Alex Green

Refugee Youth Service are recruiting

Our partners Refugee Youth Service are recruiting. They’re are looking for a new Social Worker and a new Pashto/Dari Cultural Mediator to join their outreach team in northern France.

Please see the following links for job descriptions and contact info@refugeeyouthservice.net with your cover letter and CV to apply. Please share with anyone you think might be interested.

Refugee Youth Service provides safe spaces for displaced unaccompanied children and young people on the move. These spaces offer services such as food and showers, and facilitate access to services including protection, asylum, accommodation and education. Within their spaces, a varied programme of activities take place, centred around wellbeing, social development and informal education, fostering a feeling of belonging, self-worth and a sense of community. Refugee Youth Service is a restricted fund under the auspices of Prism the Gift Fund registered charity number 1099682


Find out more about Refugee Youth Service.

 

 

 

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The experiences of a Michelin star chef volunteering on Lesvos

Merlin Labron-Johnson is a chef and restauranteur. At only 24, he received a coveted Michelin star. But recently he swapped London for the Greek island of Lesvos, cooking for 900 refugees each day at the One Happy Family Community Centre. Here he shares his experiences of his time on the island – the highs and lows of life as a volunteer helping refugees living in one of the most overcrowded and under-resourced camps in Europe.

Merlin chef cooking in One Happy Family Community Centre on Greek island of Lesvos Arriving in Lesvos on a Sunday night in October was not quite what I expected. The taxi took me past beautiful beaches, grand old aristocratic buildings and rivera style hotels. Outside the cafes, local people were congregating and basking in the warm air of their extended summer. There were no tourists. The air was thick with the smell of souvlaki and cigarettes.

I was under instructions to meet with a man called Mahmud upon my arrival. Mahmud is a man-about-town, cafe owner and in charge of catering for refugees at the One Happy Family Community Centre. He is also a refugee himself, having fled war-torn Syria two years ago. Back home, he worked as a doctor. He wanted to touch base before I embarked on my kitchen takeover, to brief me on the situation in Lesvos and what to expect during my time here.

I met him at 10.30pm in a local bar and over a double espresso he proceeded to give me the full lowdown. He started by describing the nearby refugee camp of Moria, the most overcrowded in Europe. It was originally built for 2000, but is currently four times capacity with around 8,000 refugees living in the most unthinkable conditions. Food is a huge problem. Sanitation is a huge problem. The very basic needs for survival are often not being met.

“The atmosphere was no different from my kitchen in London”

With the current system, refugees will wait at least two years before even being granted an interview where they can begin to discuss their next steps – their future. The state is intentionally letting people live in the most inhumane conditions in order to send a message to future asylum seekers. But it is failing to deter them. Every night hundreds of refugees are making their way across from Turkey and those that survive the journey are sent to Moria.

The conversation turned to the centre where I’d be cooking. It’s run by a mixture of grassroots volunteers and refugees. The day centre is on a different part of the island to Moria and is a safe haven away from the day-to-day trauma of living in camps. Refugees can attend classes, talk to social workers, play sports and eat a free meal. The kitchen, I’m warned, is rather ill equipped to cater for the masses that turn up each day for lunch. There are just two large pots. No oven. No fridge. The trick is to cook everything in the same pot and then serve it in one move. One component dishes only. Because when you have 900 desperately hungry people in a line, you really want the queue to move swiftly. We placed my order for the next day: Fresh tomatoes, onions, tinned mushrooms and bulgur wheat. I retired to my bnb to get some sleep and process this information.

“Each day in the kitchen was a joy, There was something profoundly beautiful about these people of different origins, race, gender and religion coming together”

Merlin chef cooking in One Happy Family Community Centre on Greek island of Lesvos

The following morning I was introduced to the kitchen team: Mohammed from Burma, Fifi from Zimbabwe and Zarah from Iran. First onion peeling, chopping, tomato chopping. The mood was light and everyone was focused on what they had to do. Two German volunteers jumped in to help. We were the United Nations of onion peeling. The atmosphere was no different from my kitchen in London, Everybody know what needed to be done. I was welcomed like an old friend and met so many people that I forgot everyone’s name.

Each day in the kitchen was a joy, There was something profoundly beautiful about these people of different origins, race, gender and religion coming together for the greater good which in this case, was a bowl of warm, nourishing food. Everybody was equal and everybody was treated fairly. Mahmud would watch over, offering advice and smoking his shisha pipe. Arabic music was blaring from an old guitar amp via youtube on someone’s broken iPhone.

“what if I burnt the pot, didn’t make enough or accidentally added too much salt? 

