Providing education for refugee children
 

A CREATOR

Meet Maria.

During her first visit to Kos she saw a boat arrive at the port filled with wet, distressed and tired young men. She froze.

A warm feeling overtook her body as she could hear her father whisper,

“Now, you go and help these people.”

 

Armando Aid_Oinofyta School-54.jpg

MARIA'S STORY

 

One night after a period of doubt in continuing my career as a mathematics teacher in the UK, I heard a Radio 4 programme about refugees arriving in the Greek island of Kos. I cried as I heard the ordeals of the refugees arriving, not knowing if to donate more than I have already done or what.  A member of Kos Solidarity, a local grass root organisation helping the refugees stated what they needed most,

“Hands! We need volunteers to come and help us. As you see there is no Red Cross, no Save the Children, the authorities are making the situation worse by not letting us help the refugees. We need hands.”

This prompted me to buy a ticket to go to Kos within days. I planned to be in Kos for a week, but my stay extended for more than a month.

The first night I saw a boat arriving and wet young men emerging, distressed and tired, I froze.
A warm feeling overtook and I could hear my father whisper, “Now, you go and help these people.”

During those weeks I saw more than a thousand people arriving in precarious condition. The few volunteers that were, we worked around the clock, from night shifts to preparing and delivering breakfast to the refugees camping along the Kos’ town pier, then going to the warehouse sorting mountains of clothes, visiting families with children we met and bonded the nights before to see if they were fine. 

I decided to return to London to fundraise and equip the warehouse in Kos. It was then that my very good friends Matthew and Christine, prompted me to start a charity to help ill equipped groups like Kos Solidarity with equipment and so, ArmandoAid was born.

Armando is not only the name of my father who was a refugee and migrant from China, but also means building in Spanish and broken in English is Arm-and-do. It sounded good and after I told the story of that night in Kos to Matthew, we decided that that was to be the name.

We did a few deeds as a new charity, equipping Kos Solidarity’s warehouse and helping a couple of other groups with equipment. Then, in February 2016, after returning from a trip in Kos, the news that the borders were to close fell. I had an 8 hours stop in Athens and through friends I had two contacts of volunteers helping the refugees at the port of Piraeus.

As I walked from the bus stop into Hall E1 at Piraeus, I could not believe my eyes. Over a thousand people lying on the floor. All sorts of people, pregnant women, elderly people, people with war injuries and a staggering number of children running around rampant.

I stayed for a couple of weeks running around the hall, looking for vulnerable families with babies, old people and trying to attend the children with activities.

I explained the situation to the trustees back in London and asked for permission to buy small tables and chairs so I could set up children facilities.

I can not forget the day I opened the boot of the car and the children spotted the tables and chairs. They shouted, “School, school!”

The children helped building them and sat to be taught. I had nothing but paper and colours and they began to draw. Their drawings were a revelation of what they had left behind. Pictures of enormous ships, beautiful houses with gardens and a sky with not only birds, but also planes bombarding them and many broken bleeding hearts.

ArmandoAid provided such facilities at three halls. The tables and chairs will disappear for the night but as I walked in, the children will shout, “Teacher, teacher!” and ran to gather them.

As a teacher I ended up teaching English and Maths. The children were excited, they were worried of missing out school, some have never been at school, some have not gone to school for years, but they wanted to learn more than just doing endless drawing and games.

 

Drawings

One afternoon as I taught at a table to some sweet children to hold their pencils, I felt my arm getting wet. I looked up and their father stood silently crying as he watched his children learn.

It was then when I knew I had to do something about it. Where were the big NGO’s?... Nowhere to be seen.

I returned to the UK and researched and phoned big organisations which were doing some educational programmes, but it was a dead end. Matthew and I talked about it. Matthew encouraged me to return to see if we could do more, so I was soon back at Piraeus.

A week is a life a part, a new situation, new challenges, more people stranded living in deplorable conditions. The port was transformed into a huge makeshift camp with a few portable stinking toilets servicing thousands of people.

After a month of working there rumours began that all refugees will be moved to camps. It was at the end of March when some were transferred by the Greek authorities to ill equipped camps. The situation was sad, but these were the guidelines. The authorities began to look at small NGO’s in a bad deed of encouraging refugees to stay at Piraeus Port. In the end, Piraeus Port is the heart of Greece connecting to its islands. They were also right. Greece had no resources to make decent camps overnight and they never expected this to happen.

It was then, I promised a group of sweet Afghan girls that I will go and open a school in a camp. Most Afghan girls were denied education and hit my core as a woman.

In April, I began to look for a camp where we could set up a school. I waited for almost a couple of months for an answer from the Greek government until I was prompted by my Greek friends to go ahead and find a camp where they would let us set this school.

My first instinct was to go to a camp where lots of my Afghan students from Piraeus had been settled. But I was not even let in to see them.

I continued my search and went to a Syrian camp 30 minutes away, but loads of NGO’s were already helping and have already set up children facilities.

Camp

A volunteer told me to go to a nearby camp called Oinofyta.
 “They are all Afghans and they have nothing.”

As I came into this abandoned industrial state, I found a group of children. There was only one organisation helping with medical assistance then. I took note of the person in charge, a coronel from the airforce and I phoned him.

Coronel Kiriakos answered and said: “Yes, please! The children need something to do. Please come and help.”

In June 2016 we founded our first school at Oinofyta Camp in Central Greece. We currently service a community of 400-650 refugees waiting for relocation and/or political asylum. The school has exceeded my expectations and after a year we count with an amazing group of 8-10 dedicated volunteers at all times. We have educated over 300 children at different times and 200 adults. 

The school is more than a learning space, but it is also a sanctuary where children and our adult students come to learn and feel safe.


Armando Siu

THE ORIGIN OF ARMANDO

Siu Man Quey was a young journalist and refugee from China who had to flee his country in 1942. He had fought against the Japanese invasion and one night after escaping detainment, he swam from his home town at the shores of the Pearl River to Hong Kong. Life as a refugee was hard in Hong Kong. He lived in a refugee camp and everyday he worked as a scribe for illiterate people in a market. Soon, his eldest brother called him to come to an undefined country in South America, a booming country called Nicaragua. A long journey by sea began with many ordeals. It took him almost a year to reach his destination. A year of rejections by authorities in various countries to even step out of the ship to visit friends or do any sightseeing or shopping ashore.

He arrived in Nicaragua where his brother was waiting for him. He had a new name, Armando.  Armando worked as a traveling salesman in the mines of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, trading goods for gold. And one free day,  he went to visit a countryman and friend in a town near Managua and met a young Nicaraguan woman.

Armando and the young Nicaraguan woman founded a large family of 7 siblings, Maria being one of the children. Armando was always working in charitable deeds and had a shop in town.

Everyday, there was a string of beggars arriving for a daily allowance.

Maria can never forget as a child all the uncles and cousins from China arriving at their home. Their stories about the Communist regime and the horrors of the so called Cultural Revolution were unbelievable and scary dinner conversations.  

When the communist arrived in her father’s hometown, his mother went with all her deeds to relinquish all her properties and give them to the new regime. This permitted her to leave the country and later join her sons in Nicaragua where she died without ever returning to her homeland.

Maria's father did not see his homeland for more than 30 years. When he returned as a Nicaraguan, he was still to go into a China emerging from Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He stopped in Hong Kong to buy sewing machines and so many essentials to bring to his family who had remained there.

It is Maria's personal story that inspired the name of the school as well as her passion for giving back to the refugee community as her family once went through the trauma herself.