July in Athens: Plans change and then they change again

Our time in Athens was neatly divided by a return to England for a wedding. The second half (post-wedding trip) didn’t go to plan to begin with, but ultimately ended in a very rewarding experience, managing volunteers at a project called the Orange House. I will write about this in a next blog, but for now, this is a tale of how our plans didn’t quite pan out.

Before we left for England at the end of June, the Schoolbox Project I’d been working with came to an end 1 and Faye had pretty much completed a website she was building for AMURTEL. 2 We were still providing support to several families on an ad hoc basis, but our regular commitments that took up the most time had run their course.

Searching for something new, we applied for positions with Movement on the Ground (MOTG) who were running children’s activities at the camp called Skaramangas, about 30 minutes drive from Athens. Our first, introductory day was really interesting (in a good way). There were 100s of children and MOTG seemed to have a well structured set of activities and relatively good facilities (a large circus tent and a playground). We left the camp at about 8pm, as the sun was low in the sky, looking forward to starting with MOTG properly later in the week, if a bit daunted by how exhausting it was going to be, especially in a concrete-covered camp that radiated the heat of the Greek summer. It was going to take up all of our time: 6 days of 12+ hour shifts in a row, with a rest day on Sunday.

Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. Several hours after we left on our first day, the camp experienced a serious disturbance involving a large group of young male residents. Several experienced volunteers who were staying late were caught up in what was described as a mini-riot, between members of the Syrian and Yazidi communities. Some refugees were hurt and some of the isoboxes (caravan type living spaces) were damaged.

One of the problems for people in this situation is that there really isn’t much for them to do. Long hot days in difficult conditions, combined with poor treatment, the uncertainty of what the future holds, the separation from family and friends, and the lack of money, meaningful work or positive focus in life all take their toll on people’s state of mind. It affects everyone, but young single men – often traveling without their families – are perhaps the most likely to act out their frustrations with violence or trouble-making.  The riot combined with several other security issues prompted MOTG to suspend activities at the camp. So we were left looking for new ways to contribute to the crisis.

We had a soft spot for the squats of Athens, which were mainly located in or near Exarchia – the anarchist area. They had their significant problems – lack of food, sanitation, and at times leadership and space – but they usually had a more relaxed atmosphere, particularly compared to some of the unofficial camps. They afforded the refugees a bit more dignity and I think this contributed to the more stable environment. The squats lacked any official support, so we thought we would spend more time helping them however we could.

Firstly, with our car and donation money to spend, we bought food and supplies for a relatively new squat, called Hotel Oniro. For example, we bought enough plates, mugs and glasses for every resident and about 10 kgs of spices: the chef was so pleased, as he had been struggling to add flavour to the staple donated foods of couscous, pasta and rice.

Secondly, we decided to help run some activities for the young people at Hotel Oniro. They didn’t have much communal space and had to be quiet in the squat so as not to disturb the neighbours, but there was a nearby park. A small group of Spanish volunteers were also running activities in the afternoon, so we joined forces. We mainly did English lessons and our Spanish friends concentrated on arts and crafts. Each afternoon, we would meet at the hotel and usually take about 20 kids to the park for lessons, activities and then play. It was important for the kids to use up some energy and get out of the hotel for a bit. One of the kids at the hotel, Samer, had previously been living at the port with his father where he was regular visitor to the Schoolbox Project: it was great to see a familiar face, and I was glad they had found a nicer place to live.

Dedicating the afternoons to Hotel Oniro, gave us time in the mornings to continue our other work: supporting individual families with specific needs, working with another squat to help with food supply issues and spending donated money on aid. Once again, we seemed to have found our niche, but once again it was about to change dramatically.

Part two of this blog coming soon…

[Note: Yes, we are in Ghana now and will get to that soon, once we’ve caught up on a few stories from Athens.]

Hospitality, queues and anarchists

The refugee community is as diverse as any other. The varied ways in which refugees are responding to the crisis reflects this. No one person’s experience is the identical to any other, but there are some themes that seem to tie them together. Here are just a few that we’ve observed.

Waiting: Many families have been split up because only some of them made it further into Europe before the borders closed. In every one of these cases we have encountered, those stuck in Greece are applying for reunification: that is, the right to rejoin the rest of the family in whatever country they made it to (often Germany).

For some, there is a time pressure: such as R, who is 17 (with 2 children) and wants to join her father in Germany.3 She is worried that once she turns 18, she will not be entitled to reunification (this would be an incredibly to-the-letter reading of the reunification rules, which may or may not be applied). The waiting times for appointments are on a timescales of months! R has recently found out her second asylum / reunification interview will be in December (her birthday is in January).

