Greece Blogs

‘I decided to give up my job and dedicate myself to helping 800 Syrian refugees’

This blog was written by Paul Hutchings, co-Founder of our partners Refugee Support. Paul, like thousands of people in the Summer of 2015, saw the image of Alan Kurdi lying lifeless on a beach and decided to act.

In April 2016, I visited the Greek border town of Idomeni and thought I had walked into a war zone. The FYR Macedonian military were firing concussion grenades and tear gas into the thousands of refugees camped along the border.

I watched as people who had fled war and had made perilous journeys became furious at this treatment, saw people young and old gasping for breath, and ran with parents and their children. Europe, I thought, what have we become?

Two years later, on 30 April, I will be returning to Idomeni together with 18 fellow Refugee Support volunteers where we will begin our week-long trek to Skopje to re-trace some of the refugee route.

Because, although that dreadful border camp no longer exists, there are still just as many refugees trapped in Greece, surviving in poverty but living in limbo while Europe fails to give them all a second chance.

It was immediately after that visit to Idomeni two years ago that my good friend John Sloan and I created volunteer organisation Refugee Support Europe to support 800 of the 50,000 refugees trapped in Greece.

Since then and over the last 2 years, we’ve had 600 volunteers from 40 nations help many thousands of refugees on the seven refugee camps in Greece where we have worked.

My own journey actually started about 9 months before that in the summer of 2015. The image of 3 year old Alan Kurdi face down on the beach, symbolised both people’s desperation and Europe’s neglect. Like many people I was deeply affected and had to do something. Even now, it still upsets me to think about it. In September of that year I went to Calais and with John supported Care4Calais distributing aid in the Jungle.

But I was never very happy about how unfair or undignified those distributions were. And it was also no place for people to live.

So when John convinced the Greek Air Force Major running Alexandreia refugee camp to let him in to help, I jumped at the chance to join him. After my visit to Idomeni and seeing the harsh conditions at Alexandreia, I decided to give up my job for one year so I could dedicate myself full time to helping the 800 Syrian refugees there.

Paul and John out for a day’s work in Alexandreaia camp, Greece.

That was a huge turning point in my life. I had a research business, a mortgage in Brighton, competing in triathlon, a wife and four children. I knew I could survive without a salary for a year but there were fears: dwindling finances, business on hold, time away from friends and family, would anyone support us…

There have been sacrifices and it has been difficult but I have never once regretted it. Best of all, I discovered that there were people from all over the world who are willing to give up their time and come and help in difficult circumstances at their own expense.

By putting the dignity of refugees first, what John and I had done was give the many people who do care about refugees an easy way to help directly, either by volunteering or by donating.

We started off in that first camp by creating a shop to give out bags of essential food and everything grew from there. Every improvement has been due to volunteers coming with ideas and donors continuing to support us.

Our shops now distribute food, thanks to the ongoing support of groups like Help Refugees, using tokens that we give to refugees in the camp. They can buy whatever they want and feel a little normality in the midst of the chaos that comes from living in a refugee camp. We created ‘Clothes Boutiques’ that presented the clothing nicely, like a normal shop would, and even built changing rooms. It took months and huge expense but we created a community kitchen. With refugees and volunteers working together, we are preparing up to 400 meals, 6 times a week. We created a language school teaching up to 180 students a week English, Arabic, Greek and German. We built three cafeterias, two high quality playgrounds, and an artificial football pitch.  And we paid for the heating during a harsh winter when larger agencies needed time to organise themselves.

A family shops for vegetables in one of Refugee Support’s food shops

These are just some of the tangible things we’ve done, but I like to think what we have offered is something more valuable and harder to count. We have said to refugees: here is a group of people who care about you, who you can rely on and who will respect you as fellow human beings. We gave them a slice of normality, a chance to be themselves and most important of all, helped to restore some dignity.

No-one should be living in a refugee camp.  They are degrading, crowded and alien. We have made life more bearable but we want people to leave so they can rebuild their lives in proper homes, get jobs and educate their children. We will all benefit from that.

I’ve seen a slow improvement in camp facilities. But conditions are still dreadful, people are waiting far too long for their asylum applications to be processed and refugees continue to arrive at Europe’s shores.

As a continent we have failed refugees. Greece no longer has a sprawling slum at Idomeni but the border is still closed and prospects for those still trapped are bleak.

I hope our walk lets people know that Europe hasn’t given these extraordinary, resourceful people a chance to start again. Please follow our progress on our blog, facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.


Please help us continue to support the invaluable work of people like Paul, by donating today here.

