Meely Cooper

Layla and the Lovebug: A Community Chooses Love

This winter, we have been amazed by the generosity and creativity of our supporters’ fundraising efforts. From upcycled candles to football matches, mini-festivals to themed parties, your kindness – and that of your friends, colleagues and communities – has been expressed in imaginative and inspiring events across the world! One of these was Layla Fraser’s magical musical evening – which she has written about below. Layla, we’re so grateful for everything that you have done for Help Refugees – thank you! 

 

“Okay, so I guess I’ll start from the beginning. My family and I first got involved in the Calais Jungle in Autumn 2015. One thing we did was to move an electrical generator into the camp, so that refugees and volunteers were able to charge their phones. The generator also supplied electricity to surrounding charities in the camp. We stayed there until summer 2016, a few months before the demolition of the Calais Jungle in October 2016. Since then, we haven’t had much involvement with refugees in Europe as part of an organisation, apart from personally staying in contact with friends we had made.

In October 2017, I really wanted to find a way to get involved again – and one that wouldn’t be too difficult for me to keep up with, alongside my full time job in England. So I ended up going to the Help Refugees warehouse in Calais to volunteer there, and I absolutely loved being involved again – and seeing some of the friends I had known from before that are still in Calais.

It was a privilege to hear people’s stories, to meet so many like-minded people that all had this crisis and these precious people’s safety as their priority, and to be a part of that community for that short time. But, I knew early on that this wasn’t the last time I would be there. You first choose love, but then you action it, and you live it out. Choosing it is just the start of what becomes habit. And I was hooked.

Layla's community fundraiser

You see this kind of suffering of these people that are just trying to be warm and safe like we all take for granted. And they are right on your doorstep. At this point, you can’t just sit back and watch…you must do something about it.

I saw on Help Refugees’ Instagram that December would be a fundraising month for them, and anyone could get involved. So, I did! I talked to a local independent bar in my town about hosting a fundraiser there, talked to some local bands about performing some acoustic tunes, finalised a date and everything happened from there. I organised it all in the space of about three weeks, and people loved getting involved and coming alongside me to help out.

I made a public Facebook event, made posters and put it up in public places, and asked shops if they would be willing to donate anything as prizes for a raffle I wanted to do at the fundraiser. So many did! Just to give some examples, we had ten free coffees from Cafe Nero, a gift box from Lush, a six people pamper party ticket for The Body Shop…and so many more! Another venue in my town even offered to get involved in the next fundraising event and host it for free! People love to CHOOSE LOVE alongside you, and it’s amazing.

Layla's community fundraiser

So after all the organising, it’s time for the night…and who doesn’t like to party for a good cause? We covered the place in fairy lights to set the scene, with acoustic music and conversations as we sold raffle ticket by raffle ticket with the prizes shining on the table. I started off the night with a brief background of the charity, and how people could expect their money to be put to good use. I talked a bit about other ways to donate, the Choose Love store and the current situation faced by refugees in Calais. I informed people of the need in Calais, and told them how easy it is to get involved out there – to make the food for refugees there, to donate and sort the gloves that warm their hands. How much easier and more freeing it is to be on the frontline, than it is to take a back seat and watch it all through a pixelated screen. I could see little fires lighting in people’s hearts as they realised they could give that weekend in February or that week off in April and spend it doing something different, something that really helps other.

Then we sang our little hearts out for a while before calling out the winners of the raffle prizes. This was perhaps the highlight of the evening for me as it was a vibrantly beautiful representation of the community that had come together for this cause. Of faces that I recognised and ones that I didn’t, all together in laughter and excitement – and all donating time, effort, thought, prayer and pounds to a cause that they saw needed them in that moment. A picture perfect moment of a group of people choosing love together, and I feel honoured to have created the space for people to do that in this time. That is what it’s all about…creating a space for people to choose love. So, I really encourage you to go ahead and organise a fundraiser in your communities.

Layla's community fundraiser

 


Help Refugees is so grateful to Layla for arranging this amazing fundraiser, and to all of the bands who played and people who donated there. If you are feeling inspired, and would like to organise an event, you can find out more here or get in touch at fundraising@helprefugees.org. We couldn’t do what we do, without people like you. Thank you.

Photo credits to Andy and Esther Teo of Photocillin Photography.

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Greece Diary: Athens, Day 2

Amelia, one of the Help Refugees team, is currently visiting the projects that we support in Greece. She is writing a series of updates from the trip, and has just travelled from Northern Greece to Athens. She will be based here for a few days (you can read the first installment here), before going to Lesvos.

 

Athens is home to a huge range of organizations, from local groups to major international NGOs, who provide support for refugees and displaced people. Many also offer assistance to local people at risk of destitution, the number of who has increased drastically since the enforced imposition of austerity measures. The diversity of association is reflected in the huge range of services that they provide, from skateboarding classes to shelter for vulnerable women.

 

I visited the Athens Solidarity Centre (ASC), managed by Solidarity Now, which is conveniently placed in the same building as the municipality’s office. The ASC operates as a hub for a range of organization and types of support, and includes social services, legal support, medical care and child-friendly spaces. There is on-site child-care – in a room full of toys and games, with a projector for movies in the evening – which means that parents can leave their children, while they have appointments in the building.

