in the late afternoon to go on a 2-hour driving tour of the park. Sadly, the elephants had gone, but we did see all manner of antelope, deer, warthog and a few monkeys.

The view on our driving safari

The view on our driving safari

A lot of grass fires were burning in the park. At this time of year (the dry season), grass fires are common all over the north of Ghana. They are deliberately started, but the reasons seem to vary. Someone told us the ones in the park had been started by nearby villagers, who felt aggrieved that they did not benefit fairly from the tourist money that the park attracted. We didn’t definitively get to the bottom of it, but the fires and the aftermath of previous fires certainly made for an apocalyptic landscape at times – particularly if, like me, you have been reading too much JG Ballard recently.

The scorched earth after a large grass fire

The scorched earth after a large grass fire

The next morning we got up early to go on a walking safari. It started at 7:00am, to avoid the heat. We walked a few miles, but within the small area we covered, we saw many different landscapes: dense woods, grassy plains, small ponds full of lily’s, sparse scrubland and dried up river beds. Without a guide, you would easily get lost. We were disappointed not to find the elephants again, but it was nice to be walking in the cool morning air. Although we saw fewer animals, we felt closer to nature than on the driving safari. We did see monkeys, and most unusually, an adult crocodile eating a baby crocodile! At least, I assume it was unusual. The photo wasn’t great, so here is one of a mother and child warthog instead.

Mother and child warthogs by the main watering hole

Mother and child warthogs by the main watering hole

Later at breakfast, a brown praying mantis came to say hello. I’ve seen plenty of green ones in Ghana, so it was nice to see something different. I named it Samantha. She didn’t break her gaze until we’d finished our coffees – quite unnerving really.

A praying mantis joining us for breakfast

A praying mantis joining us for breakfast

We relaxed by the pool most of the day, chatting to other guests. There aren’t a whole lot of sites to visit in Northern Ghana, so we recognised about 15 people we’d seen or spoken to in Tamale – mainly “expats” doing similar work to us. I was just about to have another dip in the pool, when someone spotted an elephant at the watering hole again. You aren’t allowed to walk in the park without an armed ranger, so we ran to get one.

The park ranger tracking an elephant

The park ranger tracking an elephant

Most of the guests hurriedly changed out of their swimming gear and we set off down the steep sides of the ridge into the flatlands to find the elephant. We pursued it for about an hour, but the elephant wasn’t interested in stopping, so we didn’t really get close. Heading back towards the hotel, the ranger took a call and was told that a second elephant had been spotted about a mile away – so once again, we took off through the bush, sometimes running. At last, we came across a large adult elephant feeding on the leaves of a tree. Keeping our distance, the elephant happily got on with its meal as we excitedly snapped away with our cameras and phones.

A lone adult elephant enjoying an evening meal

A lone adult elephant enjoying an evening meal

We made our way back to the hotel, happy with our encounter and fairly hungry after 2 hours of unexpected walking and running. The next morning we returned to Tamale, reversing our steps, but avoiding any further “community development” fees in Larabanga. Mole is certainly worth a visit – it may not be an untouched paradise, but it is otherworldly at times, with its strange landscapes, ethereal colours and impressive sunsets. Below are a few more photos.

A field of long grass in the setting sun

A field of long grass in the setting sun

Some birds rest in a tree during the strange morning light

A bird rest in a tree during the strange morning light

Educating Ghana

Part of my role in Ghana is to help in the implementation of a project that aims to improve teaching standards in state-funded schools. Earlier this month I visited 10 of the schools taking part to see how they are getting on. I want to tell you a bit about the project, why it’s needed, and some of the challenges I saw on my visits.

In the north of Ghana, where I am based, many children, particularly in rural public schools, never learn to read. Just look at the literacy rates in those regions below.2 The north is poorer and less developed but efforts to improve the quality of education are one way in which this imbalance can be addressed for the future.

The three northern regions are: Northern, Upper West and Upper East.

The three northern regions are: Northern, Upper West and Upper East.

Our project is called “Teacher Empowerment through Support and Technology (TEST)”. Education technology specialists OLE Ghana2 have built a website3 for teachers which is full of high quality teaching materials, instructions on how to teach reading and lesson plans. The website is also a place for teachers to get support and advice from colleagues and experts. To help teachers make the best use of these resources we have supplied schools with tablets and projectors.