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Camilla Thurlow: “We all have the ability to help others, to touch lives in a positive way.”

I travelled to Thessaloniki in Greece, and later to Calais, to see for myself the ongoing reality people face when caught up in the refugee crisis. I’ve been devastated and inspired in equal measure; amazed by the incredible work of Help Refugees, and immensely saddened by the number of innocent lives that will never be the same again. Amongst the most vulnerable are unaccompanied children, who continue to suffer the traumatising effects of a violent past and hopeless present.

Camilla volunteering with Soul Food Kitchen in Northern Greece, making bread for people living in the surrounding refugee camps.

In April 2016, with the support of the British public, Help Refugees successfully advocated for an amendment to the 2016 UK Immigration Act. Named after Lord Alfred Dubs, who came to the UK as a child refugee, it mandated our government to speak to local authorities and see how many unaccompanied children we could resettle in the UK. But progress on implementing the amendment has been woefully slow, and tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors across Europe remain isolated and alone. The British public must once again work together to make sure the Home Office honours their commitment, and helps these vulnerable children.

Last month, a fifteen-year old refugee was killed in Calais. Perhaps he was unable to bear the thought of one more night sleeping rough. Of enduring the freezing temperatures without enough warm clothes. Of living in fear of beatings from the police and having his few belongings stolen. Of waiting day after day to hear about the state of his asylum case with no indication of any movement. Of being just simply too hungry, too cold and too tired. Of living with no hope. Perhaps it became worth the risk. Only one thing is for certain – we failed him.

We let a child die on our doorstep, a child that had a legal right to come to the UK. This tragedy speaks of an ongoing failure to protect the most vulnerable members of society – both here and abroad. Passing legislation that concerns the protection of individuals and then not acting effectively or holding ourselves to account erodes its credibility, and this is a problem for all of us. As climate change continues, we face a future involving the mass displacement of people. Global political relations continue to be fractious with discourse playing out publicly; sometimes it can feel like we are just one tweet away from global crisis. Essentially, it is clear that in the coming years our commitment to learning the lessons history has taught us in supporting those most in need will be repeatedly tested.

Camilla campaigning for the rights of child refugees with Lord Alfred Dubs, 1 year on from the demolition of the Calais ‘Jungle’.

I understand why this plea may seem at odds with someone whose platform has come from participating in reality TV, but I hope to some extent we can all engage in debunking the myth that to help people you have be a certain ‘type’ of person – there is no type. Whoever you are, you have the ability to help others, to touch lives in a positive way. That power is yours alone – how you use it is up to you.

I have seen enough children’s lives devastated by conflict. Young people who have lost limbs forced to live in pain with ill-fitting prosthetics or no prosthetic at all. I have heard the stories of young, vulnerable individuals who have gone missing on their desperate journey to safety. Wondered what has become of them, and what pain they now have to endure at the hands of those who exploit them. I have seen enough to know that these innocent victims of war are real, and we must not let a divisive rhetoric become an accepted truth. We must challenge this ‘us and them’ divide, because the more we persist with dehumanising the people involved, the easier it becomes to look at the faces of lone children – freezing in tents, starving, in desperate need – and to turn our eyes away.

Five children have died at the Calais border in the last two years – they had the legal right to come to the UK – please honour their memory and don’t let there be one more.

If you are able to donate to Help Refugees Ltd’s CrowdJustice appeal, please do so here. The funds raised will be used for their protection of costs order. If the case is successful, 100% of your donation will go towards supporting displaced people across Europe and the Middle East.

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Supporting volunteer teachers in Greece: Laura’s experience

I’ve just come to the end of 3 weeks in Greece (2 in Athens and 1 in Thessaloniki), volunteering as a teacher trainer for some of the volunteers there who are teaching English to adult refugees. It’s been both a challenging and very rewarding experience. Here’s some more information, and a few personal reflections…

 

Who were the teachers?

The thirty or so volunteer teachers I worked with across Athens and Thessaloniki came from a range of age, gender, nationality and first-language backgrounds. They were teaching in different contexts – some based in camps, others working in community centres which had an education department, others teaching in less formal environments, such as in homes, cafés or squats. Three of the teachers were themselves refugees, who had joined the team of volunteers within their communities. They were all incredibly committed and motivated to helping their students develop their English language skills.

The teachers I worked with are based at various locations around Athens, including Project Elea in Eleonas Camp and Khora Community Centre in the city centre, and Thessaloniki, including Lifting Hands International in Serres, and IHA and We Are Here in Nea Kavala camp. These volunteer teachers are bright, enthusiastic and extremely dedicated. Though most of them do not have any background in English language teaching, they all have the right attitude and motivation to develop their skills and make a real difference to their students.

