Moria Camp, island of Lesbos. (2016, Photo by Harrison Blackman)

The Refugee Crisis Then

Reflecting on the migration crisis in Greece, two years after visiting Lesbos’ notorious camps—which have only gotten worse

July 2016, I, along with five other Princeton journalism students, had the extraordinary opportunity to take a course in international crisis reporting. Our class, supervised by an experienced Washington Post reporter, focused on the migration crisis in Greece.

Since 2015, more than 1 million refugees and migrants have arrived in Greece from unstable nations like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Pakistan. 60,000 of these migrants are currently stranded in Greece—the side effect of a April 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey to restrict Eurozone asylum seekers, which in practice has been used to dissuade other migrants from arriving on European shores. For the refugees who survive the journey across the straits between the Turkish shore and Greek islands, their journey never truly ends… it only stops and enters a hellish state of limbo. Upon their arrival in barely–seaworthy dinghies, the refugees are cordoned off in camps on the islands or in the outskirts of Athens. The most notorious of these are on the island of Lesbos.

The situation we saw on Lesbos and in Athens was dismal, but little did we know that the storm was just gathering. We were in the calm, in the eye of it. Since our visit and reporting trips, Moria camp on Lesbos—a repurposed detention center built to hold 3,000 people but holds 9,000—has burned down several times. Riots have culminated in violent clashes between Greeks and refugees. Migrant adults, even children, have attempted suicide. Male migrant youth remain trapped and bored—a recipe for alienation, disillusionment, and violence.

I’ve written about the crisis elsewhere, most notably in The Nassau Weekly and on the class blog. But my final project for the course, an investigation into Greek nonprofit efforts in educating stranded migrants the Greek language—never saw the light of day. With the continuing and increasing magnitude of the crisis, I feel the responsibility to share it now, as a historical document, a lens into those moments in 2016, when it seemed that things might have gotten better. The fact that they haven’t should be alarming.

It seems a shame that in the current moment of fraught political discourse, the United States has drawn inwards, focused on its inner demons. In this desperate battle for America’s soul, we also need to think outside of the United States, to consider the people who have been directly and indirectly impacted by American actions. The Iraqi and Afghan populations who have fled to Greece—their countries, while totalitarian and oppressive in nature, were destabilized by American invasions. In the case of Syria, the chaos of Iraq catalyzed the Syrian Civil War, the growth of ISIS, and the collapse of the Syrian state. We owe a moral duty to then not turn a blind eye—as we have—when men, women, and children lie trapped on the periphery of Europe, in the EU’s most debt-addled nation, one of the countries that cannot afford to help the refugees in a meaningful way, even if it strongly desired to.

Some things can be done. Donating to responsible, local organizations like Melissa Networka refuge and community for female migrants and their children in Athens—is a step. Voting out “America First” politicians is another. Bur the first thing you can do is to become aware of the crisis. To tune out the Trump-centric New York Times alerts just for a moment, and see the global forest burning even as American trees fall.

The following is my previously unpublished article on the language education efforts for refugees in Greece, researched and written in July 2016.

Improvised refugee camp in Piraeus, Greece. (2016, Photo by Harrison Blackman).

The Language of Crisis

For migrants trapped in Greece, learning Greek is undesired, but increasingly unavoidable

August 3, 2016

ATHENS, GREECE — In a classroom above a fitness center, a group of eight students practice introductions, stating their names and their national origins. The students, from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Syria, are learning Modern Greek, part of a grand experiment to teach migrants the Hellenic language, even as their future in Greece is uncertain — and more often than not, undesired.

Their teacher is Giorgos Simopoulos, a member of the Greek Language Teaching Center at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. “These people are in a limbo situation,” Simopoulos said. “They don’t know if they will stay or they go.”

Since 2015, over 1.1 million migrants have arrived in Greece, according to data from the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. Refugees from all corners of the Middle East and Central Asia have arrived on the shores of Lesbos and Chios. Many of these migrants set out with the intention to take up residence in prosperous Northern European nations, such as Germany. Few intended to stay in Greece, a nation struggling with 23.3% unemployment and austerity measures demanded by its Eurozone lenders.

“Practically no one wants to stay in Greece, this is obvious,” Simopoulos said.

