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.
The 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.
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.