“Due to the war, most children have never attended school. They grow up and they don’t even know how to write their names”, Mohammed Aluthman, 32, a teacher from a suburb of Homs, Syria, says with a sigh. “It is sad for the new generation, which is my country’s future, to be illiterate. This is why I do my best to offer them an education”, he says in state-run refugee site of Thermopiles in Central Greece.
His classes are different and so is the classroom that has become his new workplace. A small space under the staircase of an old hotel, very close to the hot springs of Thermopiles, has been turned into a cozy educational space, covered with wall paintings made by a Syrian Fine Arts’ professor. Children are gathered around a square table, solving math problems, learning English words and hammering questions at their teacher. Mohammed talks with passion to his young students about Syria’s history and customs. He shows them on a globe the countries they crossed and explainsthe geography of Europe, the continent that offered them a safer future. So they learn about the distance they walked to arrive to Thermopiles, this small but world-famous place that hosts some450 refugees and migrants in an official site.
“I am a teacher and never stopped teaching but only for a few months after I got injured”, Mohammed says with pride, looking at his badly injured leg. During an air strike in his neighborhood, he ran to help some children. “They were lying wounded in the middle of the street, covered in blood, half dead, half alive,” he recalls. A bomb exploded close-by and injured him severely.
He stayed in bed for three months, unable to have the surgery he needed, since most of the hospitals had been destroyed. As soon as he was able to walk, he fled the country. “There is no life left in Syria. Children are killed, bombed, starved to death. I couldn’t take it any longer”, he says. He made the dangerous and long trip from Syria to Greece on crutches. Now, more than a year later, he walks with a limp. He still needs this surgery in order for his badly healed bones, causing him severe pain, to be restored.
But the pain does not discourage him from teaching. In Thermopiles, Mohammed has nine different groups of kids attending his classes, both in the morning and in the afternoon. Apart from geography, he teaches math, which is his specialty, but also history, grammar, sciences and English. In an effort to restore normalcy and hope to refugees, especially the youngest ones, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, supports non-formal educational activities such as Mohammed’s classes. With funding by the European Commission-Humanitarian Aid, the community school in Thermopiles promotes also the active participation of refugees with a teaching background. Such activities help children reconnect – or connect for the first time – with the educational process and eventually facilitate their integration in the formal national curriculum. At the same time, adults who engage in teaching often find a purpose and their psychological situation is significantly improved.
Mohammed has started dreaming again – of a family life with children of his own one day. But first he wants to be able to stand on his own two feet, both literally and metaphorically. “I just want to live in a place that respects children and provides them with education; in a place where I will be able to do in safety and dignity what I love: being a teacher.” And, after a pause, he adds: ”If the war in Syria was over tomorrow, I would immediately return to my country; without thinking twice”.
In the meantime, Mohammed has been relocated to Spain. The EU’s relocation programme supports Greece through the distribution of asylum-seekers across Europe. “We thank Mohammed for his valuable contribution to the community school in Thermopiles”, said Maha Kashoor, Head of UNHCR’s Office in Central Greece, “and we hope that he will continue doing what he loves so much: teaching”.