Children Fleeing War Find New Home in Greece



 

A resident of one of the HOME Project’s 10 shelters for unaccompanied refugee kids

The front door slams and the sound of feet stomping past can be heard before a rattle of cutlery and the din of chattering teenage voices drown out the sound of dinner being prepared.

It could be a family kitchen anywhere, feeding hungry kids just back from school, but the 12 girls who live here in this Athens shelter — all refugees — have experienced some of the worst that life can throw at a person.

This house on a quiet residential street in north Athens is run by the HOME Project, a privately funded initiative which not only shelters over 200 unaccompanied minors and provides jobs for 130 people, it helps these young refugees rebuild and prepare for a new life in Europe. Two other NGOs — the Melissa Network and Kasapi Hellas — are also involved.

The girls who live in this home — usually five to a room decked out with bunk beds — are from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, Mali and Sierra Leone.

Many have lost almost their entire families and have endured months in limbo, often in chaotic and crowded refugee camps on the Greek islands.

But when they are referred to the HOME Project, it marks the beginning of a new period of stability in their lives.

Like any teenagers’ room there can be a mess but the property – with its homemade artworks, terrace, and a small garden – is more like a shared student house than a refugee shelter.

Drawings, designs, and crafts made by the girls adorn the walls, some featuring words in their own languages or references to where they have fled.

On one door a handwritten note is pinned, a small plea for peace and quiet in what is often a busy home:

Anthi Argyriou is a social worker and has been at this shelter –- one of 10 in Greece -– since it opened in November last year.

For her, the role is partly parental – creating routine and order in young lives turned upside down by war and forced migration. Although it can take time for new arrivals to settle, their immersion in a safe environment can pay off.

“It’s the progress you see they’re [making], adjusting and respecting each other and being… more calm than they used to be,” Argyriou says.

These girls, and their male counterparts in the HOME Project’s other shelters, all attend Greek schools, learning a range of languages including English, Greek and German. They also learn practical skills, computer science and a few are also on job placements, working with the HOME Project’s private-sector partners.

Nor are they prisoners; the children can go out and socialize, provided they keep in contact with staff and return at an agreed time.

It is part of an approach the charity describes as “holistic” — not just meeting immediate needs like food, safety, and shelter, but providing education, structure, opportunity and psychological support.

Staff members of a HOME Project shelter in Athens

Targeted intervention

In downtown Athens, HOME Project director Sofia Kouvelaki says: “It is a very targeted intervention; it was created to solve a specific problem”.

“We cannot be in the developed world of 2018 and accept that we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of kids that are homeless, that are prostituting themselves, that are victims of organ trafficking, child labor and all kinds of violations of human rights.”

In just over a year, the HOME Project has helped around a tenth of the estimated number of unaccompanied minors in Greece.

Many others face hard conditions in camps or are even housed in detention centers or police facilities. Human Rights Watch in December estimated dozens of unaccompanied minors “live in unsanitary conditions, often with unrelated adults, and can be subject to abuse and ill-treatment by police”.

Kouvelaki — who witnessed the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2015 while working on the Aegean island of Lesvos — is clear about the scale of the problem, but insists solutions can be found:

“It’s a challenge to be able to sustain our operations and then at the same time continue to provide services to more kids.

“We need sustainable funding and commitment; we are lucky to be working with very serious private-sector partners like the Libra Group, the IKEA Foundation, the Shapiro Foundation … They all responded immediately to this crisis in a very, very efficient manner.

The organization’s founding sponsor is The Libra Group, a privately-owned international business group active in 35 countries across six continents.

“However, the needs are still there; there’s still more to be done but in a year we managed to accommodate a tenth of the kids in need and this is a problem which can be solved if more people joined forces.”

This is a theme echoed by Fotis Parthenides at the north Athens house and who supervises the HOME Project’s shelters:

“For me it’s not a refugee ‘crisis’, it’s a refugee ‘problem’. I don’t accept ‘crisis’ in a country with a population of 11 million having 50,000 or 200,000 refugees…’Crisis’ was in the 20s when Greece had a six-million population and accepted 1.5 million Greeks as refugees from Turkey — that was a crisis.”

Both Parthenides and Argyriou at the north Athens shelter are trying to repair a legacy of chaos in their teenagers’ lives, even after they made it to the relative safety of Greece.

Parthenides describes the slow process of socializing the new arrivals, taking it step-by-step in an unfamiliar world. But despite the support and care they get, there cannot be replacing their lost families:

“It is very clear to them that we are not their parents — and this is the right thing to be done,” Parthenides says. “We don’t let a girl or a boy, a minor generally, call us ‘father’ or ‘mother’, because sometimes they have this need, especially when their parents are not alive.”

Learning to live with and respect other kids at the shelter and its staff has a knock-on effect in wider society, something Kouvelaki describes as “building a community on many different levels”.

This “community building” championed by the HOME Project also has long-term implications for Greek society. Kouvelaki says:

“Marginalizing the youth at this very sensitive age, from 12 -18, the really formative years, …at some point someone will have to deal with their anger and despair and that will backfire. So, it’s much smarter to integrate them rather than keep them in these horrible living conditions.”

For Parthenides respect and adaptation is a two-way street: “There is A and Z and they meet in the center — we don’t want the Greek society to go from A to Z or refugee to go from Z to A. We must feel like equal members of this society.”

Limbo

For many of the young residents, life becomes a series of waiting games. The biggest problem is the bureaucratic delay — from island camp to mainland; from the mainland to shelter; from shelter to remaining family elsewhere in Europe.

Waiting for the authorities in Germany, Sweden or the U.K. to plow through their paperwork can add months to a resident’s stay at the HOME Project.

But the atmosphere of calm and stability, buttressed by dedicated work from the charity’s staff, means the children’s time in a shelter can be transformative.

Parthenides is convinced that the first sign of real progress is when one of the children call the center “home”.

Nevertheless, people come and go. Next week three mothers will arrive at the north Athens shelter, with their two-year-old and three-year-old children.

Three years of media coverage has produced so-called fatigue about the refugee issue. But Kouvelaki remains upbeat, despite the work ahead:

“I think we don’t face a fatigue of darkness in our work; on the contrary, because we work on the solution, we are fueled and refueled by the happiness of actually working on the solutions rather than focusing on the problem.”

A young resident of a HOME Project shelter, Athens