Since I was a child, it has been my aspiration to travel to developing countries around the world, helping, teaching and assisting children, in some kind of humanitarian work. I had never imagined that I wouldn’t actually need to travel that far to fulfill my dream. The situation came to find me in my home country. In the past couple of years, I have been repeatedly surprised to find activities, usually featuring in large aid organization advertisements (like distributing food to people in need) already happening in my home town. Since the onset of the refugee crisis, there have also been the typical refugee camps and I found myself doing the so-called ‘field’ work – literally next door…
This little background information puts the article’s topic in context. Much has been said and written about the rise of neo-fascist, extreme right-wing parties in Greece, since the economic crisis began. Before 2009, such groups were hardly heard of, their followers less than 0.5% of the electorate and this is perhaps the reason why we were a little late to take notice. Since then, we have seen the rise of the far right, especially as the economic crisis continues and at the same time, as the refuge crisis deepens.
How is this situation affecting the young? Why teenagers in particular seem to be easily attracted to extremist groups, even when their parents do not share their views? What are the dangers for a young person growing up in poverty, huge unemployment both for their parents’ generation (30%) and themselves (60%), no prospects and a value system shaped by decades of the easy money and fame chase? This generation grew up idolizing exactly all the things they don’t have. They are neither rich nor famous, but poor and humiliated instead. They need to turn somewhere. And it seems that someone was quick to fill the gap…
Over the past few years, I worked in several schools, all in very poor areas, where international charities had already been helping out impoverished locals long before the refugee crisis started. Such areas have since been neo-fascist strongholds. Not a coincidence, I don’t think. The following cases are snapshots of the ‘climate’…
X. was a nice, quiet and bright 13-year old boy when I first taught him. A clever kid, giggling and laughing with his classmates, doing well in science, with the potential of doing even better- like most kids. Sitting on the front row and writing down notes from the board, X. did not seem to cause the slightest concern to his teachers. Two years later, by 15, X. was a completely different person. No longer child-looking, he had grown into a tall handsome man, who spent a lot of his time at the gym, growing muscular and strong. With a shaved head, he wore black T shirts more and giggled less. X. no longer played with his mates. He chose to sit alone at the back. His interaction with his mates changed. Looking up to him, they were influenced by him easily. In fact, he was elected student rep by the entire school. Another girl got elected to the school’s committee and he openly excused her success as ‘having a nice ass’. X. no longer studied and became completely disinterested in lessons- looking down on them and looking out of the window instead. He wasn’t really there, except from when the conversation would somehow come to issues of migration, racism etc. when he would fervently support the most hard-core racist views. He defied all teachers’ attempts to debate. To the question: ‘Greeks themselves have been immigrant in many countries over the years and you yourself, may find yourself in this position, would like to be treated this way?’, he replied: “I will never leave Greece. Other Greeks shouldn’t leave Greece, or they deserve what they get. People should stay in their home countries”. This was the little poem he had been taught, this was the little poem he recited. He got sanctions, but they seemed to be more of a trophy to him. When we finally called his parents for disciplinary action because of his racist remarks, they said: ‘Oh, he did very well. We agree with his views’. To convince X. to choose tolerance over racism would be to ask him to somehow reject his parents. Despite their rebelliousness, not many teenagers can really do this.
X. was indoctrinated by a neo-nazi group and very probably recruited by them. Apart from an ideology, such extremists teach a way of life, a lifestyle of hate. I felt helpless in helping X., it seemed like hitting a brick wall. A wall built inside a child’s mind, by outsiders. neo-fascists are explicitly ‘anti-education’. They support that education is useless (except for their own doctrines of poison and their own distorted version of history) and they very successfully turned a high achieving, clever student into a stubborn denier. After all, ignorance is the weapon of fascism. Devoid of critical skills and cognitive maturity, the easiest option is to think in black and white (mostly black in this case) and to come up with thought-less, sweeping assertions, like: “It is all the immigrants’ fault”. After all, discerning the highly elaborate manipulations, the complicated factors inside and outside the country that brought us to this state takes some degree of intelligence and knowledge. And free-thinking people are not desired by such parties or the system behind them.
Even though X. was impossibly inflexible about his views, he was still one and only student. The danger became more obvious to us when we found that by the end of the year, 3 or 4 of his peers, influenced by him, had actually adopted his views. Unlike him, these ones were from poor families, some fatherless, some from broken homes, looking up to him, admiring him as a symbol of strength and masculinity. Whether X. was intentionally seeking to recruit other students from within the school, I do not know. But, there have been rumors by colleagues that one of their methods is to target teenagers in schools through sons of existing members. Poor neighborhoods (such as where my school was located) offer good prey.
Ultimately, X.’s childlike innocence and spontaneity was lost. Except in some fleeting moments, when he played basketball with his peers, he would become like a kid again, he would temporarily forget about the racial origin of his co-players and all that mattered was playing good basketball… But the poison had already entered our school.