 

Who were the students?

The students came from backgrounds as diverse as the teachers! Unlike most of the students I’ve taught, these students were refugees, temporarily living in Greece while on their journey to rebuilding their lives, after past events had forced them to leave their countries of origin.

Despite these circumstantial differences from previous students I’d worked with in more stable and privileged environments, all the classes I visited were very much like any other in terms of the students’ mix of motivation levels, proficiency levels, personalities and learning preferences.

 

What did we do?

To help the volunteers fill the gaps in their pedagogical skillset and meet the communicative needs of their students, it was important to offer both some general training, and visit individual classrooms to see what was happening there.

For the former, we met as a group over three full days, with two days aimed at less experienced teachers plus one day for those with more experience. For the latter, teachers invited me to attend their lessons to observe the teaching and learning. Afterwards, we would meet one-on-one and reflect on the lesson together, focusing on what the teacher was doing that had worked well and what they could do differently/additionally to make the students’ learning experience even more efficient and effective.

A classroom at Khora Community Centre, Athens, staffed by volunteer teachers.

What were my impressions of this experience?

I loved it. I found the discussions we had in the teacher training sessions were rich, enjoyable and enlightening – I’m quite sure I learned as much from the teachers as they did from me. And of course, it’s always rewarding to teach and train, as you see the difference that even small insights can make to the daily practices of your students and trainees.

 

Of course, it wasn’t all easy and cheerful. It would be remiss not to mention some of the more upsetting and poignant moments from my time in Greece. Like the incredible sense of sheer boredom for many refugees, that mingles with the frustration and desperation of being stuck in a foreign place – your entire life on hold, with so much uncertainty about your future and even your present.

 

One student in a class that I observed was really curious about why I was there. I tried to smile but not engage him in conversation (as it was distracting for the teacher, who he was supposed to be paying attention to!). At the end, he waited until all the students had left and asked me, “Where are you from?” I answered, then asked where he was from. He said, “Iraq. And I’m human.” That took me aback. For one thing, why would I think anything else? And this guy barely speaks 50 words of English. Yet this is a phrase he’s learnt, and feels important to share when he meets a new volunteer.

 

There were two adorable little boys, brothers aged about 4 and 5, running around the volunteer office, flashing cheeky smiles, climbing on my colleague, dancing to music and trying to get more and more biscuits from me after I offered them one. One of the boys eventually toddled off, and my colleague explained that he was limping because he’s got a problem with his leg. He spent 3 months in hospital last year after arriving in Greece, because he’d nearly drowned on the boat coming over. The motor from the boat then fell on his leg and damaged it. They managed to save his life, but now he has a limp. And he still runs around and plays like any other little boy, blissfully unaware of how unusual his childhood is.

But, heart-wrenching stories aside, my overriding impression of the refugee and volunteer community here is one of incredible resilience, creativity, goodwill and humanity. I had a good laugh with one of my new friends, a volunteer teacher who is himself a refugee, when we said goodbye on my last day. I said I might be back one day and hoped to see him again. “I won’t be here!” he said optimistically, to which I replied, “true, I hope I don’t see you again!” We laughed; he then said he might come back and visit one day – to volunteer as a teacher again. What a great heart.

 

Another great highlight of my experience in Greece was seeing two lessons on two different days by one of the teachers who had attended my training sessions. He is a refugee, and is now volunteering as an English teacher. The first one wasn’t great – and deliberately so, because he wanted me to see what his teaching was like before he’d had any input at all. We talked about it afterwards: I gave him some feedback, he assessed his strengths and weaknesses, then I came back a couple of days later to see him teach again. He delivered such a good lesson – it was barely recognisable compared to the first one! I felt so proud! Being a teacher/trainer really has some golden moments.

 

 

Want to get involved?

First of all: whatever you do, please be sensitive. Remember that refugee camps are not tourist attractions. For my part, I don’t pretend that a couple of weeks of volunteering with teachers here has given me a thorough and deep understanding of what people are going through. I can only say that I’ve had a glimpse into the daily reality of some of those experiencing first-hand what is perhaps the biggest global humanitarian crisis of my generation. I’m glad to have met the people I worked with on this trip, I wish them all the best for their present and future lives, and I can only hope that my small contribution has made some positive difference.

 

If you want to learn more about volunteering with some of the organisations based in Athens, you might find it helpful to visit the Project EleaKhora Community Centre or No Border School websites.

