On International Women’s Day we pay tribute to the outstanding work of Lena Altinoglou, a founder member of Lesvos Solidarity, who has fought tirelessly for over a decade for the rights of refugees on the island.
At the school where I teach English and History in Mytilene on the island of Lesvos, we decided to invite 12 teenage, unaccompanied minors to attend classes. On the second day of this new scheme, an organised attack against our school, the headmaster and me personally erupted. Around 100 protestors gathered outside the school gates that morning. They swore at me and the headmaster using very obscene language in front of all our students. It was painful for the refugee young people to witness such intolerance directed at them. It was the most very vulgar display of hatred towards teachers and refugee youth I have ever witnessed, and it shook me up. Even though I knew that the anti-migrant factions would protest, I was still shocked by this behaviour. They were calling us all sorts of names like “you sluts, you f…ing bastards” and shouting out “we will rip you apart and f… you over if you continue to bring them into our schools”. The protestors shouted vile nationalist and ultranationalist slogans affirming that they did not want “our Greek blood, our Greek soil and our Greek origins” tampered with by migrants. They were shouting “We are Greeks. These schools belong to us. Let them be educated but not with us. We don’t want them. They don’t belong here”.
It was a very well-orchestrated, verbally abusive, hostile attack intended to threaten us. Of course, this was not the first time that the island has witnessed such attacks from nationalists. I reported on this website how the ‘spiral of hate’ towards refugees on Lesvos had worsened during lockdown. We also witnessed the closure of our beloved Pikpa refugee camp. But it seems the anti-refugee protests are becoming more organised. These protestors were not all from the village. The people leading/ encouraging them didn’t have children in our school. They came from other areas. Many of them are known to participate in every protest against refugees. They are part of an organised group. They have been brain washing local people telling all the usual lies and spreading fake ideas like “they’re coming here and they’re taking over our houses and our fields” And, “there is a European law that if these children are allowed to come to this school then they can bring their families here to live in the village too”. No matter how hard you try to explain that they are unaccompanied minors, these protestors just don’t get it or don’t want to get it. The thing is that everyone in this group had a dramatic picture in their head of a second Moria refugee camp (after the first one burnt down) setting up right next to our school. Of course, it’s a totally absurd suggestion but it was believed and it was enough to spark a big protest.
The protestors demanded that the headmaster and I leave the school. They kept shouting and insisting it in a very intimidating manner. I feared things would get physically violent even though the police were present. They kept shouting and screaming abuses at us. We left with my headmaster and our colleagues because there was no way we could talk sense or start a conversation with them. Then, the Head of Region arrived on the scene. I was told by a reliable witness that, rather incredibly, he said he just happened to be in the area. He talked to some of the protestors. I was told that he went round the crowd patting their backs saying “okay, yes I understand what you’re saying but now the school must open”. The protestors had locked the school with chains and sealed the door so that nobody could enter. Effectively, I was told, he expressed sympathy with them by being lenient on their behaviour and acceding to their demands, albeit in due course, implying he too did not wanting the refugees in the school, saying that sooner or later they would have their own schools in the new camp. Not for one moment, during his time outside the school, did he defend the school’s initiative.
It’s a volatile political issue and the scale of the hate and threatening behaviour violated all the rules of protest communication. They used abusive language.They attacked my professional integrity. They accused me of blackmailing the children. They claimed I told them that if they didn’t come to school, I would give them low marks.
I felt so disheartened. My first reaction, to be honest, was to leave the school I’ve been teaching in for the last 22 years. I had felt I could no longer put up with these attacks any more. I’m so fed up with this mentality, with petty people, with “rednecks”, by that I mean people who really don’t respect other humans, nature, any being, who mock the idea of “human rights”, tolerance, who don’t even respect their Christian beliefs which is love for the Other. I’ve seen so much of this mentality with the extreme hatred during the last three years. I felt like giving up. I was thinking how frightening it must have been for all the kids who were supporting their teachers crying and shouting at the protestors “what you’re doing is wrong, you shouldn’t say those things, why are you doing these things?”
The next day the woman who accompanied the refugee students told me that some of them were accustomed to this kind of reaction and they said they know “Greece is a very racist country”. The supervisor tried to make them understand that not all people in Greece are like that but I wonder how convincing that sounds when they witness such events.
I had some meetings with the Director of Education in Mytilini and others involved. They don’t seem to understand the significance of these kinds of incidents which are growing on the island. They want to keep them quiet and keep a low profile and let things calm down. However I told them it was not the moment to calm down faced with the fact that they allowed protestors close the school, that they prevented an education programme from being implemented that was designed by the Ministry of Education. They prevented us delivering the agreed work on this programme. These children were cheated by these ultranationalist protestors. They were exposed to hate speech.
Schools have such an important role to play in small societies. They are one of the only beacons of reason, of liberty, of integration. This island has been through so much and people are frustrated and angry but how can the Minister of Education allow vigilantes to attack us? Now they are trying to make the refugee children invisible in our school. They come after day classes, when all the students have left. This is to ensure that there is as little interaction as possible and that they’ll be separated from the mainstream of the school. It is a compromise.
I’m just really hoping that after a month or two this thing will turn around and they will see that these youngsters present no threat to our nationality or religion and our safety and I just hope they will see that they are humans.
I already started making learning materials which talk about integration and human rights and preparing posters. I am hoping we will have a debate. I want them to be honest and tell me what was so annoying for them to have these students come to our school. But this has to be done after the students are settled. For heaven’s sake what a fuss they made over 12 young people from Somalia, Congo, Afghanistan and Syria. I was so shocked listening to their contempt for black people. There are only 120 students in the school so this is such a small percentage of newcomers to trigger such a disproportionate response.
Most of the people who participated in the protest gave interviews for the local radio so they shot themselves in the foot because they revealed their lies, their hate speech, and their fake arguments against these kids coming to school. A lot of them were “estimating” their ages saying that they were not youngsters but 20- 25, spreading fear that they might harm or violate their children.
There is also a heartening aspect to all this hate in that many of my former and current students and former colleagues, have flooded me with messages of support like, “we are so sorry for what happened, don’t give up, we are with you, know that we support you, you have always fought for dignity and rights, don’t leave our school” . These messages came hard and fast. It helped me carry on.