As a result of the EU-Turkey deal in March 2016 that ceased the flow of migrants to the rest of Europe, over 57,000 migrants are effectively trapped within Greece. With them they bring a constellation of languages — Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Pashto, Urdu and others. Few speak English, and almost none of them speak Greek.

For perhaps one of the first times in history, many migrants are arriving and will perhaps be compelled to remain in a nation where, for now at least, they have shown little desire to integrate — a process that would entail learning the official Hellenic language.

While English is relied upon as a common language for some migrants and spoken by many Greeks, these days, English may not be enough. As the United Kingdom prepares for “Brexit,” the European Union might lose English as an official language, adding to the case for Greek language instruction for refugees who don’t know when or if they will ever make it to Northern Europe.

Migrant Greek-language students in Giorgos Simopoulos’ class gather for a day trip at the Zappeion in central Athens. (2016, Photo by Harrison Blackman).


hile ancient Greek was the common language of the Eastern Mediterranean for millennia, today, only approximately twelve million Modern Greek speakers live in Greece and neighboring countries. The language’s limited scope complicates efforts to educate migrants who believe Greece to be an obstacle to their ultimate goal: Germany.

For a young Afghan migrant called “Atash,” whose name has been changed because of his legal status as an unaccompanied minor, learning Greek is not a priority. He hopes to join one of his brothers in Germany and to become a journalist, perhaps a photographer, like his other brother, who takes pictures for Agence France-Presse in Kabul. His native language being Dari, Atash studied English at the American University in Afghanistan, where he scored 195 out of a max of 200 on an English examination.

“I wanted to talk like native speakers,” Atash said. “[At the American University in Afghanistan] the teachers were also American. I really enjoy how Americans speak English. Afghani speakers — they couldn’t speak like [Americans].”

Refugees like Atash find Athens an attractive locale despite the apparent language barrier in part because they have found that they can get around well with just English. The legacy of a century of British and American involvement in Greece, as well as the economics of tourism, makes English a critical language for Greek citizens. English instruction often begins in primary school, Metro stations are subtitled in English and the tourist areas rely on English to sell their souvenir wares and operate restaurants.

For many young refugees, the need to learn Greek will only come when the schools open in September.

“Till that time we will know a bit [of] Greek,” Atash said, explaining that in school it will be easier to pick up the challenging language.

The camp at Skaramagas, outside Athens. (2016, Photo by Harrison Blackman).

Migrant State of Mind

imopoulos’ language program is the product of collaboration between Mercy Corps, an American NGO, and the Greek Migrants Forum, the Greek Forum of Refugees and Melissa Network.

“The aim of social inclusion underlies the project as a whole, firstly to enable newly arrived young refugees, who will probably have to remain in Greece for a year or more, to achieve a basic understanding and use of the Greek language, the gateway into Greek society,” Amy Fairbairn said, a spokesperson for Mercy Corps.

At Melissa Network, a nonprofit organization for migrant women, which holds Greek language classes in the mornings and afternoons, the need for such a gateway into Greek society is acknowledged and encouraged.

“We are focusing on refugee women who have been in Greece for the last six to eight months,” Nadina Christopoulou said, one of the founders of Melissa Network. “Theoretically, no one is in transit. Some have accepted that [Greece] is their country [now].”

One of those students is Alishba Rizvi, a 16 year-old girl from Karachi, Pakistan. Her family of eight — her parents, two uncles and three siblings — had originally wanted to go to Germany, but now her family has become resigned to staying in Greece. She learned to speak English at her school in Pakistan, but says she likes learning Greek at Melissa Network. When asked about what she wanted to study when the schools opened in September, she said, “I don’t know.”

Melissa Network instructors use a textbook called Gefires (“Bridges”), published by Simopoulos, who has written two other textbooks featuring a cast of recurring, diverse characters. The Gefires textbook lists translations of vocabulary in Arabic and Farsi, and a visual dictionary of Greek terms, emphasizing vocabulary and basic conversational essentials over verb conjugations and gendered articles, the staples of traditional language instruction.

“If you see this textbook, there is no grammar at all,” Simopoulos said. “They learn to use imperative without knowing if this is a form of a verb, if this a noun… we think this was useful for this group of people.”

Both the classes at Melissa Network, and the classes Simopoulos has organized, run for four weeks. Attendance varies, as students come and go. Classes that launched with 20 students can drop down to six to eight over the course of a week.

