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.
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.