 

I picked up a copy of Migratory Birds in the waiting room, a multi-lingual newspaper (Greek, Farsi, Arabic and English) that is produced by and for young people in Greece. Although I couldn’t read the bulk of articles, there was beautiful artwork in the paper – which you may have seen on our Instastories last week! – done by the young people who had put it together. Not only does the paper provide a visible example of what inclusion can look like, it is a vital tool through which young people can exercise their rights of freedom of opinion and expression.

 

Help Refugees works with Solidary Now on their housing programme, Solidarity Homes. It has provided apartments for six families, of which one is a Greek family at risk of destitution. Those living in the accommodation continue to access the support offered by the ASC, including education – the family that I met commented on how difficult Greek was, but how wonderful their teacher was at helping them to fall in love with the language. Nadia, one of the beneficiaries of the programme, is quoted saying that “we really feel at home [in our apartment]. And that gives us strength to try and make it; to find work, to pursuit our dreams, to improve our life. After a long-long time, my family and I close the door and feel safe again.”

 

I later met with Sarah from the Refugee Info Bus, a group that I first knew when we were in Calais – they now work in both Northern France and Greece, on Samos and the mainland. The bus provides Internet access in mobile vans in France, allowing displaced people to make contact with loved ones at home, as well as rights-focussed education and preparation for asylum admissibility interviews.

 

The group have recently begun Yala Nhki (Let’s Talk) videos, which discuss the politics and practice of applying for asylum in Greece – and which are viewed tens of thousands of time. One that I found particularly interesting was on the Joint Way Forward, the 2016 agreement between the EU and Afghanistan, which was produced in collaboration with Generation Outside of Afghanistan. Some of the Info Bus team will soon be based in Samos to help asylum seekers prepare for their admissibility interviews – and will be the only group on the island offering such support.

 

The next morning, I went to the other side of Athens to see Seeds of Humanity’s new centre. The top floor of their building is an amazing, multi-functional medical space: there are two dentistry rooms, staffed by volunteers (included a recent dental graduate who speaks both Arabic and Greek!); a gynaecology room and a paediatric space. There is an activity space the floor below, where adults will soon be able to leave their children during medical appointments, as well as an infants-only space and a physiotherapy room. Filling the gaps in medical care, and particularly dentistry, is essential for the wellbeing of refugees and displaced people in Athens – many of whom wouldn’t otherwise have remedy for their illnesses.

 

That afternoon, I had a series of informative – if heart-wrenching – conversations with a volunteer with significant experience in anti-trafficking, and the legal coordinators from Refugee Legal Support.

 

The risk of exploitation faced by migrants and refugees in Greece is well-documented, for both adults and children alike. As I mentioned in my previous piece, unaccompanied minors are at acute risk – their obvious vulnerability is compounded by the lack of shelter that is available to them. The absence of a well-resourced referral mechanism, specialised support or safe accommodation for victims of trafficking or exploitation paints a grim picture for the reality faced by many in Athens.

 

Refugee Legal Support is a voluntary organisation, run by experienced lawyers practising in EU asylum and international protection law. They operate a pro-bono clinic in Athens, that has a particular focus on family reunion via embassies and reunification under Dublin III. The situation in which they operate, however, remains challenging: the Greek Dublin Unit is under-resourced and overburdened, and many applications are only submitted after deadlines have passed. Yet they have fought difficult cases and won (you can read client testimonials here), and the determination and commitment of their coordinators – and, I’m sure, the rest of the team – was obvious. It was a privilege to meet their team, and I strongly encourage anyone reading this to further investigate their work.

 

I’m going to Lesvos tomorrow, so will update you from there soon.

 

– Amelia x

 


 

The featured image is of the Refugee Info Bus at work, and it was members of their team who took the photograph. You can find out more about their work here.

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Greece Diary: Athens, Day 1

Amelia, one of the Help Refugees team, is currently visiting the projects that we support in Greece. She is writing a series of updates from the trip, and has just travelled from the North – you can read about her time in Thessaloniki here, here and here – to Athens. She will be based here for a few days, before going to Lesvos.

 

The differences between Thessaloniki and Athens are subtle, though certainly present. Many of the issues remained the same, formal accommodation being the most obvious; however, the city and the response to so many of these questions felt more overtly political. Occupied squares and graffiti (resisting fascism and welcoming refugees and migrants, for the most part) all bore witness to both the challenges, and the responses, faced by newcomers. One thing is clear, though: as in Thesslaoniki, there is an incredible range of groups who offer diverse support to those who need it.

 

My first visit was to Velos Youth Centre, a safe space for 16-21 year olds that was established by Refugee Youth Service. On the 6th floor of an apartment block, it is light and spacious – with a gorgeous balcony outside, where young people can do craft activities or relax with their friends. The centre’s dedicated staff provide a range of support and advice on the multifaceted issues faced by young people in Athens, from education to asylum, psychosocial support to housing.

Accommodation is a major issue faced by unaccompanied minors, due to the overwhelming lack of capacity in specialized shelters and spaces. The most recent figures estimate that there are 3, 350 unaccompanied minors in Greece, and only 1, 101 places available in formal transit or long-term shelters. The waiting list for shelter is therefore more than twice the total capacity.

 

The majority of young people who use Velos’ space live in squats across Athens. Members of the Velos team do discuss accommodation possibilities with the children – but the reality is that there is often no practical, de facto alternative to street homelessness. A limiting factor can be that children need a white card in order to access accommodation, which proves that they have begun to seek asylum in Greece, but this can often take five or six weeks to obtain. During that time, they are homeless – and as minors, they are not entitled to the UNHCR cash support scheme. The unavoidable need to raise a little money, just to get by, puts them at immediate risk of exploitation.