 

There’s also a volunteer recruitment organisation that works in partnership with Help Refugees, called IndiGo Volunteers, who work with 30+ organisations throughout Greece to supply volunteers. You can find more information here.

 

Finally, if you want to help but you’re not able to give much time and/or your physical presence, you might like to contribute something from Project Elea’s general Amazon Wishlist, or from their specific book/education wishlist.

 


This blog was written by Laura Patsko, and first published – in a longer form – on her blog. Do read her original piece if you would like additional information on the workshops that were provided, feedback from the teachers, and further reading about teaching in Greece.

 

To find out more about volunteering with Help Refugees in Greece, teaching or not, please click here. Thank you.

 

 

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Grassroots work in Lesvos “both indispensable and life-saving”

Lesvos is perhaps one of the most notorious places on the European refugee route; within Greece, it certainly is. Countless newspapers have reported on the crossings made there, or the conditions within camps such as Moria. Yet with all of this, it is hard to get a full impression of the island: of the incredible grassroots response, and its interaction with larger organisations; of the community-led programs that bring dignity, education and hope for the future; and of the reality, rather than anecdotes, of life for refugees and displaced people on the islands.

 

I was only there for a few days – I am by no means an expert – and I really don’t want to add to the conjecture that has characterized much of the island’s portrayal in the media, so please bear in mind that this is only a first impression. Feel free to get in touch with questions, or look up the blogs of the wonderful organizations mentioned, for more information.

 

Moria looks, from the outside, like a prison. It is a camp with capacity for 1800, and a population more than double that: the most recent estimate is of 5500 people. Next to the entrance, seen from the road, graffiti says ‘Welcome to Prison Moria’. The camp is on a main road, but high fences and layers of barbed wire mark it clearly. People are free to leave, but there are no pavements to walk along; no buses for safe transport to the city. “Visitors” – by which I mean journalists, aid workers, and the like – are required to have a pass in order to enter, though the gaps in the fence or unguarded gates allow many to slip in.

 

There are approximately 100 unaccompanied minors living in the camp (down from 350, three weeks ago), who sleep in a designated Safe Zone. Volunteers and aid organizations have protested the lack of services – social spaces, psychosocial support and education – available for them. Volunteers are doing incredible work seeking to fill these gaps, but lack the capacity to support the population as a whole. Despite there being a specified camp for families nearby, there are large numbers of families and very young children living in Moria. There isn’t space for them all in Kara Tepe – but nor is there in Moria.

 

There is an olive grove, adjacent to the camp, where approximately 1000-1500 people are currently sleeping in tents. This is an unofficial space, hence there is no fence, security, or state-funded services. There currently are not any showers or sanitation facilities designated for the people sleeping in the olive grove, but they are able to use those provided in the camp.

 

Arrivals to Lesvos continue: in December, 2300 new people arrived; since January 1st, 961 people have arrived. Efforts to decongest the islands are underway, following calls from leading politicians (including the mayor of Lesvos) and a range of organisations. December was the first month that transfers to the mainland exceeded arrivals; however, some concern has been expressed regarding the quality, and longevity, of the accommodation that people are then given.

 

Projects supported by Help Refugees are collaborating with a range of other groups, both within and outside Moria, and have done brilliant work to improve conditions within the camp and offer support outside. Since November, for example, The Timber Project have installed insulated, raised flooring in over 80 tents, to lift the base away from freezing ground water and sewage. “In many ways,” the team said, “this is the most basic project we have ever undertaken – but also the most crucial.” Given that three people died in Moria last winter, all related to the cold weather, the reality that their words represent could not be more stark.

 

Notably, volunteers and local organisations continue to fill gaps in services that no other organisations are providing. The majority of educational services are provided by volunteers, for example, and they have also taken a lead on the provision of non-food items (such as clothing), as well as healthy and nutritious food. Groups have built community centres that are attended by residents of Moria – particularly important, given that there are no social spaces available within the camp.

 

One example is the fantastic One Happy Family community center, which is managed in collaboration with residents of the camp. It’s about forty minutes’ walk from Moria, but is used daily by hundreds of people – when I visited, it was pouring with rain and yet there must have been over 200 people there. The collection of buildings includes a boutique, school, doctor’s clinic and gym; there is also a vegetable garden, a playground and a mobile library. The central building is home to a coffee shop, women and children’s space, cinema, tailor and barber – largely staffed by members of the community.
The space has its own form of currency, given to those who use the space and required for some of the services. While it has no value outside of the community centre, people have a finite amount and are therefore required to choose between what they do each day. “With that,” One Happy Family said, “we want to give the people a feeling of normality and self-determination in their environment which is often fully determined by others.”