G. was another student of mine at a different school. A sweet, quiet, diligent 15 year old boy, he had given no signs of worrying behavior throughout the school year. One day, G. came to school with a strange T shirt. The T-shirt had the colors (white letters on black font) and the distinct letter case of a neo-nazi party’s symbols and letter style. The writing was of nationalistic content and the whole outlook reminiscent of a specific group. No colleague made a point about the T-shirt, except two of us, who went to the head-teacher to decide the course of action. The head-teacher’s position was: “Perhaps, it will get worse if we give it attention. If we ignore it, it may go away”. In reality, the head-teacher was afraid. In a country, whose last dictatorship ended in 1973, whose last civil war ended in 1949 and where citizens have been thoroughly filed for their political views for decades, the reflexes of survival are activated in the collective memory of the people, turning many colleagues in education mute about such ‘political’ matters. Especially if a neo-fascist adult gang operates in the area!
We insisted: “Political party paraphernalia is not allowed in the school”. To our surprise, the student and his parents cooperated, the latter saying they too were concerned about his extremist choices. This was one example of a child being lured by the bravado and pretense of power, pride and machismo, without his parents supporting his views. This was easier to deal with, but the manner had to be diplomatic. When debating with radicalized students, it’s best to be calm, detached and more intellectual than emotional. Kids often bring up the topic of neo-nazism in class, and I always take care to talk about the arguments related, but not about specific parties. As for teachers’ fear of speaking up, it is true that some teachers had been directly threatened by extremist parents and even very recently, parents and teachers were physically attacked by such gangs during a meeting about bringing refugee children to school. Most teachers are of course against such views, but most are also afraid to speak up (although there are many very brave exceptions). Savage job cuts ordered by the austerity policies and a long, recent history of discriminating citizens according to political beliefs easily lead to fear. But up to what point shall we keep quiet? This is important to understand, because if we are to understand teenagers, it is important to understand the climate in which teachers work and speak.
S., a girl of 14, was at the margin of the school system. Repeating the year, with frequent truancy and no interest on achievement whatsoever, she was excluded by her peers. From a very poor background, S. was struggling with cancer in the family. At school, she didn’t mix with others, but only with another marginalized girl, from another class. She too came from a disturbed family background, both parents unemployed and family violence. They never bothered anyone in the class. They simply were in their own world, drawing, doing other things or simply being absent minded. S. one day confided to her teacher that she was going to the local neo-nazi party offices twice a week, adding: ‘They don’t brainwash us, as you blame them’. But why is a 14 year old child going to a political party’s meetings twice a week? Is this where a 14 year old should be? Or are such organizations taking advantage of the huge void in children’s lives, minds, and hearts providing an illusion of a refuge for them, a shelter and a sense of belonging, identity and family? Well, S. felt accepted there and kept going. She didn’t feel like an outsider, she received attention and the offices became her nest. Despite the fact that these groups are openly sexist and see women’s only value as the bearers of more fascists, for her, it was better than nothing…
B. was the child of immigrants from a neighboring Balkan country. Underachieving, poor and having received racist bullying himself, it is ironic that he actually joined the ranks of the local neo-nazi group. One might wonder how he got accepted in the first place, being an immigrant child himself. Well, recruiters do not really care so much about ethnicity as much as they claim. They care about growing their power. So, if they can attract obedient followers to their ranks, they can easily stretch their polarities from ‘Greeks against non-Greeks’ to ‘Whites against non-whites’. Many other Balkan teenagers joined the ranks and they all set out to attack other immigrants of different skin color, those from Pakistan, Bangladesh etc. The logical paradox of attacking immigrants when you are an immigrant yourself does not touch the minds of those brainwashed by authoritarian, vertical organizations. It also shows how dangerous the spreading of such ideologies can be to anyone who feels rejected, marginalized and hopeless.
Sometime later, the student bumped into one of his ex-teachers: ‘How is it going Miss, how is your new school? “Fine, thank you, how are you?” “Are you alright Miss at the new school, is anyone bothering you?” “What do you mean?” “Is anyone bothering you? If they do, just let me know, I can sort it out”. The teacher was shocked at the gang-style ease with which the student offered (unwelcome) protection. She had no doubts about what he would do (with his party associates) and worried very much about young marginalized kids amassing such power into their hands.
