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.
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 1 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.
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).