The School of Stars — Generation COVID
Children's shoes sit outside the "School of Stars", a site run by friends (not pictured) Manjia, 13 and Atefe, 11, in Moria Reception and Identification Centre.
Children's shoes sit outside the "School of Stars", a site run by friends (not pictured) Manjia, 13 and Atefe, 11, in Moria Reception and Identification Centre.

The School of Stars

Lesbos, Greece

Photography by Enri Canaj
Essays by Janine di Giovanni
Children's shoes sit outside the "School of Stars", a site run by friends (not pictured) Manjia, 13 and Atefe, 11, in Moria Reception and Identification Centre.

Moria Reception and Identification Centre, on the Greek island of Lesbos, was built to accommodate only 2,200 people. By 2018, it had become the largest camp in Europe for refugees and migrants – its population swelling to over 18,000 men, women and children. Many residents expected to be in Moria for only a few weeks or months. Instead, families routinely wait over a year for their asylum claims to be processed.

Students leave after attending an English lesson at the “School of Stars."
Students leave after attending an English lesson at the “School of Stars."
Atefe (left) and Masha (right) stand outside children of the “School of Stars” in Moria.
Atefe (left) and Masha (right) stand outside children of the “School of Stars” in Moria.

Life in Moria is a challenge, a testament to people's resilience and endurance. Masha, 8, migrated to Moria in 2019 from Iran with her family. She told Magnum photographer Enri Canaj her story of “walking in pain and fear” on an arduous trek from Turkey.

In Moria, families live in tents and must wait in line for toilets and showers with cold water. Access to drinking water is a perennial challenge in the camp. Residents walk over one kilometre to the nearest town to get water. Children grow up quickly. They become responsible early on: waiting in food collection lines; collecting empty bottles from garbage piles; and trading the empty bottles for new bottles of water to carry back to their families’ tents.

Naxila, 11, Manija, 13, and Atefe, 11, stand in line to collect food for their families at a distribution point in Moria Reception and Identification Centre.
Naxila, 11, Manija, 13, and Atefe, 11, stand in line to collect food for their families at a distribution point in Moria Reception and Identification Centre.
Atena holds a piece of paper indicating the number of empty bottles she returned, commensurate to the number she will receive in return.
Atena holds a piece of paper indicating the number of empty bottles she returned, commensurate to the number she will receive in return.
Atena (left) and Masha (right) carry water that they have just received for their families.
Atena (left) and Masha (right) carry water that they have just received for their families.

When COVID-19 reached Moria, aid organizations had to scale back their operations to an emergency-only basis, and authorities heavily restricted the movement of people in and out of the camp. With few health and sanitation interventions, residents fashioned their own hand-washing stations to lower their risk of contracting the virus. With schools temporarily closed, and no access to online learning systems, the children of Moria were left without the ability to continue their education. Manija, 13, and Atefe, 11, migrants with Afghan roots, had time on their hands and a passion for education. They saw an information gap.

Children’s shoes sit outside the “School of Stars."
Children’s shoes sit outside the “School of Stars."
Manija (right), 13, prepares lessons at the “School of Stars” with the help of Naxila (left), 11.
Manija (right), 13, prepares lessons at the “School of Stars” with the help of Naxila (left), 11.

With fewer activities for children in the camps during lockdown, the two set up their own “School of Stars.” The school initially began as a role play between just Manija and Atefe. Soon parents, eager for their children to have something to do and continue learning, dropped off their children for lessons and much-needed socialization with other children.

Manija teaches an English lesson at the “School of Stars."
Manija teaches an English lesson at the “School of Stars."

Nearly every afternoon for roughly four hours per day, Manija and Atefe taught English and Persian to over 20 children. Beyond teaching both English and Persian alphabets and vocabulary, they taught the young School of Stars attendees other vital skills: how to ‘treat’ the camp water, how to wash their hands, and how to sanitize their families’ tents with the limited resources available in the camp.

The school also became in many ways a site of psychosocial support and provided a sense of belonging. Manija and Atefe intuitively understood the emotional needs of their students. They talked to them openly about their happiness and well-being. “Teaching is my passion,” Manija says. “In the class we provide masks to every student, we suggest they wash their hands, and we sanitize.”

“I want to grow up so I can be useful for the community,” Manija says.

In an uncertain time, the School of the Stars brought pride and joy, and gave these two young teachers a goal: Both want to become professional teachers one day.

A fire destroys Moria Reception and Identification Centre on 8 September, 2020.
A fire destroys Moria Reception and Identification Centre on 8 September, 2020.
Refugees and asylum seekers walk with their possessions as a fire burns behind them in Moria Reception and Identification Centre.
Refugees and asylum seekers walk with their possessions as a fire burns behind them in Moria Reception and Identification Centre.

But on 8 September 2020, the school faced its first major challenge. That night, a large fire engulfed the camp, destroying the facilities, decimating informal accommodation structures in the olive groves surrounding the camp, and displacing thousands of residents.