These kids did not suddenly wake up one day, deciding: “Life sucks. I think I will become a neo-nazi”. There has been an organized effort to approach them and to give them things. Neo-fascist groups in Greece had their offices suddenly sprouting across the country at the onset of the economic crisis. They went into neighborhoods, gyms, football teams, building an image beyond politics, becoming almost a lifestyle. They organized food handouts for Greeks only and attempted Greek-only blood donations (this was blocked by medical associations). They also advertised to give jobs to Greeks only. They gave protection to crime hit areas, which the police routinely neglected. On a practical level, they appeared as the caring providers, filling the void for these lost kids, the void that an uncaring society left. On an emotional level, they played with the glee of specialness and favoritism: a starving child is happier to know that she is given two crumbles when the starving child next to her was given only one, thus the Greek-only provisions: “It doesn’t matter if we starve, but we starve less than the immigrants. At least, someone cares for us, NGOs only care about immigrants and refugees”. Using immigrants as scapegoats and manipulating jealousy and scarcity competition, has been a powerful distraction from thinking about the real causes of the situation. On a cognitive level, they provide a sense of identity for these lost teenagers, as well as an illusion of power and pride. Young Greeks, seeing their national identity derided in the world press and their country turned virtually into an obedient colony, it was easy for any ultra-nationalistic party to usurp healthy patriotism and twist it into xenophobia and racism, turning their humiliation into an illusion of superiority. Belonging in a group of compulsive body building, carrying weapons and doing brutal attacks to immigrants (while enjoying immunity by police) gave disempowered young men the intoxicating thrill of power, when they were powerless to change their lives for their better (or to express a different view to their leaders’!)
What can be done?
The issue is of course a very complex one for an entire society in shock. A society, in which as common sense living conditions vanish, so does common sense itself. What can be done for the kids?
The school has a vital, a central role to play. The school has to become the refuge for these kids. Not yet another persecutor, another critic, but the refuge. Schools should extend their schedule into the afternoon hours, feeding the students, with two full meals a day at least, three if necessary, recruiting inspired teachers to provide meaningful activities for the kids, especially regarding personal, social, health education, citizenship education, solidarity and volunteerism activities, circle time, creativity, theater and artistic activities, sport and play time. It has to become the cell where kids can feel they belong and find something interesting to do and a listening ear to talk to. Teachers are still the only adult group (outside parents) who are in daily contact with the kids. S. may have been going to her political party meetings twice a week, but she still came to school everyday! The school is still in a position of privilege in helping these kids, but much of this opportunity is wasted away in teaching not very useful technical details. Building a caring, loving rapport with the kids is also vital. I had a few young kids this year expressing neo-nazi views in class, kids as young as twelve. It was important not to scold them, but to show unconditional caring and love for them too. Then, they trust you, they hear you, you are on their side. I challenged their views of course. Not in the partisan manner, but the arguments around racism, immigration, authority and obedience, xenophobia etc. have to be challenged.
Values and character education are also important (and essentially missing from the core curriculum today). I found teaching the following topics particularly appealing:
“Acceptance: Know that each individual is different and we all have our unique combination of our pros and cons. Seek out to see the pros in another and you will be able to be seeing more pros in yourself. You both win!
Intelligent, critical thinking: Children don’t want to be considered dumb. Giving one piece of information (a label) for thousands of individuals is hardly a sign of intelligence. Examine each person individually and know that in each case there are many aspects. Seek, learn, examine, judge for yourself. Don’t think dumb and don’t swallow others’ views.
Open-mindedness: Be curious. If you know everything about someone or something beforehand, life becomes very boring. For life to be an adventure, seek to find out for yourself and you may discover many gems where you thought there were none. In fact, most gems are hidden. Seek to get to know people that you consider different from you, with an open heart and mind and you may be pleasantly surprised.
Compassion and love: All human beings have much more in common than differences. This alone is a reason good enough for loving another. Try to think how would you feel if you were in another’s shoes? It is only through your willingness to love another that you can feel truly bigger, in a healthy way. And you will feel a lot happier too.
Peace: Lack of peace is the root of all problems and lies within us, not in someone outside. Practical problems can be dealt with much more effectively, in a peaceful and calm mind. Hate does not lead to inner peace, but to inner and outer turmoil. Do you want to live a life of turmoil?”
These arguments have proven effective. I was touched to hear a young boy, formerly expressing appalling views, saying unexpectedly about a bullying incident: ‘But, we cannot know them before we even meet them!’ It felt then that the seeds had really taken root inside this boy’s heart and mind, no matter what his family taught him. Such is the potential of the tool of education.
Racist crimes in Greece have faded from the spotlight and extremist party activities seem to have been greatly reduced. Yet the following combination of factors makes the situation still very fragile: a) poverty, high youth unemployment and deprivation in large numbers across the native population, b) ignorance and media manipulation that immigrants and refugees are taking the country’s resources, jobs etc., c) a network of extremists, who have the funds to get organized and methodically appear as the saviors and rescuers, especially to the young, d) large numbers of desperate refugees who are stuck in this country and so far, are totally marginalized and excluded from society. It is a test how well we have assimilated the lessons of history about peace and the teachings of our spiritual heritage about love and compassion, not just theoretically but in their practical application. As far as we, teachers, are concerned, we still are in a unique position to teach love, instead of hate, to the delicate minds and hearts of our students. We plant the seed, even if poisons have already been injected into their minds. If the seed is strong, it cannot but, sooner or later, open and grow and this is my hope.