Adapting to address changing refugee needs in Athens

In Athens, one NGO has focused on adapting its services to suit refugees' needs, offering shelter, Greek and English lessons, food and above all a safe space.

Adapting to address changing refugee needs in Athens
Perhaps surprisingly, English lessons have proved more useful to the refugees than Greek. Photo: JRS Greece
This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.
When one arrives to Victoria Square in Athens, it seems as if you have left behind the Acropolis, ouzo and souvlakis, and entered another country, a place of reunion for many refugees. In Victoria, kids play cheerfully and the adults chat, sharing their stories and passing the time.

But on occasions, the square unfortunately becomes a place where refugees spend the night when they do not have any other place to go, when the asylum system cannot handle the amount of people who lack a place to sleep or it simply fails to connect the free spots with the people in need.

It was in Victoria square where Amin found out about the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS)*. Amin, an Afghan refugee (26), had just arrived in Athens from Moria, the refugee camp in the Greek island of Lesbos, and he did not know much about the city.

In Victoria, the other refugees informed him about an NGO – which turned out to be JRS – that was offering tea for free and which also had a nurse looking after the refugees. Thanks to this word-of-mouth system, JRS became quite popular at Victoria square.

JRS describes itself as “an international Catholic organization with a mission to accompany, serve and advocate refugees and other forcibly displaced people, so they may heal, learn, and determine their own future”. Concretely, JRS Greece has four priorities, in which they focus through their different activities: education, livelihood, reconciliation and advocacy.

JRS Greece is financially supported by private organizations, companies, foundations, and individual donors. It also counts with 12 employees, among them 5 teachers, but many of their activities depend on volunteers (including some doctors), who mainly come to Athens through agreements with other partner organisations.

Since 2017, a community of Missionary Sisters are part of JRS Greece team, who also collaborate and volunteer. in the Hellenic Republic.

JRS has been helping refugees since the beginning of the migration crisis in 2015, adapting to the different needs that they had. 

They went from offering them a place to stay for the night on their way to other European countries, to becoming a permanent shelter once the borders were closed and refugees were stuck in Greece, to finally becoming a social centre, mostly offering workshops, language lessons and a place for social interaction.

It was precisely this need for social interaction that every human has, especially when you have left your family and friends behind, that kept Mustafa (21), an Afghan refugee, coming back to JRS. Mustafa especially liked ‘Tea Time’ (currently closed due to the pandemic), a place where migrants could find community and conversation while enjoying a cup of tea or coffee.

“I liked the Tea Time because every day you could meet a lot of new people. Also, I saw again there many people that I had met at the (refugee) camp and in other places. It was a very friendly place, the best place for everyone. It was the place where people did not worry about anything, they just came there to play cards, to chill. It was very good for them”, explains Mustafa.

Activities tailored to children, men, and women are all part of the puzzle. Photo: Anne-Sophie D, a JRS volunteer

In 2019 alone, around 2078 people attended Tea Time; 1500 men, 372 women and 206 children. More specifically, Tea Time Man had around 150 men every day, Tea Time woman had around 40 women and both Tea Times had around 30 children.

The Women Day Centre, which opened in November 2019, is also a special place for refugee women. At the centre, they are able to have a shower and wash their clothes, but also to get a free appointment with doctors that are volunteering there twice per week or to attend to some of the workshops designed especially for them, such as ‘beauty time’ – where they can polish their nails, get a new hairstyle or learn how to make a shampoo – or pilates. 

“It is really a safe place for them”, states Anne Sophie (33), a volunteer from Belgium who worked with JRS for six months. “They do not have to think about what is happening outside and it is really a clean place – in contrast to the neighbourhood where most refugees in Athens live”, concludes Anne Sophie. “

From November 2019 until the end of December, the Women Day Centre managed to support 71 people, among them 46 were women and 26 children.

JRS completes its activities with Magazi, a basic goods store where refugees and other vulnerable groups can obtain clothes, household goods and toys free of charge; Pedro Arrupe Center, which provides an after-school mentoring program and interactive cultural activities for 225 students, including refugees, migrants and Greek children; and Magistories, that provides workshops and language lessons, including Greek, English and French.

English is the most requested language, over Greek, since most asylum seekers do not plan to stay in Greece – they dream about going to countries like Germany, Sweden or Switzerland -, and they need to communicate in a language that mostly everyone understands. “Before coming to JRS, my English was not that good. I joined the lessons and they loved me, helped me and respected me (…) JRS helps everyone, every refugee from every country”, says Amin.

Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus pandemic, JRS had to adapt some of its activities to the new regulations, reducing the Women Day Centre and Magazi capacity, reducing the number of students at workshops and language lessons and closing the Tea Time and substituting it, until further notice, for a Food Basket Project that provides food and basic necessities for 100 families. 

