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This weekend, the School of Peace burned down

The school on the Greek island Lesbos, staffed by Israelis, Syrians, Iranians, and Iraqis, was a warm haven for Syrian refugee kids
Credit: Lisa Kristine/IsraAID
Credit: Lisa Kristine/IsraAID

This weekend, the School of Peace, a school I helped build for refugee children on the Greek island of Lesbos, burned down.

Most people assume that being a humanitarian aid worker in a refugee camp exposes you to a daily soul-crushing reality dictated by the worst the world has to offer. In many ways, this is absolutely true. I’ve looked the consequences of ISIS, chemical weapons attacks, and ever-shifting geopolitical machinations in the eye.

But what people don’t know is that what keeps you going every day is the immense potential that stares back at you. With the right environment, education, and support, each and every refugee child can flourish and grow; the School of Peace offered exactly that.

Lesbos and the other Aegean islands have suffered immensely over the past week. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced he would unilaterally open Turkey’s borders with Europe. And, with that, the EU-Turkey Deal that held millions from crossing into Greece and Bulgaria ended. Hundreds of asylum seekers risked their lives, pushing off from Turkey in rubber dinghies in a last-ditch effort to reach safety in Greece. The local Greek population, which was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their support of refugees in 2016, have had their daily lives turned upside down for years. The uptick in new arrivals exacerbated underlying tensions on Lesbos leading to a Greek military exercise with live ammunition, protests, and many international NGO evacuations.

One of my partners at the School of Peace, a brilliant, kind leader from the Hashomer Hatzair Youth Movement, put it simply. He would explain that so much of the school’s magic was rooted in its unlikeliness, in the palpable dissonance of walking into a school run by a mishmash of Israelis, Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Greeks, Afghans, and Congolese.

The moment your so-called enemy chooses to take responsibility for your people’s future—for educating your children— they’ve completely undermined the concept of an enemy. Now that you’ve broken down the foundation that convinced us we were enemies, we can start again. We can choose to raise each other’s children, focusing on the potential to redefine the dynamic between us.

That’s what we at the School of Peace did day in and day out, and what Hashomer Hatzair and hundreds of organizations on Lesbos like IsraAID continue to do today. We as a community worked to harness and hone the potential that lies in each child. And these aren’t just any children. These are refugee children that have already been rejected, thrown out by their countries, dragged across borders, forced to learn of the world’s brutality before they could read. These children are strong. They are a force to be reckoned with. They are resilient, they are brave, they are inspiring. They are tiny little packages of potential.

And this weekend, the School of Peace burnt down.

The school might have been razed but that will never stop us from recognizing that each newcomer, each curious pair of eyes that steps into our life, is brimming with potential. We will continue to raise them, to love them, to invest in them, and to ensure they see that we both want and need them in our societies and in our world. The building may be gone, but the hundreds of students, teachers, volunteers, and staff members that spent time at the School of Peace will always remember the tangible feeling of potential, of community, of love that lived in its classrooms.

About the Author
Molly Bernstein is IsraAID’s Development & Communications Manager and previously served as the organization’s Head of Mission on the Greek island of Lesbos. She lives in Tel Aviv.
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