Blog

A Syrian, making Italian pizza, in Greece: the refugees building lives in Europe

Rebuilding a life in a new country, with a new vocation, in a new language can be unimaginably tough. But with a little support, some refugees in Greece are beginning to set down roots and start the next chapter of their lives.

Firas* comes from a rural area in Syria. But after fleeing the conflict alongside his wife, and expecting a baby, the young couple made finding a place to settle a top priority. With support from our partners, Firas and his family are now building a new life for themselves in the Greek region of Katerini.

With support from the Perichoresis/RefuAid housing programme, Firas and his family were able to get support, opportunities and good accommodation. But more than this, they’re been able to create a home.

Firas showing his family the kitchen.

In Syria, Firas trained as a baker, while his wife was a farmer and homemaker. After attending regular Greek lessons, Firas is now employed in a nearby village as the pizza chef of a newly opened restaurant. His wife has given birth to a beautiful baby girl.

Firas has formed a strong friendship with his new employer, who calls him his ‘work soul mate’. Being surrounded by Greek coworkers, Firas’ Greek has come on leaps and bounds, but his boss says that “sometimes we don’t even have to speak… I just motion to him or make a certain facial expression and he knows what needs to be done. He is great – we understand each other very well.”

This initiative, from our partners RefuAid and Perichoresis, doesn’t just house people. It puts their children in local schools, helps them access jobs and learn Greek, all while also supporting the local Greek community.

It shows there is another way. That in long-term situations, we don’t have to rely on the indignity of refugee camps to provide support. And that with the right opportunities, people can get on and build new lives. We’re proud to support projects that make this happen.


Find out more about Perichoresis and donate to help more refugees build new lives.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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Calais volunteer’s conviction for Tweet sets a dangerous precedent

Loan Torondel, a former volunteer with Help Refugees partner organisation L’Auberge des Migrants in Calais, France, has been convicted for defamation after posting a photo of two police officers on Twitter.

The tweet, posted by 21-year-old Loan in January 2018, depicts two police officers standing over a resident of one of Calais’ informal camps. Torondel comments on the police confiscation of refugees’ blankets in the caption. In response to the decision, Loan said:

“I acted within my right, I took a picture, I wanted to talk about what was happening in Calais with the collection of blankets in the middle of winter … It still happens… We must continue to talk about it.”

“This is outrageous decision sets a dangerous precedent for anybody attempting to document the disproportionate use of force employed by the police in Calais and throughout the country,” said Nicolas Krameyer, Programme Manager at Amnesty International France. “It will also have a chilling effect on the work of migrant rights defenders and leave migrants and refugees in an even more precarious situation.

“This case highlights the harassment and intimidation of volunteers dedicated to providing aid to migrants and asylum seekers who have been left homeless in northern France after the 2016 closure of the informal ‘Jungle’ camp.

“Criminal defamation laws that inhibit legitimate criticism of public officials are contrary to the right to freedom of expression. The authorities must stop harassing human rights defenders through the courts.”

Loan Torondel is appealing the decision.

An August 2017 survey by Help Refugees and L’Auberge des Migrants found that 76% of refugees and displaced people in Calais had had their blankets taken by police that week; on average, they said it happened three times a week.

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Mohammad: from refugee to software developer

After fleeing the conflict in Syria, Mohammad came to Athens. Here he volunteered with our partners Velos Youth. He’s now used his skills and experience to get a job with a large (and very famous) technology company. It’s an inspiring example of what happens when people are able to develop, grow and be included in society.

“When I first came here, I was worried to see how people would treat with me as a Syrian refugee”, he says, “but I found a way to succeed because I found a way to communicate.” Mohammad helped develop these communications skills while volunteering with Velos Youth. With Velos he helped set up youth activities and workshops, helping other refugees find their feet in this new city.

Velos Youth provides a safe space for young people aged 16-21 years old in Athens, where they can access the advice and support they need to move forward with their lives.

Although made up of people from many different cultures and backgrounds, Mohammad says “we became one team. It was amazing to see different cultures and to learn from all people around the world. I don’t see a difference between refugees and other people.”

