“It was a beautiful, heroic refusal to relinquish human decency.”

26 July, 2019

Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman.

“For every school that opens, a jail cell closes. Education is the most important thing. Education is safety.” Quoting Victor Hugo, the Afghan refugee and community spokesperson attending the education meeting spoke confidently in English to the Greek representative from the Ministry of Education. The tent where the meeting took place, a stone’s throw from the Moria refugee camp, was stifling; however, this didn’t stop representatives from the UNHCR and various NGOs including IsraAID, the School of Peace, Refugee for Refugees, and others from being present.

Hunched over child-sized desks at one of the education centers, the representatives discussed a range of issues: the difficulties of enrolling refugee children in formal Greek education, the pros and cons of setting up education centers within the camps, the value of grouping refugee children in the same classroom regardless of their country of origin, and more. Everyone seemed united around a mutual understanding: education gives kids a sense of normality and structure, helps them integrate into the host country, and increases their safety.

The few days that have passed since touching down on the Greek island of Lesvos have been a total whirlwind. This week we received an orientation of Lesvos, a briefing of the refugee crisis on the island, and accompanied the team to meetings like the one described above. I’ve come at a really interesting time for IsraAID in Lesvos. They recently transitioned out of some major projects and are about to start new ones in July. The new programs focus on the use of art and play therapy. I’m helping to plan sessions, build program materials, and essentially bring the programs to life in the next week. The process started long before I got here — building programs takes weeks of planning, research, and need-assessments — but it’s been fascinating to go behind the scenes and understand the careful work that goes into them. The hope is that the programs will have a lasting impact and contribute towards the larger goals of integration, empowerment, and stability.

It has also been an overwhelming time. Our visit to the Moria camp was vital to grounding the crisis in reality; as one would expect, it was also brutal. When I first got there, I tried to force myself to act as if everything around me was normal, even though my mind was screaming that it wasn’t. There’s no use in gawking, in staring incredulously at the makeshift homes, at the strollers being pushed through rivers of dirty water. What broke through my numbness was a woman’s garden: a plastic flowerpot hung precariously from a wooden post nailed to the side of a tent; a makeshift fence made of spare planks propped up by wire; small flowerpots set in rows; and in the center, a pond, created by pressing countless water bottle caps into the bottom of a hole until they formed a solid bottom that water couldn’t seep through. It was a beautiful, heroic refusal to relinquish human decency. This woman probably had a garden back home — along with a job, a community network, and a house. I wondered if I would have the strength to continue living as she does, were our circumstances reversed. The Afghan community spokesperson, while discussing his efforts to improve refugee education at the education meeting, put it this way: “As human beings, we are trying our best.”

Planning and designing programs to meet specific goals.
— Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman, Summer 2019 IsraAID Fellow in Greece

Related articles

20 June, 2021


According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2020, 82.4 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide, including 20.7 million refugees – people who have crossed a border seeking safety – and 48 million internally-displaced people, who have been displaced within...

World Refugee Day: Refuge, Dreams & Freedom

20 April, 2021


In the aftermath of a disaster, a school is often anything but a place for education. It can be a shelter, a food distribution center, or a meeting place for humanitarian actors and community organizations, leaving the typical users of...

Is learning mathematics a privilege? Unfortunately, yes.

23 February, 2021


When COVID-19 shut the world down, IsraAID’s teams got creative. Thinking on your feet is key to humanitarian assistance. Each context IsraAID works in is unique, with its own capacities, assets, needs, and challenges. This means that wherever we are,...

What’s the number one tool in the humanitarian toolbox? Flexibility