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Sebastopol’s Schoolbox Project carves out safe space for child refugees

The Elliniko refugee camp outside of Athens is a complex of abandoned 2004 Olympic Games venues and the former Ellinikon International Airport.

This is where the Sebastopol-based Schoolbox Project has been located since Oct. 31, just outside the international arrivals area at the old airport, where families once waited for loved ones to return.

The Schoolbox Project, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization, provides specialized care to displaced children. It was founded this spring by Sebastopol’s Belle Sweeney after she traveled to Greece looking to help refugees who had fled their home countries.

More than 50,000 refugees - most from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq - are stranded in Greece seeking asylum, waiting for approval and settlement in a foreign country.

Sweeney, 33, an alpaca farmer, arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos in November 2015 as a volunteer, a west county woman feeling a need to help the refugees. When she returned to Greece a second time this spring, this time to the port city of Piraeus, near Athens, the idea for the Schoolbox Project materialized. She took a cab to a shipping yard, rented a shipping container and had it delivered to the refugee camp with the idea it could be used for children’s activities.

At the time, about 5,000 people were living in a tent city. Sweeney, the mother of four children, two of them adopted through the foster system, has dedicated much of her life to emergency foster care and the importance of trauma-informed care on children with difficult upbringings. After working with the children at the refugee camp, she realized that more than anything, what they needed was structure, safety and a place to go during the day.

“It wasn’t going to be an organization,” she said. “It was just going to be a box full of coloring books. ... But I started realizing and recognizing behaviors that I know from my work at home, and volunteers wanted to do their best for the children, but didn’t know how to handle them.”

Seven months later, the Piraeus camp is closed. The Schoolbox Project, buoyed by the donations on which it depends, has set up two camps: at the old Ellinikon airport, and at an abandoned seaside resort in the town of Andravida on the Ionian coast.

Refugees at Elliniko enter a desolate scene, greeted by a sign that reads “Baseball, Hockey, Refugees” with arrows pointing to each destination. Weeds grow tall in cracks in the faded pavement and clothing waves in the breeze, hung through chain-link fences lined with barbed wire. Graffiti covers some exterior walls.

Three containers, or schoolboxes, each with a door and windows, sit in a U-shape, with a makeshift courtyard in the middle.

The exteriors of the schoolboxes are painted with murals of flowers and grass.

Inside, Schoolbox Project volunteers provide an arts and crafts program for children, a quiet, reflective opportunity to express their emotions creatively, Sweeney said. Volunteers try to incorporate aspects of nature as much as they can.

“A lot of what children have access to in the camps is what I would describe as sensory junk food,” she said. “They need to be able to go inward. They need quieting activities. They need room to have their painful stories honored.”

Since Dec. 18, the Schoolbox Project has operated out of classrooms set up in cabins at Andravida, but the idea there is the same.

In addition to its Arts and Play Program and schoolhouse, the Schoolbox Project hopes to eventually provide safe space for mothers and babies.

Over 10,000 refugee children have been reported missing since arriving on European soil as a result of trafficking and smuggling, said Jacqui Jorgeson, associate director with the Schoolbox Project, and so the organization is particularly sensitive about the children it helps.

“Many of these refugees left their countries to begin with because they were fleeing the regime in Syria, the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Islamic State in Iraq,” Jorgeson said. “They’re seeking safety. They’re seeking anonymity. There is an ongoing fear among the refugees that they will be found, that the search doesn’t stop simply because they left their homes.”

Sex abuse, too, is not uncommon, another reason the Schoolbox Project doesn’t allow photographs of children’s faces.

Jorgeson related the story of a 4-year-old Afghan girl who has been helped by the Schoolbox Project’s efforts at specialized care.

When the girl first arrived at the Elliniko camp with her family she was almost nonverbal, Jorgeson said, with screaming her only method of communication.

She was entirely dependent on her older sister, had no friends, and would spit, punch and kick anyone who tried to communicate with her.

Volunteers decided the best way to reach the girl would be to first gain her older sister’s trust.

“It’s what we call discreet work,” Jorgeson said. “They went to great lengths in the hopes that if her sister gave us her approval, she would follow.”

Slowly, it started to work. The little girl started engaging with other children. Her screams decreased.

After 10 weeks with the Schoolbox Project, the little girl now has a best friend. Together, the two skip. They color.

And sometimes, the 4-year-old will even reach out to staff members for a quick morning cuddle.

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