I’d have been responsible for 900 people going without food”

Over the course of the week I made bulgur wheat pilau, potato, chickpea and tinned green bean curry with coconut flavoured rice, chicken, rice n peas and the piece de resistance: A dhal made from red lentils, rice and frozen spinach.

At times it was challenging, coordinating the timings, working with no hot water, blunt knives, language barriers, getting the quantities right. I was absolutely terrified of messing up, what if I burnt the pot, didn’t make enough or accidentally added too much salt? I’d have been responsible for 900 people going without food and I don’t think I could’ve coped with that.

I don’t think it could’ve costed more than 30p a head but these bowls of food were sacred, a shimmering light in the darkness. Food that was bringing communities together and giving people hope and dignity. It’s hard to look at food the same way after this experience, enriched by the juxtaposition of cooking in a million pound kitchen in Mayfair and being here, stirring these big warped casseroles with a giant oar that had been rescued from a beach.

Merlin chef cooking in One Happy Family Community Centre on Greek island of Lesvos

The sense of community, equality and camaraderie belies the fear, poverty and suffering of life in camps like Moria. This is best illustrated in a quote courtesy of Taim from Syria: “In Moria everyone is fighting. The reasons are the bad conditions of the camp. We have to share the toilet and the bathroom with a lot of people. There is not enough food. In the night it is very cold, in the morning it is very hot. I love Greece, but I hate Moria. The reason I came to One Happy Family, is because I needed a place where I feel normal again.”

To gain more perspective, I decided to visit some of the other projects that are being supported by Help Refugees. I went to the Attika Warehouse where they store, sort and distribute donations. Like I’d seen in the Calais Jungle, camp residents were being provided with ‘care packs’. These were sets of donated clothing that would be distributed outside the camp – providing not just something clean to wear, but also warmth and a bit of a dignity.

How could this be happening in Europe, in 2018?

And why do we, in England, know so little about it?

On the other side of the Island I met the Refugee Rescue team. They’re a group of volunteers with a boat who keep watch over the sea during the night, and when they see or hear of refugees in trouble, they scramble to rescue them. Its hard to imagine the fate of thousands of desperate refugees, were it not for the work of refugee rescue. Nobody back home has heard of them or the incredible, dangerous and selfless work that they are doing to save human lives every day.

I met volunteers from a group called Watershed. They’re working to help improve sanitary facilities inside the camps. Access to clean water and adequate sanitation are enormous challenges in Lesvos camps. These guys are the unsung heroes, working tirelessly to try and make improvements.

I also visited the ‘lifejacket graveyard’. A dumping ground for the thousands of lifejackets from refugees who’d braved the journey from Turkey. In a remote part of the island was this orange and white mountain of misery, a reminder of all those that risked their lives on this journey and a reminder of all those that didn’t make it. How could this be happening in Europe, in 2018? And why do we, in England, know so little about it?

“Tears of joy and tears of sadness. A moment I will never forget.”

On my last day in the camp we ran out of food. The two large pots were full to the brim and there was no way of being able to prepare more in advance. Those that were at the end of the queue were told they’d have to wait while we whipped up a soup. They’d been queuing for hours and wouldn’t have eaten since the same time yesterday.

As we fed the final guests a greek musician arrived to play his guitar. A large crowd gathered around him as he sang ‘Peace be upon you’. He was joined by a Syrian refugee pop star who had the most wonderful voice. As he sang songs which I can only presume were familiar to his audience, many of the crowd began to cry. Tears of joy and tears of sadness. A moment I will never forget.

Merlin chef cooking in One Happy Family Community Centre on Greek island of Lesvos


We’re proud to support a wide range of grassroots groups providing essential aid and services on Lesvos. Please support this vital work by donating today.

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Please help fill our emergency container for Lesvos!

As freezing winter temperatures approach, there is a desperate shortage of supplies for refugees living on the Greek island of Lesvos. Our incredible partner Attika Human Support provides over 6,000 people each month with essentials like clothing, bedding and hygiene products. But right now, their warehouse is nearly empty.

Lesvos donation callout poster

On Sunday 18th November we aim to fill a shipping container in East London. We’re asking you to group together with your friends, local community or workplace – and organise a mini collection – then bring these donated items to us on Sunday 18th November. We’ll get these items to Lesvos, where they’re needed most.

Items include:

  • Adult and children’s clothing
  • Warm socks, hats, gloves and scarves
  • Hygiene items
  • Footwear
  • Food

If you would like to coordinate a collection please register: http://bit.ly/LesvosContainer. You’ll receive all the relevant info about most-needed items, sorting, packing and how to drop-off your donations.

