We visited 5 very different refugee living spaces in the Thessaloniki area in 3 days: my host and fellow Solver from Team Up 2 Teach (www.teamup2teach.org) had a very packed schedule planned for us! The first three camps each had a capacity of over 1,000 residents, but they had been largely cleared out, as they were unsuitable for winter living. People were either relocated to a country of asylum, sent back to Turkey per the recent EU deal, or moved temporarily to apartments or hotels. No one seemed to know for sure, but the general belief was that soon people would be moved back here and many more would be relocated from the islands. At least one NGO we spoke with was using this time to regroup and make better plans for when the population returned. The other two camps were designed to be winter-ready and therefore did not have to send people away for the winter, but these were smaller camps as you’ll see described below.

The first three camps were what I expected from watching news reports: one was an old hangar turned into a camp with rows of UNHCR tents crammed inside, rows of portable toilets along the outside wall, and troughs with multiple faucets for washing. Another was an old military air base with living “containers” set up outside in rows. The third was an old factory with similar living units, but set up inside the factory. At each of these places, there were small signs of humanity, such as a swingset pieced together from scrap wood, gardens, and a “women’s space” where women could go to find a peaceful place to relax.

The other two refugee areas we visited were quite different. Both were privately run, in collaboration with the refugee residents. One of these had a private security firm contracted to keep the residents safe from ill-wishers such as smugglers and drug-pushers, and the other had no security at all. The first was an old factory which had been transformed by the addition of drywall walls and doors to make rooms for families, and was run rather like a co-op, with a former Iraqi shop-keeeper running the food distribution like a store rather than a soup line, and a clothing “store” where residents shop for clothes with a weekly allotment of points, rather than lining up to accept packets of mismatched clothing. The second was an apartment building which has been rented by private donations and “leased” to refugee families at no cost. The children in those families are fully integrated into the Greek schools, and the program director works directly with the school principal to resolve issues as they arise.

The sudden influx of very large numbers of people into Greece was met by a fast grass roots movement responding to their needs with human compassion. We met people who came here to help from Spain, England, France, Portugal, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Greece, United States and Brazil (I may be missing some!). By far, the largest number of volunteers fell in the “20-something” age group. Many of the volunteers we met first appeared at the makeshift sites where thousands of people were stranded in Idomeni when the border with Macedonia suddenly closed, or were being rescued on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos. When those sites were closed or became overcrowded with official response teams, these volunteers began to form NGOs of their own to address different needs and handle the massive amounts of funds they were able to raise from crowdsourcing sites. Because they were small organizations, with the energy youth provides and the flexibility to move and respond quickly, they were able to make exceptional strides to quickly raise funds on social media and meet many immediate needs. In our three days in the area, we met people from no fewer than 10 such organizations, some registered with the Greek government and some not registered.

Now that some time has passed, the official organizations, including UNHCR, Save the Children and Caritas, have moved in to the camps to provide a more structured and systematic response. One has to understand both points of view; the independent NGOs were able to respond quickly because they had no oversight, but there are problems with no oversight, especially when such vulnerable populations are involved. The larger organizations necessarily take longer to respond, and have been criticized for that, but they come with years of expertise in working in emergency situations, established forms of oversight, and the ability to document and report their work.

The approaches to education at the various camps was in some ways similar, and some ways very different. Learning English and Greek are the primary concerns, for both children and adults. Play time for children and psycho-social support are also a focus of concern. The biggest difference between the independent NGOs and the registered groups is that the Greek government requires teachers to be trained in their programs. At government camps, only registered groups can now provide education for children. This creates many jobs for unemployed Greek teachers, and refugees can only be hired if they hold a special skill (such as translating to Farsi). I have a bias; as a trained teacher myself, I do believe teacher training quality of education children receive. However, many of the small NGOs provide excellent resources for children – but they must now do any “educating” at an off-site location (which several have done, by renting land near the camps).

I found that the camps do have some level of internet connectivity (which admittedly would have been much more stretched to its limits when the camps were full) and at least a couple computers, or a nearby center with computers available, in addition to an abundance of cell phones and even some tablets floating around. The Blue Refugee Center is a beautiful place in downtown Thessaloniki run by SolidarityNow, which provides a computer center with classes (that’s the photo at the beginning of this post), in addition to space and others forms of help for refugees.

I also found that few people here have heard of Khan Academy, although some were familiar with Coursera. In order for online education to work, it first has to become more well known. Success for any new program here seems to depend on a person or group being here and canvassing the population to look not only for interest but also for input from residents of the community. We heard a wonderful story of a woman from England who came to start a school at a camp. Her team spent the first several days handing out, one by one to every tent, a survey, and then, a few days later, walking back to every tent to collect the responses. By the time she was ready to open the doors, she had over 250 children, along with about 30 volunteers from the refugees, ready to teach and to learn. It takes that kind of effort; but there is interest in education. A person here, on the ground, building relationships, seems to be essential.