Helping Refugees in Greece: Between a Dead End and New Path Forward

For eight months, roughly 1,500 Yazidis have lived in a refugee camp at the base of Mount Olympus, 600 of them children and youth. The human rights lawyer Amal Clooney visited the camp in September, after which she praised the government of the German state of Baden-Württemberg for its support of this ethnic group. Richard Zöller, a teacher at the Auguste-Pattberg-Gymnasium in Mosbach, who has participated in business@school since 2007, spent part of his summer vacation at the same camp. He reports in this interview on his time and experiences there.

Mr. Zöller, what took you from Mosbach to the Petra refugee camp? What did you do there?
Richard Zöller: In the Petra camp at the base of Mount Olympus, I supported the Swiss aid organization Borderfree Association and taught German language classes to youth and young adults. My interest in the Yazidi ethnic minority targeted by ISIS and living in this camp, for whose human rights struggle the young Nadia Murad has become a symbol, is based on wanting, on the one hand, to get to know their situation, but also to contribute to objectifying the refugee discussion here.

Did you have any particular expectations or goals?
Mostly, I wanted to see the refugees' situation for myself, in addition to visiting sustainable projects like the ecumenical workshop for refugees started by the non-profit organization Naomi in Thessaloniki. Even though I visited only briefly, I can say that unfortunately, there is not nearly enough continuity in the refugee work being done there. Most of the helpers stay for only a short time, and nearly everything is done on a volunteer basis. Without the incredible dedication of the people there—young people especially—many things would not be possible or would have already collapsed. Improvement is needed in a number of areas. 

What is life at the camp like?
Let me describe it by using my classes as an example. You can't call the place where they are held a school; the "building" is made of particle board, and the floor is plastic sacks. There are no desks, chairs, or blackboards, not to mention books. Everything is temporary. Nevertheless, the children and young people are highly motivated to learn German and English. Some of them have not been to school for five years. Demand was so great that classes had to be taught in shifts.

Life in the camp is very difficult, with up to 15 people sharing a tent, some of them sleeping on thin mats on the hard ground. There's a water station, which is used for getting drinking water, doing laundry, and personal hygiene. A minibus serves as both treatment center and "hospital." The everyday life of the children and young people at the camp is characterized by forced passivity, because the nearest city is far away and having a regular job is not permitted. Volleyball and soccer games, classes, and wood gathering bring a bit of diversion.

What experience made the deepest impression on you?
I was particularly impressed by the children's eagerness to learn. They would even hammer on the school door to get into class. And the optimism of the camp's residents is amazing: Even though they have hardly any prospects or hope of positive outcomes to the problems in their home countries, many of them are very confident. Their friendliness, courtesy, and mutual willingness to help are remarkable. Most of the children are still able to laugh, which at the end of a full, hard work day is very comforting and uplifting.

How will the experience influence your life in Germany?
In my hometown, I give classes in German as a foreign language for Afghan refugees. I also want to report on my experiences, such as at schools. In this way, I hope to motivate others to volunteer their support for young refugees. At many schools, there are very good models for language learning. And in the framework of business@school, I would like to inspire students to come up with social business ideas, like the catalog of products for sale by the Johannes-Diakonie Mosbach in 2015/16.

Always well-informed