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  • Writer's pictureEduard Muntaner Perich

The Little Refugees

Updated: May 5

I retrieve an article I wrote in Catalan in 2019 called "The Little Refugees", after spending much of that summer working at the Malakasa refugee camp in Greece. Five years have passed, but unfortunately, it is still very relevant today. Just think of the current humanitarian crises and the displacement they are causing.


Only 40 kilometers separate Athens from Malakasa. The municipality has about 1000 inhabitants, and right next to it is the refugee camp, with some 2000 residents mainly from Afghanistan, but also from Iran, Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, and other places. Of these residents, about 600 are children.

Greece —the cradle of what has been called "Western culture"— is filled with camps like this one. It gives food for thought. Let it be clear that the intention of this note is not to explain the refugee crisis in Europe.

In the photograph, alongside a girl from the Malakasa camp, I have placed the little refugee, the name by which is known this anonymous sculpture found in the ancient city of Nisa (Anatolia), and which I stumbled upon one day at the Archaeological Museum of Athens. Its history is curious: it was saved and brought to Athens in 1922 by refugees fleeing the Greco-Turkish wars. The sculpture itself also appears to be a refugee child, dressed only in a cape and hugging a small animal, so it has come to be known as the little refugee. It is believed to be a Roman copy of an earlier Greek sculpture (from the 3rd century BC).

Undoubtedly, the history of humanity has been full of little refugees. Here, I share my experience with the little refugees of Malakasa.

Although I have been working on educational and development cooperation projects for vulnerable communities around the world for many years, this was my first experience working in a refugee camp. My volunteer work was through the organization Happy Caravan(1), which promotes education, creativity, and safe spaces for children and youth in two camps: Malakasa and Thermopylae.

Some of the children in the camps can attend Greek schools (since some of the public educational centres have made an effort to integrate them, in some cases by operating in two shifts), but many children spend months in the camps without being schooled. Additionally, before arriving at European camps, some of them have travelled for months or years (for example, those from Afghanistan generally have passed through Iran and Turkey). Therefore, the youngest have never been schooled, and the older ones may have not been schooled for two or three years. If we add to this all the traumas they have experienced (fleeing from wars, from the Taliban, etc.), the precarious conditions and dangers of their journey, and the harsh conditions within the camps (many families spend months in a tiny tent), we find that 100% of the refugee children are students with special educational needs.

The NGOs that are developing educational projects within the camps contribute their part and do incredibly necessary work, but the problem is immense and relentless.

In Malakasa, Happy Caravan, thanks to volunteers from around the world, is teaching English, mathematics, and art to the children in the camp. The space they have is a small Isobox container, which serves as a school. Five groups of children, grouped (more or less) by age, attend each day from Monday to Friday throughout the year. The groups usually consist of between 15 and 30 students.

There, I did the same thing I've been doing for the last decade in educational projects I've participated in: putting technology at the service of creative learning, through activities where children imagine, collaborate, and use technologies as a means of expression. These are activities where the boundaries between technology, science, and art are blurred, designed to promote key competencies: creativity, critical thinking, teamwork, curiosity, empathy, etc.

Although I have been doing this for many years in many different contexts, in Malakasa there were very special challenges:

  • As I've mentioned, in the camp, we can consider that all children have special educational needs. The groups are incredibly diverse, and for the first time in my life, I've found myself teaching such basic things as writing letters in our Latin alphabet. The fact that they have had little or no schooling and the very life of the camp (where many children roam for hours without supervision) means that there are more behavioural problems than usual in a classroom, and that their ability to concentrate is quite short.

  • The space in the container is limited, without tables or chairs, and although team activities can be conducted, management is complicated. Despite the air conditioning in this module, the heat was always present during the classes in the summer. Acoustics are also a problem because everything echoes a lot, and children outside (who often do not know what time it is exactly) constantly knock to enter the classroom.

  • Happy Caravan has grouped the children into 5 groups, and each day holds a class for each group. The classes last 50 minutes (with a 10-minute break between classes to prepare for the next one). Generally, once you have all the children inside, seated, and you've done the initial presentation or activity, you only have about 35 or 40 minutes of work time left. This fragmented education makes it difficult to conduct project-based learning.

  • If in a high-complexity school in Catalonia there is considerable mobility and students arrive mid-course, in a refugee camp this movement is daily. Every week you have new students (new residents) and every week some leave (families relocated to other camps, or who have obtained papers and leave for Germany, or who venture to try their luck moving without being regularized). There are also students who, even though they have not left the camp, stop coming to school for days or weeks, and then return. All this creates dynamics that are complex to manage.

  • The most common language in the camp is Farsi, and fortunately, some Happy Caravan volunteers speak it. Currently, there is a volunteer of Iranian origin, and another volunteer who is an Afghan refugee residing in the same camp. The groups of older children (teenagers) speak English quite well and are easy to communicate with. With the little ones, however, translations from English to Farsi are necessary. Sometimes there are also students who speak neither English nor Farsi, for example, someone from Pakistan who only knows Urdu.

Despite all these challenges, the work of Happy Caravan is excellent, and I have met incredibly young and well-prepared people. I have always thought that to volunteer in development cooperation projects, it is better to have passed the age of twenty-five, for life experience, knowledge, and maturity. This is something I have empirically observed in various places, but especially in development cooperation projects in South India. However, in Malakasa, my theory has been disproven. I have worked with volunteers barely in their twenties, who possess maturity, experience, energy, and an ability to connect with children that is enviable.

The relationship with the children has been fantastic, but I had to earn their trust very gradually, compared to other places where I've worked. Most had never had a male teacher before and were not at all accustomed to it. Happy Caravan has only been in this camp for six months, and they had not had any male volunteers before. The work of these organizations is also important in this respect: to promote positive values and offer children role models that break the stereotypes and gender roles they have assumed.

Speaking of stereotypes, everyday life in the camp has also shattered quite a few for me.

I have heard tragic stories of incredibly brave people who left everything to come to a Europe they imagined welcoming but found it shut its doors to them. I have seen things I never thought I would see in a European country. My second day at the camp, there was a severe storm at night and a tree fell on one of the tents. A girl was seriously injured by branches that literally pierced through her. The vulnerability of those who are not fortunate enough to live in prefabricated modules is total.

I met children like Masumeh, an Iranian girl of about 8 or 9 years old, who clearly had a keen interest in learning and great abilities. In class, she always listened very attentively and helped maintain order when there was a lot of noise. One day, I found her just outside the school at the start of her class, but she was not going in. I asked her why, but she spoke almost no English and responded in Farsi. Seeing that I did not understand, she asked the Afghan volunteer to translate what she was saying to me. Her family was being moved to another camp, and she would not return to school. When she realized I had understood, she gave me a hug that I don't think I'll ever forget, and said thank you with tears in her eyes. It was probably the most bittersweet moment of the entire stay.

At the Malakasa camp, in addition to Happy Caravan, there are other NGOs. For example, one teaches music, and another promotes safe spaces for women (who are major victims of displacement). There are also medical services and large organizations like UNHCR working there. 

For me, it was a transformative experience. In just a few weeks I learned a lot, and it broke many of my preconceived ideas.

[Original article published in Catalan (Com gotes a l'oceà, July 2019)]

  1. In 2023, due to bureaucratic restrictions, Happy Caravan and hundreds of NGOs were forced to stop their programs in refugee camps in Greece.

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