Syrian kiddos take two

Today I came armed with activities — books to read, songs to sing, games to play — and while it was still chaotic at times, I feel like the time was much better spent. I started our hour reading a few picture books I’d brought from home. They loved Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes, but I lost them a bit with Peanut Butter and CupcakeIt occurred to me halfway through that the concept of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches might be a bit unfamiliar. I found the books with more prose were harder for them to follow, so next time I’ll try to pick shorter books with less words and more colorful pictures.

After a lively round of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, the girls were begging to color, so I left them to their own devices. Then our intrepid coordinator arrived with her laptop and a pair of speakers, and we spent the rest of the hour dancing to If You’re Happy and You Know It, Where is Thumbkin, and the like. Some songs we found they knew very well. Their English is better than I thought, at least when it comes to songs. I suddenly remembered one of my favorite songs from Liam’s preschool days, something about monkeys teasing alligators and getting snatched out of a tree. That was a big hit. All that jumping around and singing and I was totally breaking a sweat!

I made them all name tags with their names in English printed on them. I was trying to get them to write their names in English underneath, but they weren’t quite getting it, so they wrote them in Arabic. But I think if they keep seeing their names in English, it’ll sink in eventually.

Next time I’m thinking I might bring in some balloons. Maybe we can draw faces on them or something. Maybe English letters of the alphabet. I have to keep the craft simple because of the age range and limited space. And thanks to Liam, I’ve got an impressive number of Michael Jackson hits stored on my phone, so we could always have an 80’s king of pop dance party. I don’t care how old you are and where you’re from, that’s always fun.

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”.

Volunteering to help refugees

It’s easy to “like” articles on Facebook bemoaning the numerous policies enacted by an administration I cannot abide. A wave of nationalism that has arisen in countries on both sides of the Atlantic has left the most vulnerable population — refugees fleeing famine, war, and persecution — in a state of perpetual homelessness. While some lucky few get resettled, many others spend months or years living in camps. Many of them are living here in Athens. So I asked myself, what can I do to help? I’ve been regularly putting the kids’ old clothes in the donation bins at the Embassy and Liam’s school. But it didn’t feel like I was doing enough. So when an email from the Embassy went by asking for volunteers, I decided to act.

Once a month, volunteers from the US Embassy work at the Caritas Soup Kitchen, a Catholic charity that supports refugees all over Greece. They provide a hot meal for about 150 refugees in Athens every day. The embassy provided us transportation there and back, and each volunteer worked at a station in the kitchen for a couple of hours. I was on dish duty with a couple of others from the Embassy. As the dining room filled, we washed, rinsed, and dried dishes to be stacked and reused. We had a great time chatting, and we kept very busy at our tasks. People of all ages came to eat, and we had a steady stream of diners for two straight hours. I came home exhausted, but also satisfied that perhaps I’d done a small part to offset the (hopefully temporary) refugee ban from my own country.

Eager to do more, I’m also arranging to volunteer once a week to do activities with refugee children. This program is also run by Caritas, and arranged by the Embassy. It’s brand new, so I’m not exactly sure what to expect. Once I fill out some paperwork, they should be able to get me more information on what age children I’ll be working with, and what sorts of activities they’re looking for me to do. If anyone has any low-budget kids crafting ideas and games for groups, please send them my way! I will surely be scouring Pinterest in the coming weeks.

I’m also trying to get Liam in on the charitable giving. We talk a lot about the refugee crisis, and I suggested perhaps he should set aside some of his allowance every month to contribute. One of my friends volunteers at a medical clinic at one of the camps, and she said they’re always looking for diapers and formula. If all goes to plan, I’ll be taking Liam to Jumbo with the money from his “charity” bin to pick out diapers for little refugee babies. He seemed to like the idea…though he only agreed to part with 50 cents this week. But every little bit counts!