To get a sense of how people were getting on, we observed reading lessons being taught to grade 6 (ages 10/11). In one school, the teacher used the digital projector to put a story up on the classroom wall. It was a nicely illustrated book and the children were certainly captivated by the images and text. What concerned us though, was many of the pupils didn’t seem to actively participate in the lesson – only two out of the 40 or so pupils volunteered to read out loud.

After the lesson observations, we would run sessions with the teachers asking them to brainstorm activities they could use to teach children to read. In school after school, the same ideas were put forward – writing the letters on the board, saying the sounds of the letters, getting the pupils to repeat. What is known as teaching by rote. Unfortunately, this technique ends up leaving many children behind. We introduced the teachers to more interactive methods of teaching children to read and showed them how they could access helpful resources on the TEST website.

Teaching Vocab

A teacher using the projector to introduce new vocabulary to his class

I don’t want to sound like I am being overtly critical of teachers here. They work in difficult conditions, for low pay and sometimes without any training or qualifications. New teachers can have it even tougher – on the way to one school we gave a newly qualified teacher a lift to a main road. She told us that she hadn’t been paid yet, although she’d started work 3 months ago. It is a common and disheartening problem.

Teachers face many other difficulties (such as big classes, poor leadership, sick or hungry children, lack of reliable electrical power, water supply issues). The result is that it is genuinely tough to teach effectively in such an environment. Only the most resilient and talented teachers can thrive. For many others, it can be hard to stay motivated. During our visits, OLE Ghana would give impassioned pep talks. Being Ghanaians and understanding the culture and the context, they were able to say things that really resonated with the teachers. There is high hope that we can really inspire teachers with this project – but it is going to take a lot of work and a lot more field visits.

Kofi Essien of OLE Ghana inspiring the teachers

Kofi Essien of OLE Ghana inspiring the teachers

Supplying schools with tablets and projectors is the easy part of this project, but changing people’s mindset and improving people’s motivation is a huge challenge. The first year of the project ends in August – by that time, we hope to see the beginnings of change happening in our schools. Little signs that teachers are starting to take a more proactive approach to their lesson planning, professional development and classroom management. I hope to write more in the future about the project’s progress.

Our Final Challenge in Athens – The Orange House

Back in June shortly after we arrived in Athens, I’d spent a few days volunteering at a new project called The Orange House. 4 Based in a former shop in the anarchist area of Athens, they were hoping to refurbish their building in order to provide much needed accommodation and support for vulnerable refugee groups, such as unaccompanied minors and people from the LGBT community. It was a big job for skilled tradesmen, so once my limited DIY skills had been exhausted, I moved on to other things.

Refurbishment: during and after

Refurbishment: during and after

Skipping forward about 6 weeks, Faye and I settled down one evening after another tiring day and I saw a message flash up from Marina, the director of The Orange House. She told me that the house was now open: residents were beginning to move in, activities were being planned and a team of volunteers were helping to run things. Like many new projects, with lots of work but without a full-time professional team, things were getting a little stretched. Marina asked if Faye and I could come in each morning to help delegate tasks, and provide a bit more of a management structure, so that other volunteers could feel more confident and empowered to get on with their day. Thinking it would fit in nicely with our other commitments, we agreed.

A few days later, we started at the Orange House. We got to know the existing volunteers and residents and explained who we were and why we were there. We then delegated some tasks and left for our afternoon volunteer commitment. As the week went on, our responsibilities quickly escalated. Marina (who already had a full-time job) had to go away for a week and a long-term volunteer, with responsibilities for the rota, social work and covering a significant number of the nightshifts, decided to end her involvement in the project at short-notice. Suddenly, we found ourselves pretty much managing the on-the-ground running of the project. We had great support from the volunteers, as well as Marina, and two board members, Aida and Barbara, based in North America, but coming in for a few hours each morning was no longer an option. We still made it to our afternoon volunteering at the squat, but it would be straight back to the Orange House after.

The Orange House

The Orange House – can you guess where the project got its name from?