“I found a way to succeed because I found a way to communicate”

We’re inspired by Mohammad and the work of Velos Youth. They show that with support and opportunities, people can get on and build new lives. We’re proud to support projects that make this happen.


Find out more about Velos Youth and donate to help more refugees build new lives

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Evictions in Dunkirk leave hundreds without shelter

Yesterday, authorities in Grande-Synthe evicted an unofficial camp of approximately 800 people.

Over 400 people, including 60 families and nearly 100 children, were taken onto buses destined for accommodation.

By midnight last night, two buses had returned to Grande-Synthe due to lack of space in the accommodation centres. People were left on the streets to fend for themselves. One person on the bus reported to aid workers that they had been driven around for eight hours with no access to food and water before being told to get off the bus.

We welcome attempts to get displaced people housed in appropriate accommodation, but we denounce the lack of information given to people during this process.

Further reports from the field state that approximately 100 people had desired access to accommodation but were turned away, with one testimony detailing “they break everything, they crush everything and they say to the people ‘go’ – but where do we go? ‘Anywhere else. Just don’t stay in the jungle.’”

Due to the police perimeter surrounding the recently evicted camp, ex-inhabitants had no access to water for the entire day. Throughout the night and day, more families continued to arrive back in Grande-Synthe. One family had a 10-month year old baby with severe asthma. Thanks to quick reactions from Gynécologie sans Frontières the child was receiving medical treatment and hopefully will be accommodated appropriately soon.

Another family was taken to emergency accommodation by Refugee Women’s Centre, who negotiated with the authorities to take the entire family and not abandon the father to sleep rough on the streets. Those in charge of emergency accommodation stated that they would not be willing to take in any more of the Kurdish community due to the large number of homeless Kurdish people in Grande-Synthe. This left people, evicted from their tents earlier in the day, homeless and without shelter – simply because of their race.

Dunkirk refugee

Refugees wait outside the warehouse, whilst Mobile Refugee Support provide phone charging and wifi. Photo: Mobile Refugee Support

At the emergency distribution point, hundreds of people arrived to access their first meal of the day. Food was distributed successfully by Refugee Community Kitchen and Mobile Refugee Support provided phone charging and WiFi, a much needed lifeline for people to be able to contact family and their support network.

When aid workers on the ground finally packed up and left after a hectic 10 hours they left up to 300 people huddled outside of an abandoned warehouse.

Some people had blankets. Some people just had the clothes on their back, but everyone had the same thought running through their mind: “what do we do now?”


Grassroots groups are continuing to response to the crisis. We support Refugee Info Bus, Refugee Community Kitchen and Refugee Women’s Centre, please help us continue to support their work here.

All the pictures above were taken by Mobile Refugee Support. They are on-the-ground everyday doing incredible work to help refugees in Dunkirk, and desperately need your support. Please support their work here.

You can also organise collections at home, and start getting involved in the response here.

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Britain’s asylum dispersal system is on the verge of “catastrophic failure”

14 council leaders and politicians have written an open letter to the government warning that the current asylum system is nearing “catastrophic failure”, and asking Home Secretary Sajid Javid to personally intervene.

With the government just weeks away from signing 10-year asylum accommodation contracts worth £4 billion, public officials from Yorkshire, Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Sunderland, and the Welsh and Scottish governments have joined forces to condemn the current system.

Critics of the government’s approach are worried that the Home Office does not appear to have reviewed the current system, or included any of the relevant local authorities in the planning process. Many fear that the new contracts could mean even poorer quality accommodation for vulnerable individuals.

Picture: PA

“Our previous experience of the Home Office managing the transition of asylum housing contracts in 2012 was unfortunately one of failure,” reads one letter. “G4S were unable to fulfil their contract, and mass sudden homelessness of hundreds of asylum seekers was only prevented by local authorities stepping in. It is not apparent that lessons have been learned.”