“[With 40 hours of instruction], there is no way to have a very organized and structured program,” Simopoulos said. “We try somehow to investigate how this will work. We need a lot of modifications for sure.”

Students of Simopoulos’ classes come from many different backgrounds. Musawir Roshan, an Afghani pop singer, whose top music video on YouTube has earned more than 13,000 views, says he wants to leave Greece as soon as possible.

“Because now, there are every day fights [in the camps],” Roshan said. “My Afghan people need my music. I don’t want to stop my music.”

Yasin Hajji Afrah, a migrant from Somalia, was positive about his improvement in a single round of the course, and plans to re-enroll for a second cycle. Afrah plans to stay in Greece with his mother and two younger brothers, one of whom will enroll in the Greek school system this fall.

“I am so better than before,” Afrah said. “I can read and write the Greek words and also I can speak a lot of phrases.”

Afrah plans to use his language skills for building a life for himself and his family in Greece.

“First I would like to learn the language to communicate,” Afrah said. “Then I am going to look for a job to support my life and my family.”

On the shore of Lesbos, facing the shore of Turkey. Here is the narrowest strait between the two nations, and many refugee dinghies arrive. (2016, Photo by Harrison Blackman).

Island Lessons

et migrants like Afrah and Rizvi appear to be the exception rather than the rule, as most refugees still hope to settle elsewhere in Europe. Hence, many prefer to learn English over Greek. This desire is even more acute on the island of Lesbos, where migrants are even further from formal grants of asylum than those who have made it to the Greek mainland.

Marios Andriotis-Konstantinos, adviser to the mayor of Mytilene, quipped that out of the 850,000 migrant arrivals to Lesbos, few wanted to stay. “I think 20 to 30 people expressed a desire to remain in Greece,” Andriotis-Konstantinos said.

The Mytilene government touts the Kara Tepe migrant camp on Lesbos as a shining example of migrant care and activities. A press packet lists daily lessons in English, German, Greek and French. Though classes are said to support up to 15 students, upon closer inspection, they proved less organized or popular than what the schedule appeared to demonstrate.

Shareen Elnaschie, a volunteer with the Humanitarian Support Agency, said that students of the HSA’s English classes at the camp are mostly adult men, noting that the classes cannot be taught as traditional language classes are often organized.

“People come and go,” Elnaschie said. “We don’t have a kind of curriculum. We’ve had to design it so people can come in and out quite quickly.”

She added that English was by far the most popular language class in a survey camp organizers took in the spring, followed by lessons in practical subjects.

On top of the modified teaching program, the TOEFL-certified (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language) instructors from HSA at Kara Tepe avoid sensitive subjects.

According to Elnaschie, English vocabulary in the classes revolve around “going to the doctor, going to the shop,” while instructors are told to be “quite conscious of talking about home.”

Greeks in the streets of the village of Agiasos, Lesbos. (2016, photo by Harrison Blackman).

Next steps

ven if many young refugees feel that learning Greek is unnecessary for their aspirations, many will not have a choice in the matter — the Greek government has decided that efforts should be made to integrate refugees into the education system, anticipating that they may remain in the country for the foreseeable future.

The Greek government has announced recommended a massive education program for refugee youth starting in the fall, which would feature a year of language integration classes before migrants would be fully embedded in schools across the country.

“We need a preparation class for some months or one year, to learn a little bit Greek, and also to have an experience with other persons inside the school environment,” Yannis Pantis said, the General Secretary of Greek Education Ministry.

But this program will require millions of dollars of funding from the European Union — funds that are anything but guaranteed.

In the meantime, the Gefires classes serve a particular need for migrant students, even if they don’t plan to remain in Greece.

“There are people who really want to participate and learn and do and socialize, mostly,” Simopoulos said, explaining that his classes give his students a social forum while they wait for decisions on their asylum applications. “This is the main issue — to be able to find other people to speak, to see another environment outside of the camp, to have a minimum of social interaction.”

Until the “limbo situations” of most migrants are resolved, the impact of language programs will be limited. Nonetheless, the programs’ social components highlight their importance for migrants who aren’t sure whether Greece will be the last stop on their journey.

Essays on film, politics, and storytelling. Learn more at and