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.