It was exhausting, but rewarding. We had many challenges but we were able to use some of our project and people management skills to make improvements to how things worked – it was the first time we’d spent hours on end sitting at computers since we quit our jobs! We fixed some issues with the rota, recruited more volunteers for the unpopular nightshift, started giving new volunteers a detailed induction and used more transparent methods of prioritising, delegating and tracking outstanding jobs and tasks. We also worked hard to encouraged a positive attitude – which is vital in any job, but especially in the demanding environment of the Greek refugee crisis. There were many notable moments during our time with the project, both positive and negative, which will stay with us. Here is just one story that stands out:

Because the project provided support and a safe space for unaccompanied minors, a couple of the volunteers were tasked with contacting a teenager, J (not his real name), to see if he was okay and to ask if he wanted to drop by for a cup of tea. He was one of a number of people the project would check-up on.

Later that day, whilst Faye and I were at our regular afternoon commitment, we had a call from one of the volunteers. She’d been in contact with J by Facebook messenger, and he was in some difficulty. He’d travelled to an agricultural region about 90 minutes north of Athens to do some farm work on the promise of a ‘short-term, easy way’ to get himself a little money. He’d worked for a month, but the farmers didn’t pay him. That day he’d returned to the farm and was demanding pay, but it sounded like he wasn’t going to get any and it also sounded like he didn’t have any way to leave. We were concerned for his safety and sought the advice of a charity specialising in forced labour situations involving children. They took over and coordinated a rescue with the local police force. We thought perhaps we could pick up J the next day to bring him back to Athens. But late that evening, we had another call from the charity, who told us that the police were treating J has an adult who had been caught carrying out illegal work. They were going to detain him until he could be deported back to Afghanistan. Apparently J’s Greek papers (issued to refugees on arrival) stated that he was an adult. We felt awful – we had initiated the rescue and now the victim of exploitation was being detained by the police.

After a bad night’s sleep, we returned to the Orange House and called a group of lawyers providing free advocacy to refugees. They contacted the police station and reassured us on two counts a) deportation takes months, so he was not in any immediate risk and b) they had successfully prevented deportation in similar cases before. We were relieved, but things weren’t over yet. J was still in detention and his phone had been confiscated. We contacted the police and were told we could visit, so the next morning we drove out of Athens and up to the police station with some food and juice for J and accompanied by a translator called Sayed – one of the many Afghan translators who’d worked for the British military, later forced to flee his country after threats from the Taliban. At the police station, only one of us and the translator were allowed to enter, so Faye and Sayed went in. I didn’t see the conditions, but Faye recounted how terrible they were: dirty, overcrowded and hot. J’s mood and demeanor quickly improved when he saw Faye and Sayed and heard that we were working to get him released. He explained that his Greek papers did say he was an adult, because like many minors traveling alone, he’d lied about his age when first arriving in Greece. This was for a simple reason – he wanted to be able to travel freely in order to continue his journey north (without the interference of the authorities). But like most refugees in Greece, he became trapped when the borders closed. His Afghan ID did have his correct age, so it was a matter of getting the police to translate it from Farsi, recognise this mistake and let him go.

It took a frustrating amount of time – the workload of the lawyers in Greece is huge – but J was eventually released after 3 weeks (by this time, we’d left Athens) and is doing well. There are many things shocking about this case, not least the response of the police and the charity set up to support victims of forced labour*, but the thing that stands out for me is the thought of what would have happened if The Orange House hadn’t been looking out for J – would he have been left in that police cell for months? Would he have been deported? The case reinforced the need for projects like The Orange House, staffed by people who show genuine humanity and compassion. The incident forced us to examine our own actions too: in retrospect, it is likely that we would have more seriously considered attempting to pick-up J ourselves, even though we know all the risks.

We were only the managers of the Orange House for about 14 days, but so much happened in that short space of time it felt like a lot longer. It came at the end of our two months in Greece, and pretty much finished us off, both physically and emotionally. We were spent and it was time for us to leave: with great sadness at saying goodbye to all the people we’d met, but also relief: we needed to sleep and we need to decompress.

After sharing a few reflections on our brief time in Calais in September, in our final Greece themed blog, Faye will write about leaving Athens and look back on our volunteer experience as a whole.

You can read more about the Orange House on their Facebook page and website. They are in constant need of donations to support their vital work.

https://www.facebook.com/zaatarngo

http://zaatarngo.org 

* we have decided not to name the forced labour charity, because although we disagreed with its response in this instance, it is just one case out of many and may not be reflective of their overall work or approach. We did provide them with feedback.