 

Minors are formally under the protection of the Greek public prosecutor, who can act as their temporary guardian; however, as noted by this Oxford Border Criminologies blog points out, “the existing framework for the protection of minors in Greece…is inadequate to address the special needs of third country national children who arrive in Greece alone.”

 

It goes on to say that,

“as the daily acts that require the consent of a guardian are numerous, the absence of an effective guardian, be it temporary or permanent, has implications for all aspects of the protection and exercise of unaccompanied minors’ lawful rights. It’s also an obstacle to their integration into Greek society, impeding access to basic social goods such as housing, healthcare, and education. Forced to fend for themselves, children struggle daily for survival. As a result, children are repeatedly exposed to trafficking and exploitation networks.”

 

The risk of exploitation is obviously compounded by the lack of specialist shelter; however, the prosecutor’s responsibility for children may also have negative consequences. Police are technically within their rights to detain unaccompanied minors in “protective custody” (in police stations), or in detention centres or closed zones within camps. While this may better protect them from exploitation, young people do not want to be detained – for obvious reasons. Consequently, anecdotal evidence from youth workers suggests that unaccompanied minors are willing to stay with older members of the community who can pose as their guardian, to ensure that they are not detained. Yet the risks of this, in terms of exploitation, are clear: children have reported that they are expected, or required, to work (whether formally or within the household, e.g. cleaning) in order to stay there.

 

Organisations are exploring methods to redress the guardianship issue, which would allow quicker access to accommodation, healthcare and the like. For now, though, Velos’ space fills important gaps in the provisions for young people, offering informal education, vocational support (like CV workshops), and access to medical care. It also provides a space where young people can relax – where they can play video games, do craft activities, wash their clothes – and receive a hot and healthy meal each day. Perhaps most importantly, though, it is staffed by trained youth workers who can listen and offer support to the young people – and help make them feel heard, in a situation where they could so easily feel overlooked.

 

Refugee Youth Service

It is clear that the challenges faced by young people, and particularly young men in their late teens, are multifaceted – but visiting the centre and speaking to the wonderful Jonny and Clara, who manage it, was an inspirational start to my time in Athens.

 

I’ll write more soon, but for now, please follow these links to learn more about RYS and Velos’ incredible work.

 

– Amelia x

 


 

Help Refugees has long supported Refugee Youth Service’s work, both in Calais and Greece, and projects like this across the countries we work. To help us to help them, please donate here.

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Greece Diary: A Visit to Thessaloniki, Day 3

Amelia, one of the Help Refugees team, is currently visiting the projects that we support in Greece. She is writing a series of updates from the trip, and this piece details the incredible work done by our partners at Omnes. Updates from Athens and the islands to follow!
 

My final day in Northern Greece was centred around a trip to Omnes, a partner project based in Kilkis. The city is around 50km to the north of Thessaloniki, which meant that I had to brave the drive – on the other side of the car, and the road – by myself…a little nerve-wracking, to say the least! But the trip was absolutely worth it: Omnes is an innovative grassroots organization that is spearheading the movement towards local and inclusive housing. Social housing agencies and community projects – wherever they are located – would do well to learn from their model.

 

Omnes, Kilkis regional mapThe Kilkis region has high levels of unemployment and youth desertification, and very poor infrastructure. There is only one hospital in the region, which has a population of approximately 80.000 people; public transport is lacking; and the agricultural industry is dominant. Almost 13% of the population are far-right voters, for parties which have found success in taking an aggressive stance against immigration (such as Golden Dawn) – yet the region has historically housed thousands of refugees, including 56, 000 ethnic Greek families who were expelled from the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey between 1918 and 1930.

 

Such demographic and political information is not just included for interest. An understanding of the local area is at the heart of Omnes’ approach, which is one based around inclusion – rather than simply integration. Where the former connotes community building, the latter speaks to the absorption of one group in to the other. While integration measures are needed – language lessons, to allow communication, for example – inclusion should be the driving principle.

 

Omnes was founded by a group of friends, who began volunteering in the area of Idomeni, on the Greek-Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia border, in the winter of 2014. Thousands of asylum seekers were passing through the region, yet at this point, the official presence of iNGOs and the state was non-existent.

 

The village of Idomeni is tiny: it has just 154 registered inhabitants. At its peak, almost 14, 000 people displaced people resided in the adjacent unofficial camp. There was a distinct lack of provisions and infrastructure to support them, due in no small part to the conspicuous absence of international aid organisations and governmental support – something also witnessed after the closure and evacuation of the unofficial camp – and conditions were dire.

 

The volunteers provided emergency aid to those living in camp or in transit, from shelter and food, to clothing and hygiene items – the team who founded Omnes were, in fact, the first group that Help Refugees sent aid to in the summer of 2015. Furthermore, volunteers were often called upon to provide or facilitate medical care – due, in large part, to the region’s poor infrastructure. On more than one occasion, for example, an ambulance could not come to the camp (due to the fact that there were only two to service the region) and so volunteers had to transport the injured or infirm to hospital.

