I am always happy to support staff who want to volunteer with organisations around the world especially when they are helping children. We have encouraged staff who wanted to use their annual leave to volunteer with War Child for three weeks in Uganda and we are always looking at ways to back the childcare social enterprise in Kidogo in Kenya. Recently, Nivine who worked in marketing, customer services and recruitment as bank staff, came to tell me all about her volunteering in the Ritsona refugee camp in Greece. I was enthralled as I discovered she saves every penny she earns so she can volunteer for six months at a time.
The camp houses over 950 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and many other countries. Approximately, 35 per cent of Ritsona refugee residents are children under the age of 18.
During Nivine's time at the camp, she volunteered with an NGO called I AM YOU, which runs English and Greek classes for adults, and a pre-school for children aged two upwards. As a trained journalist, Nivine wanted to give a voice to the voiceless, especially children, and her volunteer role is communications officer for the NGO.
Ritsona camp is located 10 miles from the largest town in an old military base. Being so remote means that children are often left wandering around with limited resources and opportunities to guide their learning. I AM YOU tries to address this by offering children two sessions a day, one for two-year-olds and one for three-year-olds to come and play and learn with children their own age. Nivine has absorbed her mother's passion for great quality early years education. I remember meeting Nivine when her mum, Mona Majed was volunteering at the Baby Show, and Nivine was no more than six years old! It's not surprising that Nivine has early years running through her blood.
The pre-school in the camp is a colourful, vibrant environment that the children love! In reality it's a square container. The pre-school gets donations of toys and books but lacks a regular teacher, depending instead on volunteers who often cannot stay longer than six months. That's quite a challenge, given that a great teacher is what every child needs to meet, especially for the children living in the camps.
Many of them have already experienced trauma, born into a war-torn countries. Watching their parents struggle financially and socially is bound to have a negative affect on them. There are children like Omer, who is a three-year-old boy who attends the pre-school. Nivine tells me that driving into camp every morning at 9am she knows that Omer will be standing at the pre-school regular parking space along the gravel road.
When he sees the small red car approaching he starts shouting with excitement while holding tightly to his Dad's hand. Always the first to arrive, never wanting to leave, Omer is there every morning without fail, come rain or shine. Omer doesn't share a common language with any of the other children. Most of the children speak Arabic or Kurdish but Omer speaks Turkish. He has very little if any, interaction with children his age outside of pre-school. There is nowhere to go and play, Mum has a baby, so Omer often plays alone in his caravan. Omer's parents know the benefit of pre-school. They don't speak English or Arabic but communicate with a grateful smile and nod at pick up and drop off. Since attending pre-school, Omer has transitioned from a shy, withdrawn outsider to a confident, bubbly boy. He has many friends including Linda, Nada and Rania who love him! Omer has picked up some English words now and can communicate with the volunteers without the language barrier. It is crucial for children like Omer and his friends to have a safe space to learn and socialise, and escape the day-to-day tedium of camp life.
Nivine could see the benefit of the pre-school for Omer and many like him. Nivine felt that the pre-school could benefit massively from the "LEYF approach" and a regular teacher. She therefore asked for our help.
I AM YOU has a $10,000 fundraising target to fund a teacher for the pre-school. This amount would be doubled by a generous donor if they reach the target within an agreed timeline. Nivine explained that the fund was short $800 to meet the target. What was my answer? Of course, we would provide the $800 as part of our social purpose to help change the world one child at a time. I am sure further contributions would be welcome, so donate here.
June O'Sullivan is the chief executive of London Early Yeasr Foundation. This blog first appeared on the LEYF website