July in Athens: Plans change and then they change again

Our time in Athens was neatly divided by a return to England for a wedding. The second half (post-wedding trip) didn’t go to plan to begin with, but ultimately ended in a very rewarding experience, managing volunteers at a project called the Orange House. I will write about this in a next blog, but for now, this is a tale of how our plans didn’t quite pan out.

Before we left for England at the end of June, the Schoolbox Project I’d been working with came to an end 2 and Faye had pretty much completed a website she was building for AMURTEL. 2 We were still providing support to several families on an ad hoc basis, but our regular commitments that took up the most time had run their course.

Searching for something new, we applied for positions with Movement on the Ground (MOTG) who were running children’s activities at the camp called Skaramangas, about 30 minutes drive from Athens. Our first, introductory day was really interesting (in a good way). There were 100s of children and MOTG seemed to have a well structured set of activities and relatively good facilities (a large circus tent and a playground). We left the camp at about 8pm, as the sun was low in the sky, looking forward to starting with MOTG properly later in the week, if a bit daunted by how exhausting it was going to be, especially in a concrete-covered camp that radiated the heat of the Greek summer. It was going to take up all of our time: 6 days of 12+ hour shifts in a row, with a rest day on Sunday.

Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. Several hours after we left on our first day, the camp experienced a serious disturbance involving a large group of young male residents. Several experienced volunteers who were staying late were caught up in what was described as a mini-riot, between members of the Syrian and Yazidi communities. Some refugees were hurt and some of the isoboxes (caravan type living spaces) were damaged.

One of the problems for people in this situation is that there really isn’t much for them to do. Long hot days in difficult conditions, combined with poor treatment, the uncertainty of what the future holds, the separation from family and friends, and the lack of money, meaningful work or positive focus in life all take their toll on people’s state of mind. It affects everyone, but young single men – often traveling without their families – are perhaps the most likely to act out their frustrations with violence or trouble-making.  The riot combined with several other security issues prompted MOTG to suspend activities at the camp. So we were left looking for new ways to contribute to the crisis.

We had a soft spot for the squats of Athens, which were mainly located in or near Exarchia – the anarchist area. They had their significant problems – lack of food, sanitation, and at times leadership and space – but they usually had a more relaxed atmosphere, particularly compared to some of the unofficial camps. They afforded the refugees a bit more dignity and I think this contributed to the more stable environment. The squats lacked any official support, so we thought we would spend more time helping them however we could.

Firstly, with our car and donation money to spend, we bought food and supplies for a relatively new squat, called Hotel Oniro. For example, we bought enough plates, mugs and glasses for every resident and about 10 kgs of spices: the chef was so pleased, as he had been struggling to add flavour to the staple donated foods of couscous, pasta and rice.

Secondly, we decided to help run some activities for the young people at Hotel Oniro. They didn’t have much communal space and had to be quiet in the squat so as not to disturb the neighbours, but there was a nearby park. A small group of Spanish volunteers were also running activities in the afternoon, so we joined forces. We mainly did English lessons and our Spanish friends concentrated on arts and crafts. Each afternoon, we would meet at the hotel and usually take about 20 kids to the park for lessons, activities and then play. It was important for the kids to use up some energy and get out of the hotel for a bit. One of the kids at the hotel, Samer, had previously been living at the port with his father where he was regular visitor to the Schoolbox Project: it was great to see a familiar face, and I was glad they had found a nicer place to live.

Dedicating the afternoons to Hotel Oniro, gave us time in the mornings to continue our other work: supporting individual families with specific needs, working with another squat to help with food supply issues and spending donated money on aid. Once again, we seemed to have found our niche, but once again it was about to change dramatically.

Part two of this blog coming soon…

[Note: Yes, we are in Ghana now and will get to that soon, once we’ve caught up on a few stories from Athens.]

Help for Hire

Dying for a night off from the kids? Shirts need ironing? Got an outstanding DIY job you can’t face finishing? Filthy car? Household chores piling up? Why toil away when you can pay someone else to do it and support a good cause at the same time! That’s right – Faye and I are willing to do the things you don’t want to do. All money will go to Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), a fantastic charity, who have been working to eradicate poverty for almost 60 years. You can read more about what we’re doing here.

Faye washing up all of your dishes

Faye washing up all of your dishes (Tom will dry and put away)

Below you will see a list of the kind of things we are willing to do with some suggested prices. However, we are open to ideas. If you need something doing, we are probably willing to do it!  We will be in the UK until Sunday 2nd October. If that’s too soon, you can always pay a 100% deposit and we promise to complete our tasks when we come back in May 2017.