 

Conditions on the island remain in dire need of improvement, and the exit of major iNGOs is creating additional issues. Many have ceased operations without arranging an appropriate handover, resulting in prolonged gaps in critical services. Moria Medical Support (MMS), for example, was founded following the departure of iNGOs who had previously been providing evening and night-time medical support for the residents of Moria. “We are not under the illusion that we can solve the medical situation in the camp with this mission, or change the appalling conditions there – this must happen at the level of Greek/European politics,” they said, “…but, what we can do is attempt to prevent people we care about from getting seriously hurt in this situation. So until a new medical actor moves in, OR the Greek governmental agencies take up their responsibility, MMS will provide both emergency medical care and emergency psychiatric care during the hours that all other medical care is absent.”

 

It is clear that grassroots work is both indispensable and life-saving – and that is true from the team at Refugee Rescue, the only search and rescue operation operating off Lesvos; to the team at MMS; and to the safe space provided by One Happy Family. The innovative and inspiring work of groups like them– and other amazing actors on the island, including the Watershed Foundation, the Mosaik Centre, Together for Better Days and more – brings dignity and hope to many displaced people living on Lesvos. It was a privilege to meet them all.

 

I will be returning to London in a few days, and so this is my final diary instalment. But if anything has piqued your interest, and you have further questions – or perhaps an interest in volunteering with one of the profiled groups? – then please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

 

– Amelia x

 


Photo credit, of the sunset over Lesvos, to Matthew Firpo.

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Volunteering in Northern Greece: Anna’s first experience

Anna Hulbert spent two months volunteering in Northern Greece last autumn. Below, she shares her experience – what she did, learned and felt. Thank you so much for your help, Anna – we are so grateful.

This autumn, I spent two months volunteering in Northern Greece. I decided to volunteer with Help Refugees because I wanted to find out how ordinary people, like myself, can help make a difference to the lives of refugees.

I started by volunteering as part of the dedicated Soul Food Kitchen/Philoxenia team. Soul Food was created in response to the crisis in Idomeni and now provides much-needed, hot meals to over 250 homeless migrants and Greeks throughout the city.

Preparing 500 meals a day required a lot of slicing, grating and the occasional blister, but the long days instantly became insignificant once I went on distribution in the city and saw just how desperately the meals are needed.

The distributions are both the most rewarding and the toughest part of the job. At first I felt uncomfortable refusing people seconds or reminding grown men to wait in line, but these actions helped guarantee that the food was given out in a way that was fair, safe, and sustainable. My time in the kitchen taught me that being an empathic volunteer meant being responsible – it meant acting with my head, as well as my heart.

The distributions also expanded my awareness of what it meant to have refugee status*. Most of the people we served on distribution were young men who were fleeing war-torn countries, such as Pakistan and Iraq. They have ended up sleeping in the streets and living in inhumane conditions, because is very difficult for them to claim asylum in Europe and receive refugee status. This could be due to the difficulties in meeting criteria, or difficulties in simply accessing the asylum process – try Googling, “asylum, Greece, skype.”

 

IHA volunteers at Epanomi, Greece

After a month I left Soul Food and started to work with the InterEuropean Human Aid Association (IHA). IHA provides a variety of vital services, including vegetable and winter clothing distributions and also works within refugee camps.

At the time, IHA were working in a camp in the small town of Epanomi, which housed around 200 refugees from Syria in two apartment blocks. Our main role in Epanomi was to support the limited schooling within the camp by providing fun and educational activities for the children living there. For many children, this might have been the only education they have had since they left home.

The purpose of our work was give the children structure and to encourage the development of social skills in preparation for a return to full-time education. Perhaps, most importantly, our room provided a space that allowed kids to just be kids – even if that meant letting them paint your face completely purple.

I think that returning home was probably the hardest part of volunteering. It is incredibly sad leaving behind a network of such positive, inspiring people and even harder leaving behind situation that is in no way resolved – but that is why it is important to share these stories, and hopefully inspire others to volunteer.

*The UNHCR definition of a refugee is “…someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so.”

 


 

If you feel inspired by Anna’s experience and would like to find out more about volunteering with projects supported by Help Refugees, please visit the volunteering page on our website or get in touch. Help Refugees has always depended on the generous donations of time, funds and material aid from ordinary people – if you would like to get involved – at home or abroad – please do let us know. Thank you.

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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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