ATHENS, Greece -- Behind the gate of the schoolyard in Athens’ Nea Ionia neighborhood, a group of children, dressed in colorful t-shirts and jackets, laugh loudly. When the gate opens, two little girls with braided hair look outside curiously. “He is a reporter, he is writing a story about our school,” their teacher tells them in Greek. “I told you,” one of them tells the other in English, their first language. In the classroom, they will switch back to Greek.
While the schoolyard looks like any other, this is not your everyday primary school. The Alsoupoli Intercultural School is a bustling multilingual and multicultural community, one of the few educational facilities currently providing education specifically tailored to the children of migrants and refugees.
The school is one of 13 “intercultural schools” in Greece, one of three in the capital Athens. Students in the school range from children who just arrived in the country on the Mideast-European migrant trail and don’t speak a word of Greek, to children of African migrants who were born in the country.
Eleven-year-old P. is one of the school’s 120 students. (At the school's request the children quoted will only be identified by the initial of their first name.) P. started attending the intercultural school last year, after arriving in Greece from Libya. Her family fled the city of Benghazi because of the violence during Libya's Civil war and the ongoing instability since Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was killed. Outgoing and fluent in Greek, P. loves physics and wants to be a singer when she grows up.
“Every day, I wake up happy to come to school, and when I get sick, I feel sad for missing the class,” P. says. “We are all equal here, even if we have a different color. We are like family.”
With P.’s help, we talk to A., a 13-year-old boy from Syria who came to Greece and this school just a month ago. A.’s father lives in London and the rest of the family is hoping to join him there soon. P. doesn’t just help A. for this interview, but she’s at his side in the classroom too, translating from Greek to Arabic.
The students at the intercultural school go through the entire Greek curriculum, but the school is mostly focused on improving the students’ language skills. During classes, recess and extracurricular activities, the students are encouraged to communicate in Greek -- the language they’ll have to know to make their way in Greek society.
“We are all equal here, even if we have a different color. We are like a family.”
Dimitris Xydakis, who is a teacher, says the school fulfills as much a social role as an educational one. “Our work here is primarily a kind of social activism because it addresses marginalized social groups,” he says.
Some parents don’t have the proper legal documentation to be allowed to work or receive social benefits. They work as small vendors, illegally, without a safety net. The school’s staff tries to be a resource for these parents, and according to Xydakis, are often the only Greeks providing them with support.
“On many occasions the living conditions of these children are very hard, marked by poverty and the regular absence of parents,” echoes Rania Bentevi, a deputy director at the school who’s specialized in teaching children with learning difficulties.
Bentevi says many students’ parents are out at work all day, leaving older children with the task of raising younger siblings. Some of Bentevi's students return home from school at noon, then cook, clean and study as much as they can. When their mothers finally make it home, they finds their sons and daughters asleep.
“One of our sixth-grade students was taking care of her younger sibling alone during the week, in a basement in Athens' Kypseli neighborhood. Her mother worked was a domestic worker and could only be with her children during the weekends,” Bentevi recalls.
The school managed to get a bus to transport the children this year, and with the help of the Ministries of Labor and Education, it also set up a meal program. “This free meal is really important for some children, whose mothers often might say to them that they will have to skip a meal,” one teacher says.
Bentevi says that while it usually takes new students two to three months to adjust, they reach a strong level of Greek in just two years. “The need of children to communicate is great and that's why they learn so fast,” Bentevi notes, adding that many students benefit from the help of older ones while trying to adjust to their new environment.
Fifteen-year-old S. is in sixth grade. The school in her village had shut down, forcing her to stop attending school. S. came to Greece with her mother, and her first days in school were difficult -- she cried a lot. Now, she “laughs and hugs,” her teachers say.
Greece’s intercultural schools first emerged in 1984 as schools for expatriate Greeks, the children of Greek migrants who had returned home from countries like Germany, the United States and Australia. In 1996, then-Minister of National Education George Papandreou, himself a repatriated Greek, shifted their mission to teach new immigrants.
The Alsoupoli Intercultural School, too, used to be a school for Greek repatriates. While the school used to admit only students with at least one Greek parent, now, not a single Greek student attends the classes. The social and class composition of the student body has changed, too. When the school started, a lot of children of diplomats and employees of foreign embassies were studying here. The majority of students now are children of economic migrants.
Greece’s Deputy Minister of Education Theodosis Pelegrinis told HuffPost Greece that he’d eventually like to see Greek students attending intercultural schools again, turning the institutions into “a miniature of the contemporary multicultural Greek society.” Pelegrinis says, however, that this would require fresh resources and funding to construct additional schools.
Trust between parents and staff is key for the school’s mission to succeed, many of the educators say. “A lot of Muslim parents allow their children to come to church with us, thinking that contact with other religions is something positive for their children,” Bentevi says.
Children of African descent attending school in other Athens neighborhoods sometimes switch to Alsoupoli, where according to teachers, they feel safe and accepted. Twelve-year-old N., who was born in Athens to Tanzanian parents, is one of them. She wants to become an eye doctor and wouldn't want to change a single thing about her school.
“I realized fairly quickly that the children in this school are so familiar with what is considered “foreign” or “different” that, in fact, they set the example for us grown-ups,” Zoe Tzikou, a teacher, tells HuffPost Greece.
“Few teachers are as lucky as we are, traveling around the world in one single day, through our students, returning home with a suitcase of diverse images, colors, stories, music.”
Asked about the students' performance in school, Tzikou proudly introduces 12-year-old T. from Ghana, born in Athens. T. plays basketball and wants to be a writer. Three fiction stories and a play he wrote show his artful skill of the Greek language, Tzikou boasts.
“Central Athens is multicultural and we would like these children to integrate,” concludes second grade teacher Xydakis. “Like Yannis Antetokounmpo, who feels Greek,” he adds, referring to the Greek basketball star who is of Nigerian descent.
This story was originally published in HuffPost Greece and was translated into English.