Behesta (26), an Afghan asylum seeker, also values JRS’s work: “It has helped me in every way. I did not know an English word when I came to Athens. JRS also helps us when we need to see a doctor, or we have any other problem”.

Nonetheless, JRS does not offer everything that refugees need. “They could train for jobs or offer employment opportunities. All [NGOs] offer food or clothes, but the most important part for refugees is to have a job”, remarks Mustafa.

For refugees, being able to work is a way to become financially independent, to be able to control their own lives, to feel included in society, but also to occupy themselves during the months or even years they spend in Greece.

However, finding a job in Greece is not easy even for locals – who have the advantage of speaking the country’s language – since the unemployment rate is the highest in Europe – around 16,8 percent in August 2020, according to Eurostat.

This circumstance, added to the flaws and delays of the Greek bureaucratic system and the shortage of long-term solutions, make refugees like Amin conclude that “life is not good for us in Greece”, even though NGOs like JRS make the path easier for asylum seekers in the Hellenic country.

*The author of this article was a volunteer herself at JRS in Athens for five months.

Fabiola Villamor is a Spanish journalist with an interest in migration and social issues.

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A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’

The people from Western Sahara have been fighting for their independence for decades. Under the control of Spain for over a century until 1974, Western Sahrawis were able to have a Spanish National ID and passport, to serve as public servants and in the army, with the western Sahara declared by fascist dictator Francisco Franco as the 53rd province of Spain.

A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’
Some of the children participating in the programme experience health conditions caused by the tough life in the refugee camps. Photo: Sonia Clemente
This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 1974, after pressure from the UN, Spain agreed to a referendum to accept the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. But when Morocco, supported by France and the U.S., invaded the country, Spain abandoned the Sahrawis. Nowadays, 80 percent of their country is occupied by Morocco, and hundreds of thousands of its citizens are stranded in refugee camps in Algeria. The result is that people living in this region are denied the same rights given to other former colonies, such as the ability to claim Spanish citizenship.

Today, the fifth of the country that is not controlled by Morocco is known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and it is governed by the Polisario Front, recognised by 46 governments around the world, although none in the EU. In Spain, some local organisations and public figures campaign for their government to support the Sahrawi people.

“Spanish citizens have stood next to the Sahrawi people for 45 years because they understand that Spain has a political and legal responsibility with the Sahrawi people, but they see their political leaders incapable of amending this error. It is the great divorce in Spain,” Abdulah Arabi, the Polisario Front Delegate in Spain said, “Spaniards are holding a responsibility that belongs to their government.”

At the time of the interview with the Sahrawi Delegate, Abdulah Arabi expressed concern that they were closer than ever to a break of the truce. Two weeks later the truce broke. “We have generations that have been born in refugee camps waiting for the UN to apply their peace plan so their parents and grandparents can decide what they want to be.”

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Holidays in Peace

One of the most successful programmes trying to both improve the conditions of the Sahrawis in refugee camps and to bring awareness to the conflict is Holidays in Peace. It allows Sahrawi children living in Algerian refugee camps, in one of the roughest deserts in the world, to live in Spain for the summers with host families.

This programme allows kids to avoid the desert heat, and access medical treatment and check-ups. It also helps them to learn Spanish, the second official language of the SADR. 

The programme began in 1976 with just a handful of children, and only three years later, 100 children spent their summers in Spain. In the 1980s the initiative gathered institutional support from the SADR government and several Spanish civil associations under the umbrella of “Friends of the Saharawi People.”

By the early 2000s, thousands of kids would travel every summer.

“In the good year before the 2008 crisis when the [Spanish] government donations were larger, we were able to bring up to 10,000 children every summer,” Arabi said.

Many of these children come back for several summers and stay with the same families again. When the children return to the camps, the host families often visit and send care packages. The associations also send vans full of supplies a few times a year to the camps.

Raúl Bedrina, who joined one of the associations in Madrid, and later helped to create the Gdeim Izik association in the south of the Spanish capital, hosted a child for the first time eight years ago.

“It is not charity, it is solidarity. These children are the best ambassadors of the Sahrawi people, who share a common history with us,” he said.

Western Sahara is the only Arab country with Spanish as a co-official language. However, the language barrier is still a challenge for the children, as they only began studying Spanish around the same time that they travel for the first time.

“At that age, kids are like sponges, in two months they are fluent,” Bedrina said, “but we put in the effort, too. Every day for one or two hours before going out or to the pool, we would sit with a picture dictionary and helped him.”

Bedrina talks about the cultural shock the children suffer when they arrive. The first thing they want to do is call home.

“Our kid went to bed crying for days because he missed his family. It’s also very odd for them to see things like a refrigerator, and they keep checking to see if things are still cold,” he said. They are also used to much more independence, to just go out a run around without supervision “but if only because of traffic, that is not possible here.”

