By Bejay Browne
A Paphos centre set up and run by volunteers is making a huge difference to the lives of refugee families in Cyprus, by teaching them language skills and providing assistance wherever possible.
The Learning Refuge in central Paphos was initiated by Caritas and aims to improve the lives of refugees.
Head of Caritas Paphos, Wendy Burdon, told the Sunday Mail, that although the organisation is Catholic, they help the poor and disadvantaged in the local community of any religious beliefs. They are currently feeding dozens of refugee families in the town, who without their help would go without food.
Burdon said that many of the refugees may have escaped from war zones, but that they face new challenges in Cyprus.
“The system in Cyprus desperately needs to be reviewed and the wait between the different stages refugees must go through is far too long,” she said.
The government refugee camp at Kofinou is overcrowded, and the wait for an approved asylum application or international protection can be excruciatingly long. Refugees are not permitted to work and coupons handed out by the state barely meet a family’s basic needs, she said.
Without the help of charities and caring individuals that often help refugees find accommodation and integrate into the local community, the effects on the families would be devastating.
However, there is little state help to learn Greek or English and Caritas Paphos decided to fill this gap and provide a service run by volunteers. The result is ‘The Learning Refuge’ which opened its doors over a year ago.
“We help the adults and children to learn Greek and English, we advise them on how the ‘system’ works in Cyprus and what they have to do. We help with schools, all sort of letters, hospitals, doctors and lawyers.”
Burdon said that one refugee child told her that sitting in class he felt ‘like an alien from another planet’ and he could not understand a single word of what was going on around him. Over a year on, by attending the Learning Refuge, his language skills have improved and so has his experience, she said.
Set in a ground floor apartment in central Paphos, the facility has an enclosed outdoor space where the children can play, a kitchen, toilet, and three rooms where lessons are taught. These take place in the afternoon after regular school hours and children of all ages and adults attend language and art classes at the school. Help is given with school homework where needed and vocabulary skills are learnt and honed. This enables adults to integrate better into the local community, access healthcare, go shopping and converse with neighbours, she said.
Caritas has to raise funds to pay the annual rent on the property, which although minimal, is a challenge.
As children of different backgrounds play happily together outside with volunteer teacher, Anne Brown, an ex-nursery nurse at a primary school in Scotland, Rehab Al Habrat, a mother of four who has lived in Paphos for 16 years said that the facility is much more than ‘just a school.’
“Here we are Muslim, Christian, Yazidi, Alawi, Sunni, and Shia, all together, we eat at the same table, and we play together. We don’t ask what you believe, and I am proud of what we are achieving,” she said.
Rehab said that nobody at the facility questions another’s beliefs, or what god they believe in. “We share everything and we respect each other,” she said.
The school first started at Rehab’s home around two years ago, as many refugee families requested help with language skills, and paid lessons were not an option.
Once a week 16 children and their parents would visit her home; now around 30 children and their families attend the refuge, and not just for lessons, she said.
“They play and eat together, they do art, mosaics, and so many things.”
Five teachers are currently giving their time for free, including well-known artist Mary Chojnowski.
Most of the refugees speak Arabic and some Kurdish and they all need help, she said. Many arrive on boats, fleeing war in Syria, a dangerous trip with no guarantees even if they make it, as maybe some are sent back, she said.
“They have no other choice, they have to try; some are fleeing Isis. When they come they have nothing, only the clothes they are wearing and we help them as much as we can, step by step.”
She explained the legal process, noting that that welfare coupons are stopped when refugees are granted International Protection status, they then have to apply for their ID. The wait for this can be lengthy, they must then apply to obtain guaranteed minimum income allowance and wait for months for an outcome.
“The quickest amount of time to receive all their papers is around one year if they are lucky. How are they supposed to live?” she questioned.
And numbers of arrivals seem to be increasing she said, travelling from Somalia, Iraq, Africa and Palestine.
Both women said that supplies are needed for Caritas, both of non-perishable goods to help feed the families, as well as donations to help pay the rent and bills for the Learning Refuge, along with art supplies.
Some of the young children from Syria only know bombs, war, fighting and blood and staff at the refuge try to show them how beautiful and safe life can be.
“They are our future and if we don’t care about them, what will happen? They need psychological help, we have to calm them down and make them feel safe and teach them respect for everyone,” she said.
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