Teaching English (and German) to refugees

Back in February I got on my high horse about doing more about the refugee crisis here in Greece. It took a little time to work out what I was going to do, but by May I was volunteering to teach Syrian kids English. It was a bit of a disaster. But, after some time off in the summer and a little more organization from the other volunteers (for which I am eternally grateful!!), we worked out the kinks and I finally feel like I’m providing a useful service.

We still work in pairs, but now we teach the older kids and their parents English. Parents in theory, anyway…so far we’ve mostly been teaching the kids and teenagers. Which I totally get. You don’t see this mama mastering much Greek, and I’ve been here almost two years!

The kids at our center — three brothers who come regularly — get three lessons per week, and they are learning so fast! My teaching partner, Kelly, put together this amazing lesson with food, and we all had so much fun eating all the yummy stuff she brought while she wrote down all the words for what they were eating. We usually take turns putting together lesson plans — today I did parts of the body, and I drew a little diagram for them to label. The boys are so eager to learn, and it’s been a delight teaching them.


Recently I learned the brothers will be relocating to Germany in another month. I asked them if they’d like to learn some German, and their little eyes just lit up with enthusiasm. Yes! Teach us Deutsch! Coincidentally, we’re headed to Germany next month, too, so I’m glad to brush up on my German. I took four years of German in high school and college…and it’s kind of embarrassing how little I remember. But it’s starting to come back to me. Last week I taught them to introduce themselves and say how old they were. The middle boy, who was eleven, laughed when he spoke the words. His older brother explained that the word “eleven” in German — elf — is the number “1000” in Arabic. Ah-ha! That is pretty funny.

Today we had some new students, so I wasn’t sure how best to incorporate my German lesson. It took us a long time to get through parts of the body, plus I’d done some basic clothing names (shirt, pants, shoes), and I quizzed them on where the parts were and also what color clothing they were wearing. Before long it was the end of class, so I decided to hand out the worksheets I’d brought in German to the boys and they could go over them at home. But then my other students spoke up. One of them was also going to Germany soon, and she wanted to learn Deutsch, as well! So we did a quick little 15-minute lesson going over basic salutations — guten tag, auf wiedersehen, wie geht’s, ja, nein, etc — and how to pronounce them, which turned out to be the hardest part. I think going from English to German isn’t quite so jarring because the languages are closely related. Even the boys who weren’t going to Germany got in on the action. So much energy and so much fun!

I think the most challenging part of this gig is how unpredictable the class size and class level is from week to week. I didn’t bring enough hand-outs for the students today, so I had to hurriedly dash downstairs and beg the gal working in the front office to make me more copies. (Today I was teaching solo, but my new teaching partner will start next week.) Sometimes we have an interpreter, but most times we do not. The Google Translate app come in handy, though usually I can get one of the more advanced students to explain it to the rest. Despite the hiccups, it’s been fun to come up with lessons, either using some of the notes one of our volunteers with an ESL teaching background provided, or coming up with new material on our own. We printed and laminated cards with characters and words to use in language games, which helps make the class more fun. And as we get new students, we can recycle previous lessons. The refugees in our center typically stay for six months.

Caritas, the organization we’re working with, has several refugee centers located all around Athens. If you’re interested in volunteering — you can teach English, but you can also serve food in the soup kitchen, provide activities for the children, or a host of other things — let me know in the comments and I’ll hook you up. Or you can check out the Community Service Network Facebook page, where you can find even more information on volunteer opportunities in Athens.

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