Although our trip to Greece this year was mainly for a holiday we could not of course ignore the refugee situation, nor did we intend to. We have many friends in the country, both refugees and voluntary workers and we planned to visit a new hospitality center on the island of Tilos.
Greece is still in severe economic crisis, contrary to what one is told both by the Greek government and the media. The people are suffocating under excessive taxation and other economic measures designed to redress the accounts. Businesses are still closing or moving abroad and corruption, inevitable when taxation leaves too little to live on, has not reduced. The international organisations that have been supporting the refugees are pulling out and Greece, little by little and Greece is left to face this additional economic burden.
We left Lauzerte at the beginning of September with a car full of donations which we delivered to Hope Café in downtown Athens. I visited this day center in April, at which time it was still being set up (it is the organisation that our association sent crocs to in the summer). Unfortunately Kerrie Moore the English lady who created the café had a meeting elsewhere so we couldn’t see her, but we had a warm welcome from the guys that were helping there. It is now a fully functional social café, serving hot and cold drinks and meals where people in need find a space to relax and socialise, including several mothers with children whilst we were there. Upstairs there is a distribution center where our donations will be carefully sorted and stored for people to come and choose what they need.
Many refugees are still in overcrowded camps and all of them with insufficient money for food. Until this summer the food stipends were assured by an NGO but the Greek government is now responsible in theory but this has been delayed until the beginning of 2018 and the UNHCR is filling the gap. Although relocation of asylum seekers to other european countries is happening slowly the numbers of people leaving Greece are still way below the promised numbers. Worse, some european countries, notably Britain and Germany, are invoking the Dublin agreement and are sending people that were fingerprinted first in Greece back here. As well as being totally unfair to Greece, this political trading in human lives is despicable and lacks any humanity.
Family reunification seems to have slowed to snails' pace. Banan and her 9 children (who we raised money for to get out of the Nea Kavala camp and into a nearby appartement last year) are still waiting to join the father and her other son in Germany: a year and a half life suspended, just waiting, separated. They are now housed by the UNHCR in another town and are getting really desperate for permission to leave. They are not alone in being stuck in Greece for this length of time, and they are lucky at least in having a house as very many people are still waiting for housing.
We visited our friend Tamim and his family who are still living in a camp an hour by road south of Athens. Tamim and his wife (both in their early 20’s), daughter 2yrs and son of 4yrs have finally obtained asylum for three years but are still waiting for an appartement. It was lovely to see them again and we spent a lovely day together. The money the refugees receive is far below the amount needed to buy adequate food and we were happy to be able to take food to help the 20 families in their camp. This camp is certainly not one of the worst but it nevertheless completely isolated, 8 Km from the nearest town, in a pine wood with no help, no volunteers and no schooling. There are very many children in the camp, the baby in the picture with the Iraki lady is just one month old, she has two other small boys. She said she needed clothes for the baby and I was delighted to be able to function our network once again by messaging withVal Johnstone in St. Antonin Noble Val. Within a couple of days Val has sent a package of clothes, not only for the baby but for the the other two boys as well.
The Orange House in Athens: so much more than housing people!
We spent time again with Marina Liaki who is continuing and expanding the wonderful work at this safe house for women and children in central Athens. The residents are happy and very many people come for lessons of all kinds every day. There are two classrooms of 25 pupils each, greek and english lessons for refugees who will stay in Greece,, french and german for those hoping to relocate. Of particular interest is the work of healing the spirit of these badly traumatised people by sessions of yoga and other body language techniques. We were really happy to see that all the donations we provided are put to good use, chairs, tables, a sofa, a lap top and printer, cushions made with the sewing machine and many more items. Marina and her partner Hassan were lucky enough to meet the french president Macron during his visit to Athens and he congratulated them on the work they do helping the refugees to integrate into the european way of life.
Although we didn’t get to visit the other volunteer run establishments that we know and where we have provided certain needed items, they seem to still able to provide the services to refugees that I saw on previous visits. The news from the day center Chora is good, the music room where we donated a keyboard is extremely well organised and active and a friend of ours is hoping to start a drama group there. The very big City Plaza Hotel squat seems to be still managing to retain a correct level of organisation and cooperation amongst the residents.
On the islands the situation seems dramatic, with around 14000 refugees. Refugees are arriving by sea every day and sadly there are still drownings. Some of the island camps are grossly overcrowded, people living in very bad conditions and experiencing great difficulty. All the islands are experiencing a shortage of volunteers and the resident volunteers are completely exhausted.
Tilos, a tiny and remote island, has been recently publicised as a refugee friendly island where a big effort is made to help the refugees adapt and find work. I was eager to find out more about this small island community which has also made the whole island a nature reserve and has a project to become 100% in renewable energy. We decided to pass three days there. Tilos Hospitality Center is a co-pilot project by the UNHCR, The European commission and the foundation Solidarity Now and where “houses” (well equipped containers) are installed in a secluded area for 10 families. We met the founder and director of the camp, Elena Pissa, a totally dedicated, but exhausted heroine who,as well as running the center, has a teenaged son and her own shop. Elena kindly showed us around the camp and explained how it functions. The refugees are all Syrians and most have obtained asylum and are waiting for a real house elsewhere in Greece. There is a school for adults and children and when when the island school starts this year the kids from the camp will attend. Although Elena is still hoping for some volunteers to manifest amongst the islanders, the population is open and tolerant towards the refugees. Two families have elected to stay permanently in Tilos because they have found work on this tiny island of less than 800 souls.
By complete chance my friends from Leros Matina and Spiros, who created and run the Pikpa safe house for the most vulnerable refugees on Leros, happened also to be on Tilos (their first day off for a year and a half) and it was with great pleasure I spent some time with them catching up on news. Matina, a retired judge, and Spiros, a retired lawyer, have been dedicating their retirement to caring for refugees and are the first to know of the arrivals and departures on the islands. The news they gave us was very grim. Many refugees are still arriving and deportations back to Turkey are taking place.Volunteers are still not allowed in the hotspot on Leros so the refugees there often lack essentials. Whilst we were talking, Matina was receiving news on her phone about arrivals on the islands. We were also able to give her some news as we had just arrived by ferry from Kastelorizo via Symi ( two other very remote and isolated aegean islands), she was surprised to hear there were refugees in the police compound on Symi. Refugees are still getting over from Turkey to virtually all the nearby Greek islands.
We are now on our way back home and, although sad to leave Greece, eager to get back to our friends there and to hear all their news. The news I have received from home during our time in Greece has reassured me that our Syrian family in Lauzerte has been well looked after by our wonderful team of volunteers. Whilst we have been away events have been in preparation so that our association can continue to have the funds necessary to help those less fortunate than ourselves : super soirée on Saturday September 30 at the Salle des Fêtes in Roquecor and a piano concert by Alexandre Bodak in Lauzerte on October 20th. Thank you everyone who has helped and continue to help our friends in need in so many ways.