Aileen Campbell, communities secretary in the Scottish government, said: “The handling of the procurement process for the next asylum accommodation contract, particularly the barriers put up to a public sector bid for the contract and the limited engagement with Scottish partners, is extremely disappointing”.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are planning meetings with stakeholders across the UK to discuss the concerns they have raised. We are committed to working closely with local partners to identify, manage and prevent welfare and cohesion problems.”

Help Refugees calls upon the government to heed the warnings of local authorities on poor housing standards, forced bedroom sharing, and lack of accountability.

In granting local authorities and devolved governments greater flexibility and powers in overseeing asylum accommodation, the government would be ensuring that dispersal works for all.


Help Refugees partners with six projects that provide support to asylum seekers and refugees in the UK. We are 80% crowdfunded – so we rely on the generosity of people just like you to do what we do. Please donate today to help us continue supporting refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.

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3,000 chairs, one message: artists in support of child refugees

Author Nicola Davies was outraged at the government’s lack of compassion towards unaccompanied refugee children. So she started a campaign – which became a book – telling the story of a young refugee’s journey.

Illustration by Rob Biddulph

In response to the UK government’s lack of compassion towards refugees and inspired by Lord Alf Dubs’ campaign to welcome 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children to the UK, in 2016 Nicola Davies wrote a poem. This poem, ‘The Day the War Came‘, sparked a successful campaign that became the 3,000 chairs movement.

This movement  drew attention to the 3,000 unaccompanied Syrian children to whom the UK government decided not to give a safe haven. Nicola called on everyone who was outraged by this paint, draw or sketch an empty chair and share it on Twitter with #3000chairs.

Nicola and illustrator Rebecca Cobbs have now created a book which follows the story of a young girl who flees her war-torn home and ends up in a new country, where she is turned away from school because there is no spare chair for her to sit on. In the end, the other children offer her their chairs, and their friendship. Nicola says we could make the world a much better, kinder place if we all followed the example of these children.

£1 from every copy of The Day the War Came sold is being donated to Help Refugees. We are so very grateful that Nicola, Rebecca and Walker Books have chosen to support us. Buy a copy of this incredible book


Some of the incredible submissions for 3,000 chairs.

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Meet the refugee entrepreneurs building new lives in Greece

Mohammed mixes milk to make cheese. He’ll sell the finished product in the refugee camp he calls home. The money will help support his family. “We make it just the same way we did in Syria”, he says.

Refugees are sometimes portrayed in simple binaries, whether it’s as passive victims or superheroes overcoming all the odds. But the reality is far more interesting.

Since the so-called European refugee ‘crisis’ began in 2015, over one million refugees have passed through Greece seeking safety. Around 60,000 refugees now live in the country. And three years after many people arrived, the tenacity, drive and ingenuity of these newcomers is starting to pay off.

Mohammed’s business is just one of many examples of refugees using their skills and experience to build new lives in Greece. And with unemployment in the country high, more and more people are starting their own businesses to survive.

Mohammed, who makes and sells traditional Syrian cheese

Mohammed currently lives in a refugee camp in Greece. With limited resources (but a lot of passion), he and his wife are running a thriving business selling Syrian cheese, working with a local Greek farmer to source quality milk.

In the more urban setting of Athens, another business is about to open its doors: a beauty salon. Refugee women from Morocco, Iran and Afghanistan are leading the development of Layali Salon. Refugee women face unique difficulties when settling in an unfamiliar city. With support from local initiative Project Layali, this enterprise will provide both employment and training opportunities for women starting a new life in the city.  

Even on Lesvos, an island at very sharpest end of the crisis, refugee businesses are taking off. A powerhouse of energy, Mahmud splits his time between volunteering at a local community centre and running his own restaurant. Mahmud was a doctor in Syria, but finding himself trapped on the island, he launched a restaurant in its capital Mytilene. Reem serves traditional Syrian food to hungry tourists, volunteers, locals and refugees alike. And the restaurant’s reviews speak for themselves.

Life for many refugees in Greece is extremely tough. Often denied freedom of movement or access to employment, many people have few opportunities to rebuild their lives. But while it’s so often the media staples of life jackets, dinghies and crumbling refugee camps that cross our screens, we’d like to take the time to also celebrate the positive. And the brilliant, ingenious and delicious refugee-run businesses springing up across Greece seems like a good place to start.


