Greece sends stranded refugee children to school, stoking anti-migrant resistance

World

HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: The Greek government has begun a pilot program to educate refugee children stranded in the country, because nations along the migrant trail to Northern Europe have closed their borders.

It is estimated there are more than 20,000 children in refugee camps in Greece. The plan is being resisted by some Greeks, who say they worry about refugees carrying infections and also about the cultural change the plan might bring. There have been protests in a number of towns.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant has been looking at the issue, and starts his report from Filippiada in Western Greece.

MALCOLM BRABANT: What's your name?

MOHAMMED ZAITOON, Syrian Refugee: My name's Mohammed.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Where are you from?

MOHAMMED ZAITOON: I'm from Syria.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Yes. And whereabouts in Syria are you from?

MOHAMMED ZAITOON: I'm from — I live in Damascus.

MALCOLM BRABANT: What's your name?

SELMA ZAITOON, Syrian Refugee: My name is Selma.

MOHAMMED ZAITOON: I'm sad because I don't have school now. And I want to go to school, actually.

SELMA ZAITOON: I would like now to go to school. But I can't. Now, here, I don't have school, but I want to go to school.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The children's formal education ended 15 months ago, when they left Syria. Their father is Ammar Zaitoon.

AMMAR ZAITOON, Syrian Refugee: I have three children. Two of them were in school. And they always get top marks.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Like tens of thousands of other refugees, the Zaitoons wanted to settle elsewhere, but are now stuck in Greece, where anti-migrant sentiment is significant, especially over the issue of education.

AMMAR ZAITOON: We were disappointed for that. We want to know, why do they don't want our children to go to school? We'd like something like to speak with them just in order to knowing us more and more, that we are simple people. We have the right to teach our children. We like life. We like education. Syrian people are very good workers. And when they study, they will be good in school.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The family lives in Filippiada, a small town in Western Greece. The parent-teacher association told the Education Ministry that under no circumstances would they accept children from a nearby camp, citing fears about cultural differences and infectious diseases.

They claimed their presence would alter the Greek character of the schools. Most parents we approached refused to talk. But Christos Gartzis spoke up.

CHRISTOS GARTZIS, Parent, Filippiada School (through translator): The education issue is not a problem for us, as all these children have the right to education, but, first of all, the government have to solve their housing problems. They must be relocated to more modern facilities. These children are going to be permanently ill during the winter, with colds and coughs, viruses and maybe even pneumonia. What kind of schooling will we be able to offer them then?

MALCOLM BRABANT: Several hundred refugees, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan, live in tents in a former army base on the outskirts of Filippiada. There are about 150 children who do have the occasional lesson from volunteers. But, mostly, they while away the hours playing.

Filippiada's rejection of refugee children has put it beneath an unfavorable spotlight, and the conservative mayor, Nikolaos Kalantzis, has been trying to limit the damage to the town's reputation.

MAYOR NIKOLAOS KALANTZIS, Filippiada, Greece, Greece (through translator): This is a rather unique issue, in that the people who have come here don't actually want to stay here. They want to move on and are seeking ways to do so. This is a matter of trying to manage an interim period for these people. At least that's the way I see it.

And, of course, this is not just a problem for Filippiada, but also for Greece itself and, in general, Europe, too, since extreme racist and nationalist feelings are on the rise. But in no way whatsoever could Filippiada be considered as a racist town.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Like every aspect of life in Greece, education has been hit by the country's six-year-long financial crisis. The government has been forced to lay off teachers, and schools like this are being run on half the budget previously available before the country went bankrupt.

But headmaster George Gioldasis is a strong believer in the universal right of children to an education.

GEORGE GIOLDASIS, Headmaster (through translator): Problems definitely exist, but we, the teachers, together with the parents and parent-teacher's association, as well as the citizens of this town, are trying to solve them with the limited resources we have from the municipality for education.

We're trying to at least solve the basic problems at the moment, but, in my opinion, much more funding is going to be required in order to be able to provide the infrastructure and prerequisites necessary for the integration of refugee children into our schools.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Greece's education minister says that the country has an obligation to provide schooling for refugee children. And he's announced a program where six schools will open up in Athens, and there'll be three others in towns around the country.

Now, the minister says that this initiative will spread throughout Greece through October. The money to pay for it is supposed to be coming from a $1 billion fund provided to Greece by the European Union, which is supposed to help during the refugee crisis.

But there's been strong resistance from nationalists in the northern town of Oraiokastro. The rally organizers insisted they were just concerned citizens. But some rhetoric sounded similar to that of the ultra-right Golden Dawn Party. A riot police cordon prevented clashes with about 200 left-wing protesters.

The demonstrators emphasized their orthodox Christian heritage and abhorrence of Islam. Organizer Spiros Haravopoulos says his ancestors were victims of a Turkish genocide on the Black Sea nearly a century ago.

"We are the Greeks. That's who we are," he shouts.

This is a place where history is never forgotten, especially Greece's 400 years under the Islamic Ottoman Empire.

SPIROS HARAVOPOULOS, Rally Organizer (through translator): Of course we care about the refugees, but let them go to other countries, where their own religion is widely practiced, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates. We have nothing against the refugees, but they have been brought here without anyone having asked us if we want them here.

Other people can't be allowed to decide what we want without us being asked first, and that's why we're protesting here tonight. Apart from the fact that they have been terrifying the people here, members of the same government that was voted into power by citizens of this place are calling us Nazis.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Greece belongs to the Greeks, bellowed lawyer Dimitris Mihakis, as he whipped up the crowd.

DIMITRIS MIHAKIS, Lawyer, "Concerned Citizens of Oraiocastro" (through translator): Are we supposed to allow this and make our schools just for the minority? Do they want a Greek minority here in Greece? We will not permit Greek schools to be turned into minority schools. The plan is obviously to cause problems and unrest in this country in order to satisfy some other fanciful geostrategic plans which they have in mind for us.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Despite being the object of fear, suspicion and hate, Ammar Zaitoon is remaining calm.

AMMAR ZAITOON: We know that the Greek people were living the same situation in the past. And, actually, they are good people. I know, sometimes, sometimes, you don't want to see other people in your country. Sometimes, you don't want to see another — refugees in your country.

We respect that. But, even so, they are very good with us. They receive us, and they are trying to help us as best as they can.

MALCOLM BRABANT: As the rally organizers danced in the rain, they were condemned as fascists by the left-wing protesters, who chanted slogans in support of the refugees.

"Fatherland, faith, and family. Long live Greece," he cried.

The government's determination to provide classes nationwide will be severely tested. A new battleground awaits the war children.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Northern Greece.

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