 

In November 2015, following the simultaneous implementation of new border rules by FYROM, Croatia and Serbia – stipulating that only people with papers to prove that they were from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan would be able to cross – and the increased presence of iNGOs, the volunteers (still not yet Omnes) decided to stop participating. Yet a few months later, in February 2016, they were called upon to assist at the newly-created, military-run camp of Cherso.
Authorities were planning to receive 4,000 persons in military tents set up directly on the soil, next to a village of a few hundred people. For almost two months, they were unsupported by major iNGOs; only the army and police force were continuously present. The conditions were grim, particularly after heavy rainfall, and access to water and sanitation facilities was limited. The group of volunteers made calls to their friends and family members, asking if anyone could host a vulnerable family – even if only for a few days. The response was fantastic: 75 families were hosted in this way. It was clear that housing was far more dignified than life in a camp; furthermore, it offered people an opportunity to be part of the local community. As it became clear that the ‘temporary’ camps would not be temporary, after all, the volunteers’ idea of housing people in an inclusive manner became increasingly necessary.

 

It should be noted that refugee camps are relied on throughout Greece, on both the islands and mainland. Since March 2016, the government has sought to host over 60, 000 people in mid-term camps – supported by European funding and NGOs – but the conditions remain inadequate, and camps offer little hope for the future. Despite calls for long-term solutions, the majority of displaced people are expected to live in camps until they are relocated, reunited with family, or granted asylum. Alongside other groups, Omnes provide accommodation within existing communities – and are at the forefront of inclusive housing.

 

Omnes’ approach is based on the belief that displaced people should be helped to resettle in a way that will benefit local economies and regional environments, and it is in Kilkis that their pilot project has launched. I met Stefanos and Celine, who are part of the Omnes team, at the organization’s office – which has a wonderful story behind it. The building was built by seven Pontian refugee families almost 100 years ago, who each lived in one room – and so in using it to help newcomers to the area, Omnes hope to invoke the past welcome that people living in the region offered to refugees.

 

Kilkis

 

There are three key branches to Omnes’ approach: housing, inclusion (including a centre that provides medical care, legal, administrative and psychosocial support, access to education, and cultural opportunities, as well as being a platform for community engagement) and livelihood. The group now manages 116 houses, and employs 61 professionals to support the overall program of housing and inclusion. Both local families at risk of exclusion (by which I mean homelessness, destitution etc.) and families with refugee status, seeking asylum in Greece or pending resolution of their family reunification case are eligible for housing and support: at present, Help Refugees funds a project that supports eight local families and one with refugee status.

 

The livelihood programs are designed to avoid seasonal labour, as that offers little security for employees, and instead looks towards social cooperatives and ethical production (such as Emigrow). Furthermore, Omnes is looking to create synergies with other outlets in the future: if, for example, they support a cooperative that grows crops and vegetables (Kilkis is an agricultural region), they would look to partner with a restaurant in the city. Yet profits would be split equally across the production and retail components, to avoid reinforcing the centre-periphery division.

 

The pilot project has been well-received by locals and newcomers alike – and what’s more, it has demonstrated that inclusive housing is cheaper than managing refugee camps. To support the adoption of their model elsewhere, Omnes has created a document that indicates the number of newcomers that could feasibly be supported by each municipality, the number of jobs that this could create, and more – which you can see on their website.

 

Omnes’ work is pioneering a radical, yet highly practical, form of inclusion: it supports newcomers and locals alike, benefitting individuals and the region as a whole. As you may have guessed, I’m quite a big fan! I’m so excited to see where this wonderful project will go – you can follow them here.

 

My final evening in Thessaloniki was spent with a good friend from Calais, who has since set up an organization called Be A Robin. Valentino and his colleagues provide an individual with tailored support – education, vocational assistance, conversion courses, language lessons etc. – to ease their transition in to an independent life in Greece. Recently, he has also offered day-trips for families living around Thessaloniki – when we met, he had just been to the zoo for the tenth time in about as many days…!

 

It has been wonderful to see how the efforts of different groups complement each other, providing both practical assistance and brief respite from the challenges of displacement. The grassroots response is multifaceted, effective and inspiring, and I feel so lucky to have met some of the amazing people who are working in Northern Greece.

I’m heading down to Athens tomorrow, so will update you from there soon. For now, I so encourage you to follow the links in this document – and if you have any questions, or want to get involved, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

 

– Amelia x

 


The featured image, in the banner of this post, is a blended picture of the original families who lived in the building and Omnes’ current team.

Help Refugees has worked in Greece since 2015, and continues to fund a range of projects across the mainland and islands. To find out more, visit our Greece page. If you would like to donate or volunteer, please do contact us. We couldn’t do what we do without people like you! Thank you.

 

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Greece Diary: A Visit to Thessaloniki, Day 2

Amelia, one of the Help Refugees team, is currently visiting our partner projects in Greece. She is writing a series of updates from the trip – you can read about her first day in Thessaloniki here – and this piece provides an insight in to some of our partners’ wonderful work in Northern Greece. Updates from Athens and Lesvos to follow!

 

Over the past few days, our partners’ innovative projects have continued to amaze me. As I mentioned in my last post, Thessaloniki and the surrounding region is a real hub of activity, and it has been a privilege to learn about the amazing work of groups operating in the region.

 

On Tuesday, I visited Irida, a new multicultural women’s centre in Thessaloniki that is managed by our partners, Intervolve. The word ‘irida’ is Greek, and means ‘spectrum’, or every shade of colour that comes together to form light. It was chosen to reflect the diversity of women who are part of the centre’s community, and places inclusion right at its heart.

