Checkered foundations: How a chessboard educated hundreds
I remember the heat, the cicadas, and the tap of each piece as I witnessed the most brutal game of chess I ever have. Margot* and Farzad* were embroiled in a mental battle, Margot turning every once in a while to see my reaction as she made another brilliant move. We were so engrossed in this game, it was easy to forget where it was being played. We were sitting in the Fifth School refugee squat, a long-empty building turned home for hundreds tucked into the Northern corner of the Athenian anarchist neighbourhood, Exarcheia.
Margot asked me to come along with her to the Fifth School as a pair of extra hands to sort through donations and play music for the residents. The public perception of squats in Greece as disorganised and dangerous was smashed for me on that day. When I walked into the Fifth School, I was greeted by the sound of children, nearly knocked over by a group running by on their way to class. No Molotov cocktails lining the walls nor drugs being dealt – the squat, in the short time I knew it, always sounded like a family home, and felt like an underfunded school. Eventually, Margot showed me into what would become one of their many classrooms and introduced me to Farzad.
When Farzad fled Syria, he brought with him little more than his chessboard. Though he carried it across the Mediterranean as a vessel for childhood memories, at the Fifth School squat it became the first seed in a flourishing garden. This chess set began to multiply, and soon the Fifth School was full of them. So, Margot and Farzad taught the children living in the squat how to play. Slowly but surely, they began to construct a curriculum, build a team, and repaint the walls to turn what had been dubbed the Fifth School into an actual school.
So, from this one chessboard grew an NGO called Sissa Education. Dedicated to offering an informal education to displaced children in Athens, Sissa Education affected the lives of the dozens of children that made Fifth School their home. Over the year Sissa Education operated, they renovated the entirety of Fifth School, ran daily informal education classes based on the Montessori method, distributed donated school supplies, and enrolled many of the displaced children into local Greek primary schools, which they were able to attend for free. Much like the sometimes unruly and untamable Montessori method itself, this NGO based in a technically illicitly occupied Exarcheian building sat in a third space between official and illegal. It was in this liminal space that Sissa Education found the freedom to educate dozens without having to work their way through Greek bureaucracy. To be clear: Sissa Education was not perfect, it was not even legal. But it was the best those children in Exarcheia had.
On 23 September 2019, the Fifth School was subject to a police raid. The Greek police forcefully entered the building at 6 a.m., forcing all residents to evacuate and board a bus to a detention camp situated miles from Athens. These officers forced families and children from their homes, out of their communities, and perhaps most poignantly – away from services, like free public schooling, designed to help forced migrants. Hours later, the entrance to the freshly painted and music-filled Fifth School was boarded up with concrete. In a testimony on their statement of closure, a longstanding volunteer with Sissa summed up the feelings of their team when she wrote, ‘It's Monday morning, these kids must be at school now. Instead, they are being taken to a detention centre’. The raid of the Fifth School is one of dozens carried out by the Mitsotakis government in September 2019 in a crushing wave of anti-refugee action.
Though the Fifth School is no longer occupied and Sissa Education is not functioning, the legacy of both lives on in the children who were taught there. From familial memories to a legacy of education, Farzard’s choice to bring his chess set when there was room for little else forever changed the lives of hundreds.
* Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.
Madison Miszewski (she/her) is currently pursuing an MSc in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies at the London School of Economics. Her interests lie at the intersection of migration, queerness, decolonisation, and diplomacy. When she’s not working, she enjoys playing music with close friends and discussing politics over a gin and tonic.