Going back to school: Refugees in Greece pursuing higher studies

ATHENS—Junaid Baloch, 21, almost gave up on his dream of studying political science when he left Pakistan two years ago.

But today he and other refugees from South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa are attending new courses here at the American College of Greece in hopes of someday earning a degree.

“When I came in the building on orientation day, I felt like I found myself again here,” Baloch said.

He fled Pakistan after the military kidnapped a friend of his who had organized meetings among students to demand improvements in the university. Baloch had also organized the meetings, so he knew he was likely a target, too.

Today, he is taking a course titled “English for Academic Purposes” at Deree-the American College of Greece under a program funded by the U.S. Embassy in Greece.

The program, called Education Unites: From Camp to Campus, gives 200 scholarships to refugees so they can attend classes at one of three U.S.-affiliated colleges in Athens and Thessaloniki.

“The Education Unites program allows refugees for the first time to go back to the dream they've put off because for the last years they've been trying to survive,” said Kathleen Macdonell, a consultant who advises students in the program at Deree-the American College of Greece.

Macdonell is a retired high-school principal from Pennsylvania who came to Greece as a humanitarian volunteer in 2015 as the refugee crisis was reaching a peak. The United Nations refugee agency reported in early 2016 that more than one million people — mostly refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — had arrived in Greece since the start of the previous year.

The number of refugees arriving in Greece has fallen drastically since then, but the flow continues. Last year, 35,200 people arrived. Around 50,000 refugees live in Greece now. Many have won asylum status like Baloch.


“Now, they’re thinking what they want to do with their life,” Macdonell said. “It’s the first time they’re not seen as refugees and have an identity. They’re students. They shouldn’t all become waiters.”

All students in the program will earn certificates that could help them attend a European or American university in the future. But the program is no guarantee of academic success.

Only around 10 percent of Education Unites students take courses that earn college credit. The rest are taking preparatory English courses. Everyone needs to apply to universities through normal channels. But since the three American-affiliated schools operate in English, the program at last prepares them to apply.

The educational alternatives for refugees in Greece are hardly better.

Access to higher education for refugees living in Greece is limited. Bureaucracy, a shortage of instructors to teach Greek as a second language, the lack of state scholarships for noncitizens, and the assumption among many refugees that they won’t stay long in Greece anyway have resulted in thousands of children and young adults missing out on an education.

Only 24 percent of the more than 20,000 of the refugees and migrants younger than 18 in Greece have received a formal education, according to the latest available report from the United Nations refugee agency.

Experts have called for better secondary educations for young refugees so they are better prepared for higher education.

The Scientific Committee in Support of Refugee Children, an advisory body to the Greek education ministry consisting of university professors, recently found that teachers hired to teach Greek to refugees received little training, resulting often in student disillusionment and dropouts. The government also frequently moves refugees from one form of housing to another in a different area, often moving students before they can focus on their studies.

Still, recent Greek efforts to absorb thousands of young refugees into local schools have been on the whole successful, committee members said.

“Despite all the problems, we’ve achieved our main goal — to make secondary education accessible for all refugees,” said Alexandra Androusou, a professor of education at the University of Athens who is vice president of the committee. “We’ve got a long way to go in terms of our educational targets, but we’re giving the chance to refugees to choose what they want to do.”

More refugees will be showing up on Greek university campuses in around three years, when younger refugees who have had the advantage of learning Greek early begin to enroll, said Androusou.

She also mentioned other opportunities, like the distance-learning Hellenic Open University that offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees. And the University of Athens offers dozens of three-month e-learning seminars in English. Refugees who already have earned degrees can have them recognized by the Greek agency that evaluates academic credentials and learn what they might do with their degrees.

Vocational schools also offer preparatory classes for non-Greek speakers. Adults who have only finished primary school can apply to the Schools of Second Chance to earn a high-school degree. The education ministry also recently announced that Greek public universities will teach Greek and English to some 5,000 late-teenage and adult refugees who are currently not attending school.

Public universities have also allowed some refugees to attend classes as observers. “The Athens School of Fine Arts has a few refugees as visitors,” said Androusou. She said she hoped the education ministry would also reserve a small percentage of university admissions for refugees, as it has for Muslim students in Western Thrace.

One student in the Education Unites program, Rameen Yousufzai, 24, hopes he might study international relations in graduate school someday.

Yousufzai was running Afghanistan’s 24 TV network before he fled his homeland. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Kardan University in Kabul.

“Apart from this program at the American College, I have nothing else to do,” said Yousufzai, who fled Afghanistan when he was targeted by the Taliban for working as an English-language interpreter for the Greek army there.

“The American College is a good place for us,” Yousufzai said. “One door has opened, and we’re now waiting for other doors to open as well. We need more opportunities. I’d like to study international relations because Afghanistan needs good diplomats and I’d like to go back one day and help.”

Photo: ATHENS, GREECE - At a classroom of the American College of Greece, a group of refugees are learning English with a scholarship by the US Embassy.
Credit: Nikolia Apostolou/ARA Network Inc. (01/26/2017)

Story/photo publish date: 02/05/2018

A version of this story was published in Al Fanar.
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