“We need to think outside the box…because you learn more things outside the box. It’s like a cage, you need to be a free bird” says Arezu, an incredibly talented and eloquent Afghan refugee of just 12-years-old, currently living on Lesvos island in Greece.
This week is the return to school for many children around the world, including in Greece. For many, it is the first time they will re-enter the classrooms following many months of remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For others, COVID-19 is not the only barrier to accessing education. A report published by UNHCR last week highlighted that only 34% of school aged refugee children are currently enrolled in secondary level education. Arezu is one of the lucky ones.
In Arezu’s native Afghanistan, access to education, particularly for girls, is a huge challenge, particularly given the ongoing humanitarian crisis where more than 600,000 people have been internally displaced this year alone.
Arezu arrived in Greece in 2019 with her parents and her younger sister. When she was just seven years old and her mother was 8 months pregnant with her younger sister Aylin, her parents came to the conclusion that they could no longer stay in Northern Afghanistan. As the conflict escalated, their lives and that of their daughter and unborn child were at risk. They fled to Turkey and later to Greece.
Having had a more comfortable life in Afghanistan and working in education, Mariam, the mother of Arezu, remembers the challenges of arriving in Greece and having to prove herself all over again. But this didn’t deter her. Despite the challenges, she remains upbeat.
“You must start over again and step by step, people will see your capacities and doors will open for you. Everyone is different. You must make a goal and follow your path and it will be achieved. I’m always on the positive path and this brings the positive people to me” she says.
Upon arriving in the camp in Moria in 2019, Mariam immediately set to work volunteering as an interpreter. She has worked for several NGOs and is now a Community Liaison Officer with a UNHCR-funded Greek NGO supporting survivors of gender-based violence. Not only that, but she is an active member of the refugee community, working to support the integration of other refugees in Greece.
For Mariam, before anything else, education comes first. She has instilled this value in her oldest daughter. It was very difficult for Arezu to join the local primary school on Lesvos but due to Mariam’s perseverance, Arezu was finally given the opportunity and she didn’t disappoint. Within 3 months she had integrated and was speaking Greek quite fluently. Quickly she began to achieve the highest grades in her class.
Her mother recognized her talents and, determined to give her every opportunity in life, she knocked on every door she could find to seek a scholarship for secondary education for her daughter. She finally received a response from the US Embassy in Greece who encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to the International School of Boston. Once more, Arezu excelled in her exam and her interview.
In May this year, the family learned that Arezu had been accepted for the scholarship – a fully funded 5-year secondary school scholarship.
“We were visiting the spot where our boat had landed in Mytilene [Lesvos]. It was at that very moment that I received a call from the school in the US. That was a moment that shone in our dark times” says Mariam.
Arezu is now preparing to depart to Boston in the coming weeks. While her paperwork is processed, she has begun learning online. It wasn’t easy for her to settle into school in Greece, but she has the same positive outlook as her mother. “School is good. I love Greek people. But sometimes it is difficult. Some days are good and some are bad” she says.
At just 12 years old, despite the multiple challenges she has faced throughout her life, her resilience and strength are abundant. “I want to go, I want to stand on my own two feet. I’m excited. I’m looking forward to education and to being a doctor so I can help people and help my family. I want to be a cardiologist or maybe a brain surgeon” she adds enthusiastically.
While Arezu has worked hard with the support of her loving family, she has been lucky to get this opportunity. Sadly, almost half of school aged refugee children globally remain out of school.