Syrian kiddos learn English

Remember back in February when I said I was going to do volunteer to work with refugee children? After three months of paperwork processing, spring break conflicts, and a little bit of phone tag, I finally got started this week. Like I mentioned before, the folks at Caritas run several refugee centers throughout Athens, and they are in need of volunteers to teach English. Our volunteer network at the US Embassy put out a call for willing teachers, and a few of us decided to give it a try. During our initial meetings, they discussed needing volunteers to organize activities for children, as well.

Once my paperwork was processed I was able to pick a location to volunteer in — I chose one close to a Metro stop so I didn’t have to contend with Athens traffic…and parking. We met with the location director last week to iron out the details. I wasn’t sure what to expect…and neither were they. It was a little disorganized, but this is a brand new class, and we’re contending with three different languages, so it’s to be expected.

This particular building houses a handful of families for about 6 months before they are relocated to various areas around Europe. We volunteer in pairs — at another location, both of the embassy volunteers teach English to the adults. The children learn English at a school they attend in the afternoons. But in our location the school is too far, so I’ll be supervising the children and organizing activities that will teach them some English, while my partner teaches their parents in a room next door.

On my first day, I thought I would just get the lay of the land. There are games, markers, and toys in the play room, so I figured I would let the kids pick what they want to play with and I’d observe them. You know, get a feel for how much English they already know, what their temperaments are like, see how well they listen.

I was picturing Deborah Carr in The King and I singing Getting to Know You. We started out with four little girls and one boy, and as more kids filtered in, I asked them their names and wrote them in English on a name tag. The girls colored; the boys played a fishing game. As more and more children came in, the scene grew more chaotic. Ahmed, my mischievous one, took a lot of my attention as he started pouring through the cabinets for things to play with and/or destroy. I was warned about this one. Soon I had eleven kids in a tiny room, games and toys were everywhere, there was some mysterious black powder on the floor (thanks, Ahmed), and the two-year-old kept trying to escape into the hall. The King and I? More like Kindergarten Cop.

I checked my phone. Ten more minutes. Okay. After getting Ahmed to help sweep up his mess, I came up with a game — Everybody Stand Up and Copy What I Do! I would say very clearly in English an action — touch your nose — and they would follow suit. After about five minutes I ran out of ideas to do. I tried to get one of the oldest boys to help me out, but he wasn’t understanding. He leaned over and conspiratorially whispered, “I only know a little English.” Fair enough, kiddo. We’ll remedy that soon enough.

Time to clean up! I sang my favorite song from Gymboree, Everybody’s Tidying Up, and the kids all took the hint and helped pick up the room. Some of them even tried to sing along! Some of the older kids begged me to let them take toys back to their rooms. I had a feeling that wouldn’t be allowed — hence all the begging for the “new teacher” — and sure enough, it wasn’t. But they eventually got the room in order and I said my goodbyes. Back again next week!

Next time I plan to have a handful of games and activities that will help foster their growing English vocabularies. One idea I had was to write their names in English on large name tags and have them copy the letters underneath each time I come. I’m sure the quiet little girls will love that (they are so sweet and lovely — I want to take them all home!) I’ll have to find some active games for the more rambunctious boys, as well. Incidentally, the most challenging children were the 7-8 year old boys and the 2 year old. No wonder my life at home is so difficult lately! (That, and the month-long solo parenting — that is finally coming to an end this weekend!!!)

Despite the chaos, I really did have a great time. The kids were very endearing…even mischievous Ahmed, with his big grin and bigger hugs. I look forward to learning how to properly pronounce their names (One of the moms was laughing with me at my poor attempts), and the translator helped me learn how to greet the children in their language. A simple “Ach – Lan” or “Welcome”.

One thought on “Syrian kiddos learn English

  1. Julie Weddle

    Could you bring some common items that kids would have or like, then teach them the words for them by showing them the item. Eventually you could play that game where you have a cookie sheet with all the items on it, let them see it, then take it away and then they can tell you or write down all the items they remember being on the cookie sheet, or tray. But they have to say the items in English. It’s a thought.


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