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Home: Freunde Waldorf

Greece 2015

Human Jetsam on Lesbos: Children in hell’s courtyard

The beaches of the Greek island of Lesbos are littered with the leftovers of thousands of boats and tens of thousands of signal red life vests. Daily over a 100 dinghies with 7,000 to 10,000 refugees on board reach the island. But now in autumn the sea is harsh; the crossing, very dangerous. People stand thickly packed together in the boats: men and women, mothers with newborns, pregnant and old, sick and injured- and especially children. Every careless weight shift can cause a capsizing of the dinghy. A few who go overboard swim next to the boats. Over 3,000 people have already drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015.

Every boat that reaches the coast has tragedies to report. A five year old girl cries distraughtly over the death of her mother who drowned during the crossing. The mother of a five month old infant mourns the loss of her twin child.
Oous (15) fled with his uncle from Somalia after his family was murdered. His uncle died during the crossing over the Mediterranean Sea. Oous tells of how the body of his uncle was then thrown overboard.
Many of the totally soaked and freezing cold arrivals are close to a physical and mental breakdown. Others appear euphoric in knowing that they have now survived the worst. They cannot guess at what awaits them. And like Oous and many other unaccompanied underage refugees without adult attachment persons, they are fleeing alone.

Like ant trails, the apparently endless flood of refugees wind through the mountainous island. At night, the refugees camp out on the quay walls and in the parking garages, in home entrances and on public squares or, like many hundreds do, in the middle of mountain roads. All are searching for the registration camps Tara Tepe und Moria. Set up by the European Union, these camps are completely overwhelmed. Only those who are registered have the right to aid and medical care as well as the highly sought after tickets for the crossing to Piraeus. Around camp Moria scenes play out that are very difficult to describe. Almost 10,000 people wait there in tightly packed long lines, often for days, for acceptance into the camp. In pouring rain, they threaten to sink into trash and mud.

The intervention team of the Friends of Waldorf Education was successful in negotiating with the official responsible parties, to bring children with life threatening injuries and illness into the camp for acute medical care. Almost daily the inhuman conditions set off heavy tumult. With batons and tear gas, the police try to limit the extent of the violence and keep up a remnant of external order.

Inside the Moria-Camp, which is run by the Greek government, about 60 Syrian and 30 Afghan unaccompanied children and teenagers are sheltered in two separated camp sections. They are left to themselves, without pedagogical care, and cared for at the bare existence minimum by two police officers. The living containers of the children are secured multiple times with walls, fences, and NATO-barbed wired fences. Everything is reminiscent more of an internment camp for prisoners, than European facilities for the care of children and adolescents.

Within the Syrian children’s camp, the cabin fever is all encompassing. There is an atmosphere ranging from blank desperation, to tense aggressiveness and fear. Many of the children and adolescences ban together repeatedly, they run screaming through their camp area, destroy furniture and rip apart sheets and pieces of clothing. Others sit crying on the floor or crouch on their beds. Suicide attempts are a daily occurrence. Just a few minutes after the arrival of the emergency pedagogy intervention team, a 13 year old boy climbed up the stanchions on the camp entrance, stuck his head in the NATO-barbs and let himself fall with the goal of severing his throat. Luckily, he only injured himself on the jaw. Then while acute medical care was still being given to the boy, an 11 year old tried to slit open his wrists with the NATO-barbs on the container roof. During the emergency care of the second boy, a young police officer broke down crying: “I cannot stand it anymore! I will become sick because of it!”

Emergency pedagogical interventions can also stabilise traumatised children in such extreme situations. They can help them to process the stressful experiences and integrate them into their child biography1,2. Flashbacks can be interrupted and panic attacks can be lessened. Nightmares and forced traumatic play can be positively influenced by discussions. Eurhythmy, movement games, and sports, but also just taking walks work against paralysing movement reluctance and help with the processing of psychotraumata3. Rhythmic exercises stabilise the human vital powers and activate the self healing powers. A ritualised daily structure helps to create new order in a broken down, chaotic world, and gives stability, orientation, and safety.

Painting, drawing, music, and dance can be creative, healing means of expression when children cannot speak about their experiences. The communal planning and implementation of smaller projects can help to win back confidence in one’s own design power and to find new handling competence. 

The arrival in Europe does not mean an end to the traumatisation for the children, but rather, that the most painful phase of the processing process has just begun. The concept of the sequential traumatisation, further developed in  Masud Khan’s theory of cumulative traumatisation, which “takes into account the lasting and child specific stressors, with which children and teenagers are subjected to in the context of war and displacement”.4 Sequential traumatisations “are triggered by repeated experiences which take place over a longer time period (...)”.5
Hans Keilson showed in a 25 year follow up study of Jewish war orphan children in Holland, that “the extremely stressful situation (results)  (...) from the continuous effect of massive, mutually reinforcing traumatic situations, which also go on after the war, thus after the conclusion of the persecution itself”.6 As Keilson further proves, traumatic stress reactions often first develop in the third sequence of events during the flight: one gets “(...) the impression, that the stress factors in their culmination point are first visible in this last sequence”.7

The children and adolescents in camp Moria urgently need pedagogical care and stabilising daily structures, which the internment camp could transform into a “child friendly space”. The camp manager of Moria, a Greek police officer, recognized this: “Please stay! We need you!”

In order to also support pedagogues and aid workers on site in their work with these traumatised children, the emergency team8 carried out a three day emergency pedagogy training seminar9 in Athens for about 120 teachers, pre-school teachers, and pedagogical carers.

Bernd Ruf

1.    Clemens Hausmann (2006): Einführung in die Psychotraumatologie, Wien
2.    Harald Karutz, Frank Lasogga (2008): Kinder in Notfällen. Psychische Erste Hilfe und Nachsorge. Edewecht
3.    Jo Eckardt (2005): Kinder und Trauma. Göttingen
4.    Detemple, K. (2013): Zwischen Autonomiebestreben und Hilfebedarf. Unbegleitete minderjährige Flüchtlinge in der Jugendhilfe. Baltmannsweiler. 33
5.    Siebert, E. (2010): Schwere Last auf kleinen Schultern. Aufgaben und Grenzen Sozialer Arbeit mit minderjährigen traumatisierten Flüchtlingen aus Kriegsgebieten. Marburg. 63
6.    Keilson, H. (2005): Sequentielle Traumatisierung bei Kindern. Untersuchung zum Schicksal  jüdischer Kriegswaisen. Unveränderter Neudruck der Ausgabe von 1979. Stuttgart. 426
7.    Ibid. 74
8.    The crisis intervention team on Lesbos/Greece was made up of: Bernd Ruf (mission leader, special education teacher), Lukas Mall (coordination, social work), Raphaela Deborah Emke (Assistant), Minka Görzel-Straube (Waldorf and trauma pedagogy), Astrid Hansen (art therapist), Verena Aalders (curative educator), Andrea Wiebelitz (pedagogue for young children), Kerstin Brüggemann (Eurythmist), Bärbel Rademacher (Waldorf pedagogue), Alys Mendus (pedagogue), Dr. Bob Carl Witsenburg (doctor)
9.   Our heartfelt thanks to our cooperation partner Archontis Karanasio (Society for Waldorf Pedagogy Athens)


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