News & Resources
Scenes from Skaramagas Refugee Camp
Léa Dao Van, Community Manager, El Sistema Greece
On the outskirts of Athens, just along the coastline, stands the port town of Skaramagas. Known for its large shipyard, which hosts a training command base of the Hellenic Navy, the area was very recently one of Greece’s biggest melting pots, with residents from countries across Africa, Western Asia, and the Middle East. That’s because, up until September 2021, Skaramagas was host to the largest refugee camp of the Attica Region—a camp with a 3,000-person capacity, and almost half of them children.
When El Sistema Greece (ESG) started music classes in Skaramagas, students were primarily coming from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iran; after a year, we saw more families arrive, mostly from African countries. For many people, this temporary shelter became not-so-temporary; families would often wait years before they could leave to begin their next chapters. Still, Skaramagas was a place full of life and laughter, where people living under harsh conditions could still surprise you with generosity and optimism. Compared to many refugee camps, it was quite peaceful; I can’t count how many birthday parties, shared meals, and Arabic teas I attended while I worked there. And yet it was also unstable, an ecosystem of hardships and irritations—inevitable when many people of different cultures are forced to live together in a place they would rather not be. Against this backdrop, our students grew up.
Teaching in a refugee camp is probably one of the most difficult challenges for a teacher: new students join every week, many without structured schedules in their personal lives (time could feel suspended in the camp); each class might require communication in three different languages; and most students can’t read. In 2017, when I joined the camp’s newly opened ESG program, many NGOs were offering educational activities to the many children who were not able to attend school. And between all those soccer and English classes, you could hear a chorus of voices, pianos, violins, violas, and percussion coming from one of the camp’s largest shipping containers: the ESG music classroom.
My role was to support the teachers. In the beginning, our goals were very simple: get the kids to class on time, keep them in their seats (most of them had never attended school or hadn’t attended for months, and had simply forgotten the rules), and keep them focused on their teachers. As rudimentary as it sounds, this was really an ambitious challenge for us!
We managed by relying on El Sistema pedagogy. In just a few weeks, we regularly saw students arrive on time, eager to learn music. Our best ally in this was a series of performance goals we had set in advance. No matter how small the performance, we observed that children and families would stay most involved during the time leading up to it. I remember one day vividly: we had organized a simple concert in our music classroom for families. One of our violin students told me that it was the best concert he had ever participated in, even though he had performed in many of Athens’ prestigious venues with ESG, such as the Greek National Opera or the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. But this concert was special for him because the people he lived with were there to see what he could do. He was really proud of that; you could see in his eyes that his self-esteem had skyrocketed that day. And the impact went beyond the concert itself.
In many ways, ESG was a bridge for its students. I remember the mother of one of our young violinists from Syria approaching us before their family departed for Germany. This young person had transformed in our classroom, from a phone-staring, shy youth to a gregarious, confident young musician. She was thankful to us—not for turning him into a musician, but simply for drawing him out of his family’s container. That small shift made all the difference.
Over time, pride and togetherness began to merge in the classroom. But it wasn’t easy. We started violin classes in the camp with a group of teenagers from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. Our primary language was English; their mother tongues were either Arab or Farsi. During those first weeks, I quickly realized how difficult it would be to get these students to play alongside each other. The different communities just didn’t want to mix. I admit that it was destabilizing to see them reproduce the mistrust and toughness they experienced outside of music class. We tried different approaches—telling them off for not acting respectfully, encouraging group discussion, talking to their families—with moderate success. Even after we got them to act respectfully in class, team spirit remained low.
The solution we eventually found lies in one of the tenets of El Sistema: peer-to-peer teaching. With each duo, we paired students of different nationalities. In the beginning, they were as enthusiastic as you’d expect teenagers to be when asked to do something they don’t want to do. But after a few months, we saw results. It’s been a few years, but I can still see this group of students seated together at the back of the bus en route to their final concert. Watching them chat and laugh together reinforced the power of the work we do.
No matter your religion, your nationality, or the color of your skin, Skaramagas was a place where everything was possible—both good and bad. I know from the messages of former students and their families that ESG made an impact, giving them a sense of teamwork, self-confidence, and solidarity. And I know from personal experience that its teachers felt an impact too. Since my time there, I will never view complex community relationships the same way. I firmly believe that we can make this world a little better, just by being a little bit more open. And I have Skaramagas Refugee Camp to thank for that.