Like other teenagers his age, at 13, Sabri Madi relies on social media and the internet to connect with the world. On platforms like Facebook, the Palestinian boy catches up on the latest with friends and family across Europe and the Middle East. They are among the nearly 900 followers of the “Learn Greek” page Sabri set up in February to share news from his daily studies at LEDU – an informal education centre set up by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and partners on the Greek island on Leros in 2017.
Sabri arrived on the island on a rickety boat from Turkey in December last year with his mother Ghada, 41, and his younger sister Sojoud, 11. His father had gone missing in Gaza in 2011 and daily threats against the family had ultimately forced them to leave for Europe. Scraping together enough money to send just three, the family decided it should be Ghada and the youngest two – Sabri and Sojoud.
Soon after their arrival in Greece, Sabri started day classes at LEDU and quickly became fascinated with the Greek language and its grammar.
“I love the sound of Greek words,” says Sabri, “I learn them very quickly.” Sink (o nerohytis), apron (y petseta), fork (to pirouni), pot (y katsarola) and pan (to tygani), are among the latest additions to his budding Greek vocabulary and shared with his social media followers. The young Palestinian believes that refugees arriving in Greece must make an effort to learn the language and he is determined to help them.
At LEDU Sabri takes joy in learning English and math, working with computers, creating art, and playing sports, but his favourite subject is Greek. Every new word which makes an impression, popular Greek phrases and the rules of grammar, are promptly uploaded to his Facebook page. He also helps his cyber friends follow his lessons by translating and transcribing his newly acquired knowledge into Arabic and making sure he gets the pronunciation just right. His page is followed mainly by Arabic-speaking refugees and asylum-seekers in Greece, who often do not have access to regular Greek language courses. The likes and comments he receives show that Sabri’s efforts and initiative are appreciated.
LEDU, Leros Education Centre, is run by UNHCR’s partner NGO ARSIS – Association for the Social Support of Youth, with funds from the European Commission. It aims to enhance the skills of refugee students, aged six to 18 years old, in order to obtain again, or for the first time, a basic connection to the educational process. LEDU also offers homework support to some 30 children who attend one of the four primary public schools that operate on Leros. They are among 150 school-age refugee children currently on the island.
Anna Maria Palyvou, coordinator of LEDU for ARSIS, is extremely supportive and proud of the progress she has seen in Sabri. She believes that LEDU, offering a safe learning environment, has helped hundreds of children like Sabri to regain a sense of normalcy, be empowered, and acquire basic life skills. Over 600 children have passed through the doors of LEDU in just the past year.
“Our role is not to replace formal education,” says Palyvou, “but rather to prepare these children for their smooth inclusion in the national education system, familiarizing them with school process, as well as with the Greek language.”
Through a series of activities including football, volleyball, even aerial yoga, refugee children have the chance to play, interact and express themselves in a friendly and safe environment. A social worker also offers psychosocial support to children and their families, through regular meetings.
According to Palyvou the teaching method resonates with children, since it encourages direct communication and motivates young students to develop their skills.
“Last week, for example, we focused on road safety. For a full week we discussed and learned about traffic rules and signs, through Greek, English and art,” says Palyvou. “Children learned and had fun at the same time, without language being an obstacle,” she adds.
An achievement that the LEDU team is particularly proud of is the close relationship they have established with the local community and authorities on Leros. “LEDU is now part of the island’s school community: we are invited in all social events organized by the Municipality, while we often organize joint activities with other public schools on Leros, where both refugee and local children have the opportunity to play, learn and have fun together,” says Palyvou.
When Sabri finishes classes at LEDU and after updating his Facebook audience, he likes to explore Leros — a small island of about 8,000 people in the South Aegean — which he already knows like the back of his hand.
UNHCR recently helped Sabri, Sojoud and their mother to move to an apartment in Athens under the EC-funded ESTIA programme. For his mother Ghada, where they will live is not as important as reuniting the family in one safe place, but for now they are separated between Greece, Gaza, and Egypt.
“Even more than my country, I miss my children,” says Ghada. “What I would like most is to gather them all around me so we can become a family again, living in peace.”
In the meantime, as Sabri prepares to start junior high school from September, he continues to apply his sharp digital skills to keep the whole family connected through social media and by teaching them the Greek he has learned at LEDU.