 

The space is spread over three floors, each of which has various rooms with different purposes. The first has the entry foyer (with a beautiful, Irida sign in the colours of the rainbow), a computer room, offices (for advice and support), a kitchen – where the women can prepare food, or attend the weekly cooking class – and a beautiful terrace that overlooks the city below. The second has a women’s only space, with an infants’ corner, a counselling room, a meditation room, a beauty space, and a sewing room. On the top floor, there is an activity room – it has a mirror, like a dance studio, and will be used for dance and yoga classes – as well as a classroom, a kids’ games room and a kids’ project room! Beyond language classes for English and Greek, the centre will offer a range of practical courses – including breastfeeding tips, conflict resolution and life-skills (such as orientation). You can see the incredible, jam-packed timetable here.

 

The space is beautiful: many of the decorations use repurposed items from the previous women’s centre, in the now-closed Softex camp. Think metal fan casings repurposed as lampshades, wooden shutters painted and hung on the walls (see picture below), plywood being used to create a light feature in the shape of an aeroplane for the kids’ space…and all of this has been created by Mahmoud, one of the volunteers at the centre. His carpentry skills (which you can see here) are evident in every room, including the rocking horse in the infants’ space!

 

I had the pleasure of meeting Lamya, one of the centre’s coordinators. As well as treating me to a tour of the women’s centre and explaining the services offered, we spoke at length about an upcoming project of hers. Voices of Softex is an event that will take place in a few months, as an exhibition and discussion space. It will focus on the experiences of those who resided in the notorious Softex camp, and the lessons that have been – or should be – learnt from the camp’s existence and closure. Underpinning the event is the idea that “the key to building the future is acknowledging the past”: it will ensure that the suffering of those who lived in Softex will not be swept under the rug, or (hopefully) repeated. You can follow the Irida page for updates about the project.

 

Irida

 

The following day, I visited the Thessaloniki Solidarity Centre, managed by Solidarity Now. It provides a combination of social support services, legal assistance, and educational or employment programs – and is used by people from more than 26 countries. It has social spaces (including the UNICEF corner, for young children, and a youth zone), as well as a computer room, several offices and classrooms. The programs available include language courses, which will hopefully be integrated in to an accredited interpreters’ course, as well as CV workshops and advice on job-searching. The focus this year is on education and employability, in recognition of the need for long-term and inclusive strategies.

 

The Solidarity Centre has an additional room that is dedicated to Skype calls, which form an essential part of the asylum procedure in Greece. In brief, those who want to seek asylum in Greece often have a Skype call with the asylum service, rather than attending an office – due to the scarcity of appointments – but must do so within a specific time slot. There is only one hour per week, for example, when the Skype service has an Urdu translator. Consequently, many of the Pakistani asylum seekers in Greece find it practically impossible to secure an interview – yet without it, they cannot proceed with their application. The same is true for Sorani speakers. Having a space allocated to these calls is thus indispensable for beneficiaries’ access to the official system – and without a formal application, their undocumented status puts them at risk of service denial and detention.

 

Both Irida and The Solidarity Centre are based in Thessaloniki, and provide indispensable support to the newcomers living in the city. Not only do they provide vital community spaces, but they also ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are empowered and supported, in a holistic sense, to start their next chapter in Greece.

 

Later today, I’ll visit our wonderful partners Omnes, who provide an inclusive housing program in the small city of Kilkis. For now, though, I hope this has given you an idea of the communal spaces created by our wonderful partners – and will write again soon.

 

– Amelia x

 


Help Refugees’ first shipment of aid went to Greece, and it remains a crucial site of our work. Follow the links to find out more about volunteering, or how to donate – we can’t do what we do, without people like you. Thank you.

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Greece Diary: A Visit to Thessaloniki, Part 1

Amelia, one of the Help Refugees team, is currently visiting our partner projects in Greece. She has just spent time in the North, and has written about the trip – and our work in the region – below. Expect more updates from Athens and Lesvos soon!


Thessaloniki is a hub of activity. Not only is it a bustling city in its own right – the second-largest in Greece, with over a million inhabitants – but there is also a range of grassroots organisations, international NGOs and other stakeholders that work with refugees in the city and surrounding area. It is where Help Refugees has a warehouse, which has supplied camps and projects in the area since 2016, and where many of our partners are based.

 

The region has a long history of welcoming displaced people, and its geographic proximity to other states – Bulgaria and Macedonia to the north, and Turkey to the east – has ensured that it is placed firmly on migration and displacement routes. In recent years, it became a feature of the well-trodden path through Greece and onwards to Europe – but all that changed when the borders began to close, first in August 2015 and definitively in February 2016.

 

Tens of refugee camps, official and unofficial, were dotted around the area. This included the infamous Idomeni camp, where approximately 14, 000 asylum seekers were stranded at the Macedonian border (the camp was evacuated in May 2016), as well as now-closed official camps such as Softex and Cherso. Now, 11 camps remain in Northern Greece, but there has been a notable increase in urban accommodation.

 

The question of accommodation is complex, with specific and overlapping issues at national and local level. I will not go in to detail here – not least because I am still trying to get my own head round it! However, it should be noted that many organizations in Thessaloniki have dedicated capacity to helping newcomers navigate the convoluted system – or to filling the gaps that the official system leaves behind. Despite this work, a substantial number of refugees are homeless in the area – the majority of whom are single men, who do not meet the vulnerability criteria for urban accommodation and who have not been relocated to a camp.

