The culture of Roma communities and mobile school

In the first years of this century, the situation of Roma in Greece became more visible. A lot of Roma had settled in different parts of Greece, building informal settlements in the outskirts of cities and towns. Looking for opportunities to survive, they focused on the black market, starting informal businesses: scrap collection, metal distribution, car sales, drug trafficking and begging. In Roma culture, girls are destined to start up their own family around the age of 13, leading to poor educational levels and different priorities in life. Boys often accompany their fathers to help earn money to sustain their families.

In 2009, we started up the first mobile school project in Greece with two local organisations: ARSIS, a social organisation for the support of children and youth, and PRAKSIS, an organisation that supports the psychological and medical wellbeing of vulnerable populations. At that time, the Roma were a high priority for the European Commission, leading to different social projects offering support to Roma communities. ARSIS and PRAKSIS started up activities with the mobile school in Thessaloniki in the communities of Dendropotamos, Agia Sofia and later also in Peraia’s camp on a weekly basis. One of the goals of these activities was bridging the gap between Roma communities and schools and society.

Trafficking humans: more profitable than trafficking drugs

When Romania and Bulgaria became a part of the European Union in 2007, a different issue emerged as well: human trafficking. Children were already trafficked from Albania to Greece to beg in the streets of the bigger cities. After 2007, more and more Bulgarian children appeared in Thessaloniki, selling napkins and flowers in bars and taverns, day and night. Trafficking children from Bulgaria to Thessaloniki became more profitable than trafficking drugs, with a big increase of child labour in Greece as a consequence. Therefore, the mobile school teams in Thessaloniki started to target the children working in the city centre as well and they collaborated with the child protection units of the municipality to get many children into safety.

The European crisis in Greece

In 2011, The European economical crisis hit hardest in Greece. Thousands of families were struck by the crisis. Many shops had to close down, a lot of people lost their pensions and couldn’t afford their medical insurance anymore. PRAKSIS was overwhelmed by a demand of Greek citizens for extra medical assistance. Our colleague-street educators often had to wait weeks to get salaries and had to combine their job with a night job in a restaurant to sustain a living.

Wars and refugee crisis

With the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, more people started to flee from their countries. Only in Turkey and Lebanon alone, almost 4 million refugees arrived, being placed in different temporary camps. As the number of refugees increased and the living situations in the camps deteriorated, people decided to move on and crossed the sea during a dangerous trip to Greece to find a better life in Europe.

They arrived in Greece with the hope to move to Northern Europe as fast as possible. But with the Dublin agreement in place many of them became trapped in Greece.

With Europe’s focus shifting to the refugee crisis, a lot of organisations started helping refugees on their journey. ARSIS and PRAKSIS used the mobile school in Idomeni, the border region with Macedonia, to provide non-formal educational activities to the children there to relieve their stress and to explore their needs and dreams.

As the central European countries decided to close their borders, more and more refugees appeared in the bigger cities of Athens, Patras and Thessaloniki. In 2015, we started up a new mobile school project in Athens, with another branch of our partner ARSIS who recently started their work with Afghan refugees on Victoria square, but still used the mobile school to address different Roma communities in the city.

In 2016, our other Greek partner, PRAKSIS, started up a mobile school in Patras. Since the border is closed, many refugees are coming to Patras, a port city, to try and continue their journey. Trucks and boats leave Patras every day, so the refugees look for their opportunity to escape Greece by hiding in those trucks and boats, hoping to get to Italy. While waiting, they live in very harsh circumstances in abandoned factories, often chased down by the police, looking for support from lawyers and social workers from PRAKSIS.

Many Syrian families get a special protection status under the European Relocation Programme. Unfortunately the Relocation Programme, launched one year ago on the 18th of March is failing. Still 15.000 people are living in overcrowded camps on the islands. Some of them are placed in old hotels at the coast of Patras, and are promised they will be able to move to another European country quickly through a legal relocation. UNHCR instructed PRAKSIS to support the refugees in the hotel. Therefore they started child friendly spaces and brought the mobile school to the hotel. Nevertheless, some of these families and children have been waiting for more than 4 months. Recently all 179 people who were living in the hotel were sent to Athens to apartments, where they are ordered to wait again till they can go to an other country. And so time is passing by without people knowing what will happen next.

Refugee camps in Northern Greece

In the meantime, Greek authorities try to evacuate the Greek islands and move refugees to more human conditions in refugee camps in the North of Greece. On different isolated spots around the city of Thessaloniki camps have been built. ARSIS and PRAKSIS have become essential partners in different refugee camps and shelters for unaccompanied minors.

The mobile school of Thessaloniki has been travelling a lot lately, visiting different camps at a distance of more than 30 kilometres around the city, offering educational and recreational activities for the children and youth in the camps. Although there are different initiatives to try to integrate children in the neighbouring schools, there is still a lot of resistance. On the one hand, refugees themselves have lost their trust in society. On the other hand, rural schools are not ready to integrate so many new children from different countries.

What about the Roma communities?

On the other side, with the focus on refugees, it’s becoming difficult for Greek organisations to find money to work with Roma communities. With big funding going to refugees, many social organisations are in competition now over resources to work with refugees, but almost all funding for Roma has stopped. And also in the streets there is competition. In the bigger cities Roma and refugees are now competing over some of the informal and illegal markets, sources of creativity and survival.

Luckily not everywhere this is the case. In a smaller city in Northern Greece, the city of Drama, we started up a mobile school with local organisation Drama's Ladies Union at the beginning of this year which will address Roma populations specifically. Around 50 children live in a Roma community in the city center, the majority of whom don’t attend school.

Also ARSIS and PRAKSIS try to maintain their connections with Roma in Thessaloniki, Athens and Patras. And with reason. With more than 200.000 Roma in Greece and less than 60% of the children attending schools, investment in children's education stays a priority.

And the future?

Many children in Greece are missing out on opportunities and are learning survivor skills on the streets. With so many children missing out on basic education because of the situation they live in, the journey they have to make and the big changes in society, it’s even more important now to give them hope, to offer them places where they feel safe enough to dream, to develop their skills and to believe in the potential they have.

"If we cannot create places and environments where a positive identity can be formed, children will lose faith in society and look for other ways to form their identity, becoming victims of criminalisation and radicalisation."

Mobile School invests in creating positive and safe learning spaces, where children can be children and discover their dreams and talents by playing. We hope we can expand our activities in Greece and in other countries where we can support projects in their work, but we can’t do it alone. During the last 8 years I encountered many inspiring people pushing and pulling the mobile school to the streets, many people who believe in the potential and smiles of children. I want to thank them. We hope our activities can inspire many more people to invest in time, an unconditional acceptance and a lot of positivity for children. If we achieve this, this crisis situation can still change into a opportunity to build a better future.

Interested in more information on Mobile School in other countries or in need of a mobile school in your organisation? Let us know!