Cover image: Mahmud (third from left), alongside other volunteers at the One Happy Family Community Centre on the island of Lesvos.

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More than 50 dead as rival militias continue to clash in Libya’s Tripoli

Clashes that erupted between rival militias on the 27th August have killed more than 50 people, injured many more, and left thousands of civilians trapped indoors in Libya’s capital, according to health officials.

The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli declared a state of emergency on Sunday 2nd September. On Monday, armed groups had obstructed and cut off roads leading to their own positions, “blocking access to aid and relief” and trapping families in the area, according to emergency services spokesman Osama Ali.

A mass jailbreak from the the Ain Zara prison by 400 prisoners has added to the chaos of nine days of fighting. The prisoners reportedly broke out of the prison after being terrified to hear themselves surrounded by the sounds of gunfire in the city.

The UNHCR has called on all parties to spare civilians and civilian infrastructure and allow safe passage for those seeking refuge in safer areas.

In Libya, there are currently more than 184,000 internally displaced people in need of humanitarian assistance, along with a further 368,000 people who have returned to their former homes.

The vast majority – 95% – of refugees and migrants who attempt to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean have come via Libya. European leaders have been accused of prioritising an approach that seems tough on immigration, over one that responds in a responsible and sustainable manner to the crisis in Libya and the central Mediterranean.

After the EU-Turkey deal in 2016, which led to a 97% drop in new arrivals to the Greek islands from Turkey, people started looking for new routes in to Europe. Libya, with its Mediterranean coastline and proximity to European waters, has become a hotspot for smugglers and people traffickers.

Conditions for refugees and asylum seekers here are unbearable: people are often held in arbitrary detention in appalling, inhumane conditions. Videos of human beings being sold in open slave markets have been shared across the world.

In spite of this, Italy and Malta – two of the closest European countries to Libya across the Mediterranean sea – have largely shut their ports to charity rescue boats. Instead, European governments assist the Libyan coastguard and, according to NGOs working in the Mediterranean, “deliberately condemn vulnerable people to be trapped in Libya, or die at sea”.

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Fire at Refugee Women’s Centre Warehouse in Dunkirk: donate today

The warehouse which Refugee Women’s Centre operate from in Dunkirk, France was unfortunately burnt down on the night of 28th August, and all the stock and storage space has been destroyed.

We are organising an *emergency callout for funds and material donations* to allow us to replenish enough stock to continue supporting those in the area. This includes tents, clothes, hygiene products and activity materials. As the weather grows colder and police clearances are on the rise, families are in increasing need of these items to provide shelter, warmth and basic hygiene.

In order to be able to continue supporting the over 100 family units around the region, they are in urgent need of the following items:

  • Baby diapers (size 5 and 6 greater need)

  • Adult diapers (S,M,L)

  • Women’s and children’s winter clothes especially tracksuits, leggings, waterproof coats and jumpers

  • Women’s, Men’s and children’s trainers/ practical shoes

  • Men’s, women’s and children’s underwear (new or unused)

  • Hygiene items (soap, shampoo, shower gel, baby wipes, toilet paper)

  • Baby accessories (dummies, baby bottles etc)

  • Tents (2-8 person)

  • Blankets

  • Sleeping bags

  • Tarpaulin

  • Games and activities for women and children (pamper/beauty items, board games, crafts materials, colouring books, English books, sports equipment)

  • Children’s prams

  • Medium and large backpacks

  • Smart phones + phone chargers

  • Torches

  • Pots and pans

  • Plates, cups, knives, forks, spoons and metal kettles.

To support our emergency fundraiser, please donate here.

To get donations to us:

OR

  • Deliver them to our temporary storage space at:

Refugee Women’s Centre

℅  L’auberge des migrants

56 rue Clément Ader

62100 Calais

If you can organise a donation dive in you local area, or organise deliveries of aid per to Calais, please email calaisdonations@helprefugees.org.

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