Service Suggested Donation
Clothes ironing £1 per item
Babysitting for an evening £30
Packed lunch prepared for 5 days £35
Cleaning your car £10 (£15 including inside)
Cleaning your house £30
Walking your dog £10
Painting and decorating / DIY Negotiable
Mowing the lawn £15
Waiting in for a delivery (can be combined with cleaning) £10
Deep cleaning of oven, Fridge, Freezer £10
Chef for the evening £15 per person
Feeding your pets whilst you’re away Negotiable

Book us by either contacting one of us by your preferred method, or if you don’t know us personally, just put a comment on the blog with your contact details and what you want doing (we won’t publish the comment, so your information won’t be public).

Tom ironing all of your clothes with tiny ironing board

Tom ironing all of your clothes with a tiny ironing board

Hospitality, queues and anarchists

The refugee community is as diverse as any other. The varied ways in which refugees are responding to the crisis reflects this. No one person’s experience is the identical to any other, but there are some themes that seem to tie them together. Here are just a few that we’ve observed.

Waiting: Many families have been split up because only some of them made it further into Europe before the borders closed. In every one of these cases we have encountered, those stuck in Greece are applying for reunification: that is, the right to rejoin the rest of the family in whatever country they made it to (often Germany).

For some, there is a time pressure: such as R, who is 17 (with 2 children) and wants to join her father in Germany.3 She is worried that once she turns 18, she will not be entitled to reunification (this would be an incredibly to-the-letter reading of the reunification rules, which may or may not be applied). The waiting times for appointments are on a timescales of months! R has recently found out her second asylum / reunification interview will be in December (her birthday is in January).

Not all refugees have the patience. We know of people who have used smugglers to get themselves to where they want be: a dangerous and expensive method – one which we do not in any way advocate but, at the same time, can empathise with.

Protesting: with the slow and unwieldy asylum application process, the difficulties of obtaining adequate healthcare and the conditions in the camps, some refugees have taken to protesting. Yesterday we went to meet with a group of around 25 refugees, many with medical conditions, who are peacefully protesting by sleeping outside of the offices of a Greek NGO. They feel their rights as refugees (including the rights to housing and adequate healthcare, which the NGO in question is tasked in part with providing) are not being met.

They asked us if we supported their protest and of course we said yes! Their rights should be respected, yet we have even heard that the NGO will not let them inside to fill their water bottles or use the toilet. No single organisation is to blame for these problems, but the problems really need to be dealt with. We will go back soon, to see if we can provide any comfort to the protestors in the form of food and water.

Queueing: Refugees can spend hours in endless queues for food, appointments, doctors – you name it, there is probably a long queue somewhere right now in the blazing sun. With the exception of those strange people who wait outside the Apple store, no-one likes queueing. I cannot imagine the stress of having to do it constantly with an empty stomach, your entire family in tow and the possibility that you will not achieve anything at the end of it. Many times people queue only to be told the appointments have finished for the day or the food has run out. There are surprisingly few fights!

Refugees queueing on another hot day

Refugees queueing on another hot day

Self-organisation: Recently we have spent a lot of time in the squats. In the Exarchia area of Athens there are at least 6 squats for refugees. These were set up by local anarchists and handed over. The squats are in old hotels and abandoned schools.

They work in a very different way to the camps – the refugees set up their own programmes of activities and must manage all aspects of everyday life (cleaning, cooking, entertainment, security, education etc.). Volunteers help and contribute, but the ethos is that it should be with the support, blessing and input of the residents. I find this is an inspiring model, but it has its challenges: not being official camps, the squats do not get the same amount of aid or support. Squats also run the risk of coming to the attention of local fascists and the police, who can cause problems.

Hospitality and friendliness: Despite the uncertainty of where the next meal will come from, countless people continue to be warm and hospitable. Yesterday morning, as we waited around to meet someone at one of the squats, we were given seats in the shade and hot milk by a man we had never met before.

Such hospitality is frequent and it is with some guilt that we accept it – we do so because it is such an important part not only of Middle Eastern culture, but also of creating relationships between equals (not just refugees and volunteers). Being able to hold on to and continue with your culture’s traditions and norms is an important part of coping in difficult times.