“The ties you, as a host family, establish with the family are very strong. They are sending their children to a house they don’t know, so they want to know you.” Many of the host families visit the camps to meet the Sahrawi family, and the families want to send their other children to the same host family. “Our kid was the one who sold us the idea to host his younger sister. He took us for a ride,” Bedrina remembers, laughing.

Each host family is assigned a Sahrawi family, and they get to know each other as part of the process.

These children are not orphans, they have families who love and care for them, and it has to be made clear to the host families that the children will come back to their families after the summer. There are other programmes for teenagers who come to study in high schools during the school year and who go back home for the summer, but it is a much smaller programme.

The 2008 economic crash affected the programme a lot. Local governments cut the funding given to each association and they found it harder to fundraise money during the year. Many families who had hosted kids in the past couldn’t host those years because they were suffering from unemployment or financial troubles.

Most host families are middle class and the weight of an added member in the household was too much for many of them. “Kids come with nothing,” Bedrina said, “you have to give them clothes, food, et cetera…”

Because of this, the number of years the children would travel was reduced from five to three, so more children could continue to travel. However, it still cut the number of children able to travel by more than half for some years. Things had started to improve in this respect, but then Covid-19 hit.

An outdoor prison

The conditions in the desert are very dire. “There is no vegetation, no water, and temperatures go higher than 50 degrees,” Arabi said.

Before Covid-19, there were two times a year where host families could travel to the camps, around Easter around Christmas. For Bedrina, and many families, although hosting a child has been quite an experience, nothing compares to visiting the camps, and seeing the conditions.

“All Westerners should go and see a refugee camp to open their minds about what is going on in the world. I have seen colleagues go there and feel completely overtaken by the injustice and the world would fall on them. It was too much for them,” he said. Bedrina has been three times to the camps, not only meeting the families but also interviewing women about their vision on the conflict for a documentary and bringing humanitarian aid collected in Spain.

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Bedrina described the camps where Sahrawis have been living for 45 years as “a giant outdoor prison. It is difficult to describe with words.”

“The first days there I thought I had a cold because I was having trouble breathing, but then I realized it was the sand dust I had been swallowing all day,” he said

David Pobes, another volunteer in an association also travelled by car to the camps to take donations gathered in Madrid. He lived with the family he had been in contact with. “You live with them, and you can see they have nothing. The homes usually have two rooms. Not two bedrooms, two rooms. There is no furniture and they sleep on the floor. While you are there you eat with them, cook with them, and clean with them,” Pobes said.

'Saved many lives'

While the main objectives of Holidays in Peace are building awareness of the Sahrawis’ situation, and to take the children away from the camps during the hot summers, one of the key aspects that have helped save lives is the access to better medical care and nutrition during the summer.

Healthcare is a scarce resource in the camps. “We have a Ministry of Health that guarantees health in all the towns in the camps. But the dispensaries are indeed basic,” Arabi said. When David Pobes visited one of the clinics in the camps, he was surprised by it: “in one room, they had an old gas refrigerator for insulin. That was the best technology I saw.”

The clinics are meant mostly for first aid. If it is more serious, the patient must go to the province hospital or the national hospital. If it is even more serious, they must be transported abroad. However, access to specialized medicine is rare.

During the summers in Spain, the children get a full check-up with a blood test and access to specialists. “Thanks to these check-ups we have been able to save many lives of children who are now living a normal life, thanks to this programme,” Arabi said.

Spain has universal healthcare, meaning that the children can access the Spanish healthcare system upon arrival. Children in the camps suffer from hearing and sight problems because of the sandstorms. “You wouldn’t believe the stones that I have seen taken out of these children’s ears. Stones!” Pobes said.

When it comes to sight problems, the associations run fundraisers the entire year not only to cover the €600 flight but also glasses these kids might need. Some optometrists provide the glasses for free for these kids, but unfortunately, there are not enough.

Adapting to the pandemic

Due to Covid-19, the programme was cancelled for the first time since it began decades ago.

To alleviate the effects of not running the programme, the Polisario Front came up with an alternative list of events in the camps. During July and the first half of August children in the refugee camps have taken part in cultural and sports activities.

“We have done practically everything they would do here, such as medical check-ups, but, of course, conditions are not the same, as structures are fragile there.” Arabi said.

They took part in poetry and music workshops, football, cross country, and a programme of exchanges with older people who told them their life stories. They have been able to offer this version of the programme to all the children in the camps, around 9,000.

In August a group was taken to the liberated territories. It was the first time they could see them. Arabi said the programme was a bit rush, as they couldn’t be sure what the Covid conditions were going to be or if they would be able to do it at all, “but the results have been good.”

The plans for next summer remain uncertain, but the hope is that it will be able to return to its usual format, providing many children with a connection to a Spanish host family, language lessons, medical care and a break from life in the camps.

Thess Mostoles is a Spanish journalist currently living in the UK and reporting on international politics, war and conflict.