Marcus Sheff

The beginnings of hope in Lesbos

Refugees on the Greek island are getting an education in positive values of tolerance, peace and respect for the Other
All Photo Credits/Michal Gonnen
All Photo Credits/Michal Gonnen

Driving up a dusty path in the blazing midday sun on a particularly hot Lesbos summer day, the taxi driver is disinclined to turn on the car’s air conditioner. Stoicism is clearly still a thing on this far easterly Greek island.

Through the back window, the glistening blue Aegean Sea recedes, dotted with gunmetal-grey border patrol boats from a half dozen European nations. Across the narrow Mytilini Strait, Turkey’s Bodrum Peninsula looms in the shimmering heat. At a distance of only six miles, it is one of the narrowest waterways separating Turkey and the European Union.

We arrive at recess at the School for Peace and there is a joy about the place. Syrian children, the largest group here, are running around with kids from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and the Congo. Roni, Liran, Yair and Ayala are surrounded by children ages 6 to 16, as they help them find their respective classrooms. The children seem very happy to go.

The chance to learn is not taken for granted here. Mohammed is the exception. He looks 8 years old but could be older. He winds his arms around Yair’s neck and sees no earthly reason to let go.

Roni and the team are twenty-somethings from Israel’s Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. They completed their IDF military service and then set about building—quite literally—this unique school for the refugee children who survived the treacherous boat crossing from Turkey to Lesbos. The wooden schoolrooms were put together, plank by plank by Hashomer Hatzair volunteers. The play area bears an uncanny resemblance to a thousand decks found in Israeli yards.

                                                         Children play before school 

And then the children began to arrive.

First by the dozen, then the hundreds. Many of these young refugees lost years of formal education as the murderous Syrian civil war and other conflicts waged around them. Unsurprisingly, many children like Mohammed are traumatized.

Arriving in Greece, they were denied education in the public school system. So Israel’s Hashomer Hatzair movement set up the School of Peace. All children are accepted, no matter their previous level of schooling, ethnicity, religion or country of origin.

IMPACT-se—The Institute for Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, was asked to help create curricula for this unique, inspirational school. It was the least we could do.

The Hashomer Hatzair volunteers rotate between working at the school in Lesbos and at the urban kibbutzim they have set up back home in Israel—in Rechovot, Kfar Menachem and Givat Haviva. The kibbutz ethos of collectivism and characteristic unfussy work ethic permeates through the school.

There is little clarity as to where the children will end up, although most likely they will settle within the European Union. But for as long as the uncertainty lingers, the students feel most secure in a school environment similar to that of their childhood in their home countries.

Unfortunately, the Syrian Curriculum, which IMPACT-se has scrutinized, does not offer a peace education. It indoctrinates, provides a skewed worldview, avoids respect for the “Other” and preaches an ideology that is exclusionary, militaristic and authoritarian. It perpetuates an environment of intolerance, stressing a combustible mixture of radical martial heroism and pan-Arab nationalistic ambitions where Jews and Israel are demonized.

Abed, a young Syrian teacher and a refugee from Damascus told us he was taught in school to hate Jews, who are evil, violent, manipulative and untrustworthy.

The IMPACT-se initiative will remove the hate and introduce instead positive values of tolerance, peace and respect for the Other, ensuring students at the school receive a peace education.

                                  Extracurricular activity at the school

At the school, we leave a meeting which is conducted in English and translated into a dizzying array of languages for parents, teachers (who are refugee volunteers themselves) and the Hashomer Hatzair organizers. We head for the incongruously named Moriah Refugee Camp outside Mytilini with Molly, an Israeli-American from IsraAID, which is also involved in the school.

Lesbos is currently home to more refugees than any other Greek island and the majority, including the children at the school, live in the Moriah camp. Conditions at the camp are predictably grim;  the atmosphere contrasts sharply with the cheerfulness of the school. On one side of the path, in the more formal section, row after row of porta cabins are guarded by Greek police. Sewage is a problem, as are the attendant health hazards. On the other side, a spillover tent community has sprung up.

Molly and Arik, from IMPACT-se, chat with young men from Yemen in Arabic. They are surprised to hear we are Israelis and even more surprised to hear Israelis speaking Arabic. Arik tells a young man that Israeli Jews and Arabs live together, mostly in harmony. He is surprised. Then he smiles.

Anti-Jewish racism permeates the Muslim world because it is part of their formal education. For the children being taught, it becomes a natural part of their worldview. Rooting it out means changing the textbooks taught to millions of school children. Curricula are uniquely authoritative: they may be where negative influences—skewed historical narratives, hatreds of the “Other,” gender inequalities and political violence take root. But may also be the key to achieving tolerant and open-minded societies of the future. If this remarkable transformation can happen in Lesbos, it can happen elsewhere too.

About the Author
Marcus Sheff is CEO at The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Curtural Tolerance in School Textbooks. IMPACT-se analyzes textbooks, employing standards on peace and tolerance as derived from international declarations and resolutions.
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