Smiling and laughing: Life is tough, but many people are able to keep smiling and laughing. Lots of people have built strong social networks and communities and, whilst it’s definitely not easy, these play a huge role in maintaining morale and wellbeing – giving people the endless patience they need to keep on waiting.

My time at the Schoolbox Project

In my third week in Athens, I started volunteering at a project called The Schoolbox Project based at gate E1 of the main ferry terminal, Pireaus, where hundreds of families are living in tents pitched directly onto the hard tarmac. It is hot, noisy and dusty.

The purpose of the project is to provide therapeutic play to refugee children. The refugees coming into Europe have been through so much: war, dangerous journeys in the hope of finding safety and now huge uncertainty in what the future holds for them. I had read many things about the toll this was taking on people’s wellbeing and mental health, so it seemed right to get involved in a project that was responding to that.

The Schoolbox consisted of a shipping container used to store materials, some gazebos for shade and a bit of outdoor space bordered by other containers. Activities happened outside the box, so we moved some of the drawing materials and a small play tent into the shade. Many children quickly appeared and some settled down to colouring but others were boisterous and energetic – their play-fighting quickly crossed over into actual fighting. We did our best to prevent and breakup fights, but it was a tough afternoon.  After 3 intense hours, we closed up for the day.

The Schoolbox

A calm-looking Schoolbox

In those 3 hours, I didn’t have time to stop and think about what I’d seen, but on the drive home I was suddenly hit with emotion. What I had witnessed was shocking: those children were really suffering and seeing it firsthand was overwhelming.  I also realised that in some respects, I was out of my depth – not being a parent, trained social worker or child psychologist.

When we did get a chance to get advice from one of the longer-term volunteers, however, I was reassured that I didn’t have to be any of those things – she gave us the confidence that just being there (whatever our background and experience) was helpful. Armed with some techniques to help calm the children and a new understanding of the structure and variety needed for effective therapeutic play, we started week 2 at the Schoolbox with renewed enthusiasm.

Things then improved in many ways. As volunteers, we had more of a sense of purpose and built more variation in the activities, which the children appreciated. It gave them focus and allowed them to exist in the present, instead of having time to relive painful memories or worry about what else was going on in their lives. They did rock painting, dream-catchers, flextangles 2 and some scratch crayon drawings. Some of the older kids also started English lessons with the volunteers who were teachers.

It was still non-stop hard work, but very rewarding. At the end of each day, a few kids would always walk back with us as we headed towards our cars or the bus stops, pleading for piggybacks or to play football. It was tough, but at least we could promise we’d be back the next day.

As is often the situation in this crisis though, things can change very quickly. On the Friday, we were told that gate E1 would soon be cleared of refugees. The Schoolbox would need a new home and it was decided that the activities would stop to allow the container to be moved. In the port itself, there were a lot of tensions: the police were intimidating the refugees, driving around on motorbikes at night. The knowledge of the imminent camp closure also caused a huge amount of anxiety amongst the adults: quickly picked up by the kids. Add to this, poor conditions at the port, bad food, the stress of observing Ramadan in such an unstable environment and sweltering heat (it reached 40 degrees).

Something had to give, and on the Saturday night, it all got too much. Fights started to break out amongst camp residents and the children responded similarly. Despite the best efforts of the volunteers who were there at the time, the Schoolbox container was completely trashed.

The kids were acting out their frustrations – fear of the closure of the Schoolbox and knowing they’d be forced to move (yet again), just when they thought that they had some stability, safety and sanctuary. Their journey in life has so far not been easy and for a few months with the Schoolbox and all of the volunteers, they had a safe place.

Some of the Schoolbox volunteers

Some of the lovely Schoolbox Project volunteers

It was a tough ending for everyone involved, but on reflection I am proud about what we were able to do. Since the closure, I’ve had reports back from some of the other volunteers who were able to go back to help out at other projects. The E1 residents’ tents have now been moved to underneath a motorway flyover at gate E1.5: really not ideal, but it does provide some shade. This is just a temporary location before they are moved again to camps outside the port. Tensions have dropped a bit, some of “our kids” have started to visit the child-focused activities being run at that gate, and the School Box will reopen sometime elsewhere.

I think about the Schoolbox children every day and I hope for a better future for them. I am also privileged to have worked with some amazing volunteers (the photo above shows only some of them).