The sleepy town of Oraiokastro entered the eye of the storm as a new school year kicked off on Monday, September 11. No sooner did the country’s Ministry of Education announce its plan to integrate 22,000 refugee and migrant children in schools around the country that Greek parents at the northern Greek town revolted. Two parents’ associations of elementary schools issued statements that they would hijack classrooms if the 420 refugee and migrant children living in a camp nearby were to attend afternoon lessons using their facilities from 14:00-18:00 daily.
The parents’ decision was not as unanimous as the association would have us believe. One mother took to Facebook to describe a tense atmosphere where at least five parents stormed out refusing to vote.”The behaviour of the Parents’ Association was expected, since it was last year that they refused to offer humanitarian aid to the refugee children, because they were not Greek. Let’s hope that if our children ever need help, they will be treated with more humanity,” she wrote. Though the head of the region’s associations, Athanasios Tsolakidis, did not take a public stand on the matter, he chose to step down after 17 years of service amid fierce criticism merely for his role in accepting the two parent groups’ letters in silence.
It seems that the wheel has come full circle for Oraiokastro (meaning “beautiful castle”) – a town created in 1922 following the government’s settlement programme for Greek refugees from Pontus and Caucuses who fled from their homeland. Relocated to 20,000 hectares at Oraiokastro, the mosquitoes in the marshlands were a source of malaria for the first settlers who battled against the elements while also dealing with the trauma of forced displacement. These days, the town’s residents are proud of their refugee descent however seem to have forgotten the challenges of being uprooted.
Now, the decision of these parents – grandchildren of displaced people themselves – has stirred controversy, perplexing the nation and causing division, with refugee children caught in the crossfire in a battle of wills:
|“NO” CAMP||“YES” CAMP|
|“These children are raised in a different way and they wouldn’t feel comfortable in our schools.” Fotini Kitsiou, member of parents’ association at primary school of Oreokastro||“I understand the concerns of people at Oraiokastro, but as educators we need to reassure them that there is no reason to worry about the coexistence between their children and refugee children. There will be no problems, it will be to the benefit of everyone.” Petros Haravitsidis, headmaster of the 132nd Primary School of Athens attended by students of 17 nationalities|
|There are those who “withstand Islamisation, the degradation of our Country and ‘anti-racist’ propaganda.” On the website of the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn Party||“This attitude stands completely at odds with the love, solidarity and understanding that the great majority of Greek parents, students and teachers have shown to refugees in our country.” Education Minister Nikos Filis|
|“These children have not been vaccinated and we are worried about diseases.” Fotini Kitsiou, member of parents association at primary school of Oreokastro
“There are valid health concerns. There have been recorded cases of hepatitis, tuberculosis and malaria among refugees.” Asterios Gavotsis, Oreokastro Mayor
|“Refugee children will be received at schools, will be vaccinated and will have their teachers.” Education Minister Nikos Filis.
Doctors of the World President Nikitas Kanakis posted on Facebook that children at the camps have been vaccinated and are looked after by doctors six times a week.
|“The best solution would be for refugee children to attend classes in a separate location.” Oreokastro Mayor Asterios Gavotsis.
In a video (see below) posted on Youtube on September 3, Gavotsis states that the NGO’s in the region were discussing the integration of refugees to schools of Oreokastro and that he was against this. He tells parents that legally, they can do nothing. A parent asks if something should be done illegally and Gavotsis responds, “I leave that up to you.” When the parent suggests opening a head or two as pedophilia (as a result of refugee entry into the school) spreads as a matter of time – as seen in Sweden and Norway (!) – as this can happen, the mayor’s response is “Bravo!”
|“We want them to play with the Greek children and they will gradually be introduced in classrooms. I don’t understand why parents would not accept these children at school.” Education Minister Nikos Filis
Following Gavotsis comments, Prosecutor Syrmo Kakali launched a probe to see if the action of the parents and mayor’s statements infringe the law. The General Secretary of the Secretariat of Transparency and Human Rights Kostis Papaioannou points to Law 927/1979 that foresees social and legal action of public persons who promote violence, discrimination and hate.
The day after the mayor’s comments, unknown persons spray-painted anti-racist slogans at the Town Hall.