Arson Suspected in Fire That Destroyed School for Refugees in Lesbos Set Up by Jews and Arabs

School on Greek island was established in 2017 by Israeli Jewish and Arab groups in unusual alliance, helping up to 5,000 refugees from Syria, Iran and Afghanistan

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A firefighter standing outside the burned International School of Peace for Refugee Children on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, March 8, 2020.
A firefighter standing outside the burned International School of Peace for Refugee Children on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, March 8, 2020.Credit: Alexandros Michailidis/AP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

A school for refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, built and run by Arab and Jewish Israelis, was destroyed by fire Saturday night. Arson is suspected and the incident is being investigated by police, administrators said, adding that there were no casualties.

The International School of Peace for Refugee Children was established on the island (also known as Lesvos) in 2017, one of several grassroots Israeli initiatives to help victims of the conflict in Syria.

According to its administrators, between 4,000 and 5,000 refugees from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, Somalia and Kurdistan passed through the school since its founding. Hundreds of refugees, along with hundreds of Israeli volunteers, taught at the school, which was funded by private donors.

“For three years we shattered walls of fear and hatred through the joint work of the refugees and the community in solidarity, and the never-ending belief that we are building a better world together,” said Roni Huss, a member of the school staff.

“We will continue our mission. The school will be rebuilt – a building of beating hearts, educators and students for whom peace is not just a word but an everyday reality,” Huss added.

The International School of Peace for Refugee Children before it was destroyed in a fire on March 7, 2020.
The International School of Peace for Refugee Children before it was destroyed in a fire on March 7, 2020.

Teaming up in this unusual joint Jewish-Arab effort were two Israeli youth movements, Zionist-socialist Hashomer Hatzair and the Arab Ajyal group. Although they have often collaborated over the years, this was their first international humanitarian project together.

The school was located very close to the Moria refugee camp, which was meant to accommodate 3,000 people but is now home to nearly 20,000, a large share of them children.

Clashes have erupted in recent weeks between local police and asylum seekers on the island, who have taken to the streets to protest their intolerable living conditions.

“The school was burnt down last night but its strong foundation comes from the tens of thousands of people who passed through its gates, shaped its image, built it together for a better future,” the school said in a statement. “The school belongs to all who decide to lift their heads up high, to cling to hope and act.”

All of the facility’s nine classrooms, as well as equipment on the premises, were destroyed in the fire.

A burned book at the International School of Peace for Refugee Children after it was destroyed in a fire on the Greek island of Lesbos, March 8, 2020.
A burned book at the International School of Peace for Refugee Children after it was destroyed in a fire on the Greek island of Lesbos, March 8, 2020.Credit: Alexandros Michailidis/AP