 

My first morning was spent with Ingrid, Help Refugees’ Field Manager for Northern Greece, who has the most astounding knowledge of organisations in the city and the idiosyncrasies of the system. She was supporting two newly arrived families, who were currently in emergency accommodation (a hotel room, for three nights), to access formal accommodation (an apartment, for six months). Her support ranged from ensuring that they had food in their hotels (and arranging deliveries or taking it to those who did not), to explaining the process of securing accommodation and escorting them to appointments. UNHCR oversees the housing program, and a number of organisations refer vulnerable individuals and families to them. However, if emergency housing is at capacity or delays arise in families’ acceptance in to formal accommodation, grassroots groups – many of which are funded by Help Refugees – are called upon to secure alternative housing.

 

I was then lucky enough to see the work done by Refugee Trauma Initiative (RTI), an incredible HR-supported group providing psychosocial and therapeutic support to refugees and volunteers. They have specific programmes to respond to the needs of various groups, including an Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD) session for children 0-6. It is hard to describe the session I observed without being overly hyperbolic – but it really was wonderful.

 

The session was facilitated by trained therapists, and engaged the children through both play and guided educational exercises. Parents were supportive figures – sometimes in the room and playing with their children, sometimes using the time to attend other appointments or sessions in the same building. The ECCD programme works, in part, on attachment between a parent and child – to alleviate their stress, and support the family unit. The environment created was light and fun, allowing children – whether or not their parents were present – to have quality interactions in a safe and supported place. It was a real joy to see.

 

I spent the afternoon with one of the founding members of Ethos, a grassroots association supported by Help Refugees. Ethos supports unaccompanied children as they turn 18, as they are no longer the responsibility of the Greek state. The organisation supports young people’s transition to an independent life in Greece, through accommodation programs, inclusion projects and the provision (in partnership with RTI) of psychosocial support. Ethos facilitates social activities that help young people to connect with the Greek population, and supports their access to education and vocational training. Furthermore, the organisation helps young people to navigate the legal system in Greece, to ensure that they receive papers and benefits such as UNHCR’s cash assistance programme (which minors are not eligible for). Once the young people have a stable income, either through cash or employment, they move to independent living and receive remote support from Ethos based on their needs. The organisation helps young people to not only see, but also realise, a future in Greece – combining hope with practical opportunity.

 

The shift towards long-term solutions, which fill both immediate and future gaps in the existing state or iNGO response, is a remarkable feature of Thessaloniki’s grassroots groups. This work necessarily fosters inclusion and solidarity, and helps to normalize the lives of displaced people in their new countries.

 

I hope that this post offers some insight to the projects that Help Refugees – through your generosity – is able to support, as well as the complexities faced by displaced people in Greece. I’ll be in Thessaloniki for a few more days, and then heading down to Athens and onwards to the islands, so expect more updates soon.

 

– Amelia x

 


Since we funded 30 doctors to go to Lesvos in October 2015, Help Refugees has played a pivotal role the responding to the crisis in Greece. We welcome volunteers and donations, both of supplies and funds – because, as ever, our work depends on the generosity of people like you. Thank you.

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Deaths at the Calais Border: Needless, Relentless and Entirely Preventable

Annie Gavrilescu, Help Refugees’ Regional Manager for Northern France, wrote the following article that was originally published on HuffPost UK. Her heartbreaking description of refugees’ lives in Calais is a call to action unlike any other.

 

We were consistently warned that refugees dying of the cold in Northern France was a “distinct possibility”. No one really took into account how refugees themselves had the same fear.

When the only hope to cling on to is the sheer desperate thought of getting out of Calais – refugees are taking more risks, putting their lives in danger. All in the last two weeks, three tragedies brought the humanitarian response in Calais to a standstill. A 15-year-old child died on the motorway trying to reach his family in the UK. He had been formally referred to the state child protection service as a vulnerable child and a potential candidate for family reunification, but no action was taken. A 22-year-old young man was almost fatally injured in similar circumstances. And a few nights ago another young man was killed inside a lorry which was involved in a crash.

The conditions in which people live are beyond bleak. The same story repeats itself each day and night. You’ve been forced out of your home, your town and your country. You survived the perilous sea while many other have died. You reach Europe and try to join your family in Britain. The old “Jungle” camp is gone.

You wake up in the forest on the frozen ground, underneath a tarp being ripped apart by the police. The night before, the Prefecture in Calais said it wasn’t cold enough to open the warehouse they use for emergency night accommodation. The police tell you to move on and before you have the chance, you’re sprayed with tear gas.

Your eyes sting, your skin feels like it’s burning and you struggle to breathe, you still walk two miles in broken shoes to a distribution point to get the only food available to you which is provided by volunteers. You stand in line waiting for a warmer jacket and maybe some shoes, but defeated volunteers tell you they don’t have enough donations to give you what you need. You try to connect to the WiFi provided by volunteers and ask for a top-up on a Facebook group, knowing it could take you a month before you have credit on your phone to call your family. When you do speak to your mum, you lie to her and tell her you’re somewhere warm and safe.

