Reaching Higher in Greece: A Refugee Pathway toward European Higher Education

Skaramangas refugee camp feels like a place that has been forgotten.  In a former Greek navy port under 20 kilometers from the city center of Athens, there are approximately 2,500 residents – Kurds, Iraqis, Syrians, and Afghanis – who step out each day of their container “caravan” homes and pass the time, waiting months if not years for an asylum interview and refugee status to be granted to them.  Their former identity, full of personal, professional, and national nuances, is gone.  Many first traversed the seas to Lesbos, Greece, after they fled their home countries, and they then transferred to Skaramangas or Athens’ other refugee camp, Eleonas, as they waited to learn the status of their asylum application.  In Athens, where unemployment rates paired with language barriers make integration into professional Grecian society a tough prospect, it feels like there is nominal long-term hope for them even after they receive asylum.


The funding landscape for the Greek refugee camps is an ever-evolving one, which results in a sense of impermanence permeating throughout the community.  In December 2017, the Greek government security tracking entry and exit from the camp stopped for several months.  The result of this was that many of the international NGOs who served as primary providers for social services within the camps were not able to accurately track the current demographics in the camp and measure what they needed to provide accordingly.  In March 2018, when I was in Skaramangas with a Norwegian NGO called A Drop in the Ocean, the cluster of organizations within the camp was shifting rapidly from internationally funded and run NGOs to Greek-only funded and run organizations.  The Red Cross had just left the previous Friday, leaving management of the hygiene and trash programs unreported for.  Refugees arriving from boats in Lesbos to this camp who were applying for an asylum interview were being told the soonest appointment they could receive might be January 2019.


Since my visit in March, I returned to Athens once more in June, and learned of continued organizational shifting within Skaramangas.  Many of the Greek NGOs that had taken over responsibility in the camp were settling into their new roles, allowing for slow re-calibration across the camp of who provided particular social services.  More boats were arriving with new refugees, but with the return of the Greek government’s entry and exit tracking, there were systems to monitor who was in the camp again.  Some of the previous Kurdish, Iraqi, Afghani, and Syrian refugees had since left the camp, and African refugees were beginning to arrive in Skaramangas, in smaller numbers, seeking a temporary place to stay.

Skaramangas Refugee Camp


Waiting - that was the game.  But yet, within this transience, there was a small contingent of teenage students who were still attending Greek high schools provisionally.  The Greek language barriers created significant obstacles for the students, but they kept their aspirations to one day receive their university diplomas.  They wrote screenplays, attempted to study from the Physics books that had been donated to A Drop in the Ocean’s library, and used their limited data plans on their phones to look up details on university admissions processes in Finland, Norway, and the UK.  For the most part, they wanted to leave Greece.  Given the prolonged delays in legal asylum granting funnels, some refugees were debating smuggling themselves across borders to allow for a prospect of a future outside of the containers in Skaramangas refugee camp. 


For the majority of university-aspiring students, Greece will not be the place where they decide to pursue their degree, and understandably so.  With youth unemployment at an astronomical 45 percent in Greece, the motivation to graduate with a degree from a country whose employment rates are stronger is a natural one.  For many college ready refugees in Greece, a portion of their family may have already resettled in a second country in Europe, potentially Germany, Sweden, Finland, or Norway.  As a result, personal motivations to reconnect with their family shape their decision-making process when looking towards setting up longer term roots, both in their continued studies and professional futures.


Over the past year, I have been participating in a fellowship through the World Innovation Summit for Education called the Learners’ Voice Program.  In one of our lectures, an in-house faculty member described the refugee crisis as an information crisis.  This is particularly prevalent when it comes to college access.  More and more governments, foundations, NGOs, and universities – both in Greece and the broader European context - have the funds to sponsor refugee students.  However, beneficiaries of those scholarships have trouble accessing those channels of information.  Skaramangas-based students will benefit from knowing timelines for applications and what legal status they need to have reached before thinking about applying to university, either in Greece or elsewhere in Europe.  For those who are looking to resettle and pick up their studies in a place such as Norway, Finland, Germany, or the UK, educators should direct them to the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees.  This way, their previous education credentials can be assessed, and advisors can help them find uniquely aligned scholarships to assist in funding their studies.  The UNHCR discusses the role of humanitarian workers as not causing harm in our process of support, so this advising must implement its suggestions in cautious and well-researched ways. 


For the past three years, I served as a fellowships advisor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, where I advised students applying to fully-funded Master’s and PhD programs.  I regularly asked students to address the question of “So what?” before they applied for a program.  The degree, and the skills learned through it, need to serve a greater purpose.  Across the world, there are college advisors doing much of this work, guiding their own students towards a pathway to fulfilling their dreams.  My hope is that we can transfer this work of college preparatory guidance currently available to a privileged few to broader refugee communities. 


Dignity is the key for hope.  For refugees to feel like they are self-sustaining and able to stand on their own two feet once more, and in order to give back to the community where they live, it is essential that they have a livelihood and a purposeful direction.  So, what can educators wanting to open the doors to higher education access for these communities do?  It is critical work for college advisors to guide those seeking a degree, by creating a foundation of understanding around the financial, legal, and admissions feasibility of college applications.


By mobilizing a cohort of like-minded college advisors in providing individualized support, we can enable refugee applicants to continue their university studies in the best place at the best time, whether that be in Greece or another country where they are resettled in the future.  This will allow for matching of pre-existing funding with great applicants and enable this small contingent of college bound refugees who wish to pursue further studies to do just that.


Written by Charlotte Evans.

Evans is a fellow in the one-year WISE Learners’ Voice Program.  She writes of her time in Skaramangas refugee camp in Athens, Greece, where she explored higher education viability and pathways for college-ready refugees in country.