After the fire in Moria, asylum seekers reclaim their surviving belongings.
Manija stands at the supermarket parking lot where her family is temporarily staying, after being displaced by the fire.
Manija stands at the supermarket parking lot where her family is temporarily staying, after being displaced by the fire.

Families who had struggled to make their shelters now had to sleep outside, with only the trees for cover. Most went several days without food or extra clothes. Many were homeless for weeks as they waited to move into a new camp. Greek authorities, seeking to curb the spread of COVID-19 amidst this mass displacement, conducted rapid testing of asylum-seekers entering the new facility. Those who tested positive for COVID-19 were placed, with their children, in quarantine.

Refugees inside the quarantine area in the new Kara Tepe temporary camp.
Refugees inside the quarantine area in the new Kara Tepe temporary camp.

Two days after the fire, Masha and her family waited for relief along the side of the road with all their possessions in tow. Masha recalled vivid memories of the fire: people screaming and running from their tents. Authorities expanded another camp, Kara Tepe, to accommodate those displaced from Moria. However, the camp lacks many of the facilities of Moria, including toilets and showers. At night, the girls wear nappies, avoiding safety concerns outside their tents.

Atena sits on a blanket on the street.
Atena sits on a blanket on the street.
Masha stands with her mother and their family’s possessions, on the street after being displaced by the fire.
Masha stands with her mother and their family’s possessions, on the street after being displaced by the fire.
Masha stands at her family’s former tent site at the burnt-out Moria Reception and Identification Centre.
Masha stands at her family’s former tent site at the burnt-out Moria Reception and Identification Centre.
Masha looks for her lost belongings in the burned camp.

Despite concerns over the spread of COVID-19, medical masks were not available in the camp until September 2020, and even then, there was a shortage. Residents made their own masks and often reused the single-use masks that the camp finally did provide. Thousands of refugees protested the conditions they endured in the days after the fire, Manija among them.

Thousands of refugees and migrants participate in a protest, calling for attention to their status, living conditions and respect for human rights.
Manija stands at the front line of a protest of thousands of refugees and migrants, calling attention to their status and living conditions and calling for respect for human rights.
Manija stands at the front line of a protest of thousands of refugees and migrants, calling attention to their status and living conditions and calling for respect for human rights.

Weeks after the fire, Manija returned to Moria to assess the damage to the tent that housed the School of Stars. The young woman searched for school supplies that may have survived the blaze. She was determined to continue with the School of Stars. The fire would not set back her goals.

Manija is greeted by a cat while walking through the burnt-out site of Moria Reception and Identification Centre.
Manija is greeted by a cat while walking through the burnt-out site of Moria Reception and Identification Centre.
Manija poses for a portrait in the evening light.
Manija poses for a portrait in the evening light.
Atefe and Manija teach an English lesson to children in the Kara Tepe camp.
Atefe and Manija teach an English lesson to children in the Kara Tepe camp.

Under the COVID-19 lockdown, there were no organized activities for children at Kara Tepe camp. Undaunted, Manija and Atefe opened their School of Stars in the new camp. With no defined space, they taught lessons outside and cancelled classes on days of poor weather.

Manija teaches an English lesson to children in the Kara Tepe camp.
Manija teaches an English lesson to children in the Kara Tepe camp.
Masha draws a picture in the temporary Kara Tepe camp.
Masha draws a picture in the temporary Kara Tepe camp.

Despite their perseverance, the damage of the fire was far reaching. It displaced and deprived many children of the friends they had made in Moria, and eroded their optimism of a better life beyond the camp. Masha’s older sister, Atena, 10, said, “I don’t like life in the new camp. My friends live far from my tent and I don’t see them every day...

“The only good thing that has happened to me are my new friends; they are my best friends now.”
Atena embraces Manija at Kara Tepe camp.
Atena embraces Manija at Kara Tepe camp.
Masha and Atena share a friendly moment on the street.
Masha and Atena share a friendly moment on the street.
Masha smells a flower in a field outside of Kara Tepe.
Masha smells a flower in a field outside of Kara Tepe.

The children have find respite skipping rocks across the turquoise Aegean Sea and spending time with friends. Butthey remain hungry to learn more. Manija has since resettled in Germany, her friends still in Lesbos long to expand their opportunities beyond the island. Masha, still in Lesbos, continues to crave more.

“I dream [that] after Lesbos, life will be good to me.”
Manija bathes in the Aegean Sea, at Kara Tepe camp.
Manija bathes in the Aegean Sea, at Kara Tepe camp.
Masha sits by the Aegean Sea.
Masha sits by the Aegean Sea.
Manija spends time throwing stones into the Aegean Sea.
Manija spends time throwing stones into the Aegean Sea.

About UNICEF’s work for every child

Refugee girls are among those most affected by the impact of COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, just 31 per cent of refugee students attended secondary school. Based on UNHCR data, the Malala Fund has estimated that half of all refugee girls in secondary school will not return when classrooms reopen.

UNICEF is committed to ensuring children like Manija, Atefe and Masha have access to quality learning and the services they need to readjust and catch up after the pandemic. Learn more about how we’re helping here.