Distribution in Calais

You walk another two miles to a day centre outside of town to lay down somewhere dry and charge your phone. You’re told if you want to stay in France you have to get yourself to Lille, as there is no asylum office in Calais. But you also know the police arrest all refugees at train stations, and you cannot face the detention centre again. The day centre closes in the afternoon, you walk out and it’s already dark again. You wait again for volunteers to come with food. When the night comes you walk back to your bit of forest and find that everything you left behind was taken or covered in mud.

You go up to the motorway, wait for any lorry to slow down as it passes you. You cannot afford the smugglers who take you to better locations, you tried but they’ve tricked and beaten you before and you’re too afraid to risk it. One lorry comes and slows down next to you. It stops in a traffic jam, you hurry to unlock the door. Normally you have no luck and return to the woods and try to settle somewhere to sleep, before it all repeats itself once more.

Tonight however, you climb in between the heavy pallets and you say goodbye to your friend who locks the door behind you. You sit in silence and hope you’ll finally never have to see Calais again. You’ll be able to speak to your mum back in Nangarhar and tell her you’re finally safe. No more hiding in forests, no more police taking away your only blanket, no more waiting.

Two deaths in the last week have happened like this. The 15-year-old boy was hit by a vehicle that didn’t stop and was found dead by the side of the road the next morning. Volunteers are now gathering the funds to repatriate his body. The 22-year-old is described as being “between life and death”. The young man who died last night, crushed inside a lorry has not yet been identified.

Macron declared in July that no refugees – man, woman or child – would face the winter on the streets or in the woods, and yet this is the reality faced by so many right now. The emergency accommodation in Calais has once again closed its doors tonight

In Northern France, volunteers are still feeding, clothing, informing and protecting refugees, the grassroots volunteer response is the only thing keeping them alive. But there is nothing we can do when refugees become so desperate, they risk their lives so much more, purely out of the fear of dying of the cold.

 



Help Refugees
 and our local French partners provide clothing, bedding and hygiene items, and advocate for refugees’ rights. Refugee Community Kitchen is the only source of food for refugees in Northern France. Refugee Info Bus provides WiFi and asylum information.

French organisations such as L’Auberge des MigrantsUtopia 56 and Secours Catholique continue to provide invaluable local support.

All photos by Futuro Berg, for Help Refugees.

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Save the Date: Family Reunion Bill

You may know that five organisations – the Refugee Council, Amnesty International UK, British Red Cross, Oxfam UK, and UNHCR UK – are campaigning for the immigration rules to be changed to make it easier for refugee families to reunite. Help Refugees is proud to support their campaign. 


We can only imagine what people have fled – but we can help refugees rebuild their future and bring their families back together. 
Unfortunately, restrictive government rules are leaving them isolated, traumatised and alone in the UK, knowing that the people they love still face untold dangers in other countries.

The only family members explicitly allowed to join adult refugees in the UK are their spouse or partner, and their dependent children who are under the age of 18.

Unaccompanied children who are granted refugee status in the UK have no right to reunite with even their closest family members – and out of all the countries in Europe, the UK and Denmark are the only ones to deny them this right. It should be noted that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has now urged the UK to “review its asylum policy in order to facilitate family reunion for unaccompanied and separated refugee children.” 

We endorse the five organisations’ asks: 

  1. Child refugees in the UK having the right to sponsor their family so they can rebuild their lives together and help them integrate in their new community;
  2. An expansion of who qualifies as family, so that young people who have turned 18, and elderly parents, can be reunited and live in safety with their families in the UK;
  3. The reintroduction of legal aid, so that refugees have the support they need to afford and navigate the complicated process of being reunited with their families.

The five organisations listed above have worked with Angus MacNeil MP to introduce a Bill on refugee family reunion, which was first debated earlier this month.  If the Bill is to succeed, more than 100 MPs need to attend the debate and support the Bill at its second reading on Friday 16th March 2018.

The diaries of MPs are already filling up quickly – and what’s more, since the second reading takes place on a Friday, many MPs will be back in their constituencies.  It seems like a long way away (particularly with the holidays and New Year in the middle!), but your support is needed now. Please could you contact your MP, and ask them to save the date: to be present in Parliament on 16th March and to support the Family Reunion Bill.

You can do this in just a few moments, using the Refugee Council website – after typing in your postcode, you will see who your local MP is, and you will also have a draft of the letter ready to send. 

It will take less than 5 minutes to send, but could make a huge change in the lives of refugees who wish to reunite with their loved ones.  

Make sure your MP knows that you want them to attend. Voting in support of this bill, on the 16th March, is a simple action that MPs can take – and will transform the lives of those who have been torn apart from the people they love. It is the right thing to do, and a practical way to help people rebuild their lives so they can have safe, happy futures together.

 


 

This photo was taken by Rob Pinney, at the Refugees Welcome march. 

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Inadequate shelter, freezing weather, and exploitation: the reality for thousands of refugees

A heartbreaking new article, by Yiannis Baboulias for the New Statesman, details the reality faced by thousands of refugees in Greece this winter: not just one of inadequate shelter and freezing weather, but also of exploitation and rights abuses – and little prospect of change to the situation.

 

The situation on Lesvos, for example, is particularly acute. More than 7, 000 refugees are currently living in Moria camp – a facility designed for just 1, 800. While an emergency decongestion plan has been announced, arrivals continue to exceed the number of relocations. “They are trying to turn the island into Greece’s Guantanamo,” said the mayor of Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos.

 

But the situation remains dire across other islands, too, and the comparison to Guatanamo refers to more than just the crowded facilities.

