Soldiering on in Athens and helping refugees
Νew Internationalist Magazine
The snowballing humanitarian crisis in Greece is overwhelming the country’s support systems for asylum-seekers, reports Jameela Freitas.
Not everyone is anti-migrant. Some see the new arrivals as human beings who have been through hell and deserve compassion and a helping hand. Crippled by the financial crisis, Greece is no heaven, but what it lacks in funds and facilities it makes up for in an abundance of community spirit in Athens, its capital city.
The influx of refugees camped in the parks and squares of Athens has escalated the city’s prior homeless crisis, caused by the financial crash and imposed austerity.
British street magazine The Big Issue recently reported that there are an estimated 20,000 homeless people in the greater Athens area alone. Greece’s own street magazine, Shedia, reported that its vendors, who are from all walks of life, have been hit by the country’s economic instability. There are many more in need of help.
But with few shelters and a crippled welfare state, Greek social services are struggling to offer support to the homeless people dotting the parks and back alleys of the beautiful city. As many as 2,000 refugees a day are arriving on Greek shores and then swiftly making their way to Athens, straining resources still further.
Big families and scores of young men from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are destitute. They amble in the main squares of Athens and camp in tents in the parks. The Greek government has announced that it is going to move them to a camp outside the city centre, but the site is not yet ready and there is no confirmed opening date.
Meanwhile, the stranded refugees can only wait. They know they are uninvited guests blighting the tourist areas of an already beleaguered country. Most do not intend to stay, but they are hungry, tired and trapped. They are usually waiting for travel documents to be processed or for relatives to send money.
The Salvation Army of Athens has seen first hand the predicament of these families. It supports nearly 1,000 refugees every day, going to the main squares and parks each morning to hand out donated food, bottled water and other essentials. In the evenings, a team of volunteers prepares hundreds of sandwiches to be distributed to impoverished people throughout the city.
Polis Pantelidis is the Major Regional Officer for the Salvation Army in Athens. He has observed the continuing influx of arrivals and says that the number of tents camped in the parks has doubled within a couple of weeks.
He describes one of the families he met outside their tent in an Athens park:
‘I met one mother and 6 children from Afghanistan who escaped after her husband was murdered by the Taliban. She told me through an interpreter that they have been running from the Taliban for 6 years, making their way through Iran and Turkey before finally reaching Europe.’
Like most refugees camped in Athens, they are penniless and stranded:
‘This family has ran out of cash and is thinking of applying for asylum in Greece. But they don’t want to stay – they want to reach Germany, Austria, Sweden or Switzerland. But until they sort out their documents they may need to stay here for up to 2 months.’
Polis stresses the difficult situation the refugees are in: if they apply for asylum in Greece they are entitled to help from the European Union (EU), but many forfeit this official help for the chance to move on to another country. ‘They want to move on but they don’t have any money, so they face a big dilemma,’ he explains. ‘They are trapped here in Greece.’
Ten children staying in the camps have been rushed to hospital lately, and this moved the hospital’s doctors to get involved with the charities helping the refugees. It worries Polis that what made those children ill was the lack of adequate sanitation, combined with the sweltering 40-degree heat.
‘The living conditions are appalling. There are only a handful of portable toilets for hundreds of people. There was also a water tap running non-stop; festering water was passing through the camp and the place was teaming with mosquitoes.’
These conditions are not the fault of the refugees, but have been created by the sheer influx of people, which puts stress on the infrastructure of the camp.
‘They are lovely people – decent, nice and very polite. The atmosphere in the makeshift camps is family-orientated.’
He explains how different groups of refugees are better able to find help with housing and paper work:
‘The single young men travel in groups, they don’t stay for long like the families do. They stay for one or two days and then they’re gone. Some of the Syrians tend to be better organized than the people arriving from Afghanistan. I’ve heard of Syrians going directly to homes where other Syrians are staying; they pay 100 Euros a month and get help with their travel documents.’
However, for the families stuck in the parks, the health authorities in Athens are doing what they can to help. But the little funding they have is reliant on the EU and people disappear if they are pressured to claim asylum in Greece.
Polis refers back to the Afghan family he met and the dilemma they face when receiving help from authorities:
‘We said to that family, the police will help them get documents so they are entitled to help by applying for asylum. There were 2 boys staying with them who looked like minors; when they heard the police were coming to help the next day, they disappeared.’
Charities and NGOs in Athens are trying their best to provide aid but it is a challenging task to help everyone in such a complex and chaotic situation. While the Salvation Army isn’t as well known among Greeks as it is in Britain, there are British nationals and others in Athens who do know of their work and who are helping the Greek Salvationists.
The humanitarian emergency continues to worsen in a part of the world usually the preserve of affluent and history-aficionado tourists. Athens, the ancient birthplace of democracy, or demokratia – ‘rule by the people’ – is today being held together by its inhabitants and their grassroots organizations.
While state and international government organizations are letting them down, ordinary people are making personal sacrifices to help preserve the dignity of their fellow humans in need. They do this regardless of their religion, where they’re from or what forced them to flee their homes.
Jameela Freitas is a journalist and activist based in London. You can find her here: @jameelajourno