Please note: unfortunately we do not have the capacity to receive individual donations.

Spread the word: we need over 1500 boxes to fill the container so we really need your help!

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“I want people from my country to be proud of me” Meet Peyman, the young artist with big dreams

Peyman is 15 years old and from Afghanistan. He’s a resident at Omnes, the pioneering housing and social inclusion project we support in Kilkis, Northern Greece. He’s also an incredible illustrator and painter. We asked him about his work and his hopes for the future.

In the 1920s, the small region of Kilkis in Northern Greece became a land of refuge for thousands of people fleeing present-day Turkey. Nearly 100 years later, Help Refugees have partnered with a local association, Omnes, in this same area. This innovative group provide accommodation for refugees and local Greeks alike. But this work goes beyond just providing housing. It’s also about inclusion, and finding ways to rebuild people’s lives in a time of crisis.

“our beliefs may be different, but that doesn’t have to make space between people”

One resident is 15-year-old Peyman. Originally from Afghanistan, Peyman and his family have made their home in Kilkis, in housing provided by Omnes. During our last visit, we spotted some of Peyman’s artwork and we’re now thrilled to be able to share it with you here.

Peyman explained the way moving from Afghanistan to Greece has changed his perspective on people. Speaking about his Greek neighbours, he explains that “our beliefs may be different, but that doesn’t have to make space between people. Really, I believe all the people in the world are the same.”

While settling into life in Greece, Peyman still has a strong sense of where he’s from, saying “I just hope anyone who sees my paintings enjoys them. But for people of my country, I want them to be proud of me”.

Looking forward, Peyman wants to continue his work, aiming to exhibit and sell his works as a professional artist.

We’re proud to support groups that do more than just help people survive – they enable to rebuild and thrive. We can’t wait to see what Peyman creates next.

 


Find out more about Omnes, and donate to support incredible projects that allow people to flourish.

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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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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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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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Meet Mahmoud, the Syrian refugee creating unique gifts that bring people together.

Mahmoud is from Damascus in Syria. Having fled to Greece, he found himself stuck in Softex refugee camp, on the edge of the country’s second city, Thessaloniki.

Based in and around the warehouse of an old Softex toilet roll factory, the camp was notorious for its crime and deprivation. It was here that Mahmoud refused to resign himself to a long, frustrating wait for an unknown future. Instead, he has decided to volunteer with our partner InterVolve, working to improve living conditions for the camp’s residents.

Mahmoud joined InterVolve’s team of volunteer carpenters. He had no previous experience, but was soon producing a wide range of furniture and items for the camp.

Using the skills he’s taught himself, Mahmoud now creates innovative, upcycled furniture and homeware, and custom gifts that tell a story. Mahmoud says that he aims use these creations to “send a message of love to all people”.

Watch the video below to find out more, and order your own unique products from Mahmoud’s website Giftstoria.

Order your own custom gifts from Mahmoud on the Giftstoria website or via Facebook.

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Community-run refugee camp on Lesvos faces forced closure

PIKPA refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos represents a new way to support refugees. But it’s now under threat of closure.

The PIKPA story is one of ordinary people, coming together to do what’s right. During the Greek economic crisis, people came together to support each other. But soon after, a large number of refugees began to arrive on the island. In response, this group began to take action.

The group hosted new arrivals themselves, on the site of PIKPA, an abandoned children’s summer camp. And soon they were hosting hundreds of refugees, in what became the first open, community-run refugee camp in Greece. PIKPA refugee camp was born.

Since then, the camp has given shelter to some of the most vulnerable people on the island. It’s ensured that people have accommodation, food, medical care, informal education and legal support. But more than this, it’s also helped give a sense of belonging, of home.

Since its establishment, PIKPA has hosted a remarkable 30,000 refugees. All without any financial support from the state, the European Union or UNHCR.

But now it’s under threat.

Local authorities have recently ordered the closure of the camp. This is the result of a health inspection which raised hygiene concerns in the site’s shared kitchen, a broken net in their food distribution area and a leaking water tank. For these reasons, it considers PIKPA camp a danger to public health.

You only have to see the often squalid conditions in Moria refugee camp – an ‘official’ camp a few miles from PIKPA – to realise that this judgement is politically motivated.

We’re proud to have partnered with PIKPA on the Greek island of Lesvos for several years. On this frequently troubled island, PIKPA is an oasis for some of the most vulnerable refugees: pregnant women, children, LGBT+ people and the elderly.

We stand in solidarity with PIKPA, and call on the regional governor to reconsider this decision.

Find out more, post your messages of support online using #SAVEPIKPA and join this Facebook group to help with the campaign to save the camp.

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