 

Baboulias reported that “recently, a nine-year-old from Afghanistan tried to commit suicide on Chios, another Greek island. The doctors treating him suspected he had been abused inside the camp. It’s no surprise. Médecins Sans Frontières Greece said that ‘in our clinic in Lesvos, we have at least ten people per day who have self-harmed or attempted suicide. The situation in the islands is beyond desperate.’”

 

Baboulias’ article also shone a light on the grim reality of sexual exploitation faced by child refugees on mainland Greece. He details an evening in Pedion Tou Areos, a park in Athens, where it can cost as little as 10€ for “a session in the park’s bushes with kids as young as 14.” Such crimes are not new: “the faces change,” writes Baboulias, “but the situation remains the same – or worse.”

 

Exploitation is the under-reported accompaniment to the refugee crisis, and exists at each stage of the journey – and in all forms. The situation detailed by Baboulias is far from unusual, and it is not restricted to Greece.

 

A recent, shocking report by UNHCR revealed the extent of sexual violence suffered by men and boys both within Syria, and in countries of asylum. This adds to numerous reports by other agencies that have detailed the exploitation suffered by refugees – of all ages and genders – in countries of origin and conflict situations, transitional countries, camps and countries of asylum.

 

The current refugee crisis cannot be reduced to a question of immigration. It is a humanitarian emergency, which continues to expose people to grave rights violations as they flee conflict and persecution.

 

As the UNHCR High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges meets today in Geneva, it must be recalled that any response to the current crisis must be based on a sensitive, co-operative and holistic assessment of the risks faced by refugees – at all stages of their journey.

 


Help Refugees supports refugees across Greece, both on the islands and the mainland. As the cold weather sets in, needs are only increasing. Please, if you are able, donate here. We couldn’t do what we do without people like you.

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Madina Hussiny, 6, killed at the Croatian border following illegal pushback

Madina was six. She was from Afghanistan, and with her family – including mother Muslima, father Rahmat and five of her nine siblings – had been living in Serbia for almost a year.

They were waiting, in hope, for legal passage to Hungary. Yet as the months passed, and the potential for forward movement became increasingly unlikely, the family decided to try and cross to Croatia on foot.
With four children under ten, they scrambled over fences and through fields, and – miraculously – made it safely. The family was resting under blankets in a park, said Madina’s mother, Muslima, when Croatian police officers arrived. The Husseny family hoped that they would be taken to the police station, where they could apply for asylum – their right under European law. Instead, Muslima said that the officers drove them to the train tracks and ordered them to walk back to Serbia.

Enforced pushbacks such as these are illegal, yet they are commonplace on the Balkan route. Reports from groups such as Medecins Sans Frontières detail the abuses faced by refugees, including children, as they attempt to move further in to Western Europe.

In fact, there have been many reports of people being ordered back along the same tracks as the Husseny family. “Many of our patients tell us that the [Croatian] police allegedly brought them to the train line and ordered them to cross back. It’s a recurrent pattern that we hear,” said Andrea Contenta, MSF’s humanitarian advisor for Serbia, to The Guardian.

The family pleaded with officials. “I begged: ‘If you won’t accept us, please let us stay here tonight. In this weather we are already tired and cold, the children are little,’” said Muslima. But the police would not relent. The family were forced to walk – in darkness – along the tracks, without being warned that trains were still running.

It is on these tracks that Madina, described by her older sister Nilab as “always smiling, always the one everybody liked”, lost her life. A train charged down the tracks, taking the family by surprise, and hit the young girl.

The family stumbled back to Croatian border officials, clutching Madina’s body and pleading for medical assistance. Instead, the family were ordered in to a van, and each person counted – ready to be deported.

The van paused after some time, and Madina’s body was transferred to an ambulance. Nurses worked on her for a while, but they then drove away – ignoring Muslima’s desperate pleas. “I told them: ‘I want to go with my child, wherever you are taking her,’” she wept. “I asked: ‘Why are you sending her alone, I want to be with her, it’s my right to be together.’”

Muslima and the rest of the family were deported to Serbia that night, and held in a police station overnight – their clothes still covered in Madina’s blood. They were not given confirmation of whether Madina was dead, details of where she was being taken, or even a number to call.

It was only with our support, and that of MSF, that the family were able to wade through the bureaucratic complexities that stood between them and Madina. When her body was finally returned, mud and blood were still smeared on her face.

“They just treated her like an animal, like a dog,” said Nilab, with tears in her eyes. “Such a small body, and they didn’t treat it like a human.”

Madina’s burial was the source of yet more suffering. The family were not given adequate water to perform the washing rites to central to Muslim funeral rites, and were ordered to bury her immediately. In the face of the family’s protests, Serbian authorities threatened them with deportation. So, unwillingly, they agreed.

“I will carry it in my heart for ever,” said her father, “that I did not give her a proper ceremony.”

Madina’s death was not the first along the Balkan Route. Such needless loss of life is caused by both a lack of safe and legal routes to sanctuary, and the illegal actions of border officials. For as long as this state of affairs continues, her death will not be the last.

 


 

Help Refugees supports displaced people living in Serbia and Croatia, like Madina’s family, with a range of projects – from the provision of shelter, food and bedding, to support in navigating complex bureaucracy. As the cold weather sets in, help is needed more than ever. Please, if you are able, donate here. Thank you.

 

 

 

 

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