Not all refugees have the patience. We know of people who have used smugglers to get themselves to where they want be: a dangerous and expensive method – one which we do not in any way advocate but, at the same time, can empathise with.

Protesting: with the slow and unwieldy asylum application process, the difficulties of obtaining adequate healthcare and the conditions in the camps, some refugees have taken to protesting. Yesterday we went to meet with a group of around 25 refugees, many with medical conditions, who are peacefully protesting by sleeping outside of the offices of a Greek NGO. They feel their rights as refugees (including the rights to housing and adequate healthcare, which the NGO in question is tasked in part with providing) are not being met.

They asked us if we supported their protest and of course we said yes! Their rights should be respected, yet we have even heard that the NGO will not let them inside to fill their water bottles or use the toilet. No single organisation is to blame for these problems, but the problems really need to be dealt with. We will go back soon, to see if we can provide any comfort to the protestors in the form of food and water.

Queueing: Refugees can spend hours in endless queues for food, appointments, doctors – you name it, there is probably a long queue somewhere right now in the blazing sun. With the exception of those strange people who wait outside the Apple store, no-one likes queueing. I cannot imagine the stress of having to do it constantly with an empty stomach, your entire family in tow and the possibility that you will not achieve anything at the end of it. Many times people queue only to be told the appointments have finished for the day or the food has run out. There are surprisingly few fights!

Refugees queueing on another hot day

Refugees queueing on another hot day

Self-organisation: Recently we have spent a lot of time in the squats. In the Exarchia area of Athens there are at least 6 squats for refugees. These were set up by local anarchists and handed over. The squats are in old hotels and abandoned schools.

They work in a very different way to the camps – the refugees set up their own programmes of activities and must manage all aspects of everyday life (cleaning, cooking, entertainment, security, education etc.). Volunteers help and contribute, but the ethos is that it should be with the support, blessing and input of the residents. I find this is an inspiring model, but it has its challenges: not being official camps, the squats do not get the same amount of aid or support. Squats also run the risk of coming to the attention of local fascists and the police, who can cause problems.

Hospitality and friendliness: Despite the uncertainty of where the next meal will come from, countless people continue to be warm and hospitable. Yesterday morning, as we waited around to meet someone at one of the squats, we were given seats in the shade and hot milk by a man we had never met before.

Such hospitality is frequent and it is with some guilt that we accept it – we do so because it is such an important part not only of Middle Eastern culture, but also of creating relationships between equals (not just refugees and volunteers). Being able to hold on to and continue with your culture’s traditions and norms is an important part of coping in difficult times.

Smiling and laughing: Life is tough, but many people are able to keep smiling and laughing. Lots of people have built strong social networks and communities and, whilst it’s definitely not easy, these play a huge role in maintaining morale and wellbeing – giving people the endless patience they need to keep on waiting.

Buying in bulk

A fellow volunteer, Ana, treated Tom and I to a tour the other day. She’s been here two months longer than us, and will leave shortly to head back to the US. It wasn’t a tour of tourist sites or good places to eat and drink though. This was a tour of the wholesale and cheap shops of Athens.

Often volunteers’ knowledge is lost when they go, leaving others who come in their place to work things out from scratch. This problem is solved, in part, by Facebook – where a community of volunteers share information and offer advice and support on topics ranging from an incredibly complex asylum process to public transport and accommodation. That’s a resource we can’t do without, but nothing beats a proper handover.

Shopping is not necessarily what everyone imagines when picturing volunteering here. It’s definitely not the image I had in mind before we arrived. But the squats, camps and many other projects here in Athens rely heavily on donated items. Whilst there’s a warehouse stuffed full of boxes of useful things on the outskirts of town, the process to get hold of this can take time. One of the most helpful ways we can ‘volunteer’ is to respond to requests for donations ourselves when they’re needed. It also gives a little, needed boost to the Greek economy along the way.

Boxes of bargains in this shop near Omonia

Now (thank you so much, Ana!), rather than heading to Lidl and one of the worst shops in the world – Jumbo, where terrible music meets an incomprehensible layout that makes it impossible to find either what you need or the exit – we’ve been on some more interesting shopping trips.

Tom and I have bought so much underwear from a wholesaler that we were asked if we were opening a shop. We’ve negotiated a good price on 60 plates, 60 glasses and 60 mugs. And we’ve become prized customers at a vegetable stall – to the point of being given free fruit.

Ana and I making a delivery to a newly squatted hotel

Ana and I, after delivering to this newly squatted hotel

We’ve only been able to do this thanks to generous donations to our fund. We never thought our total raised would surpass £2,000 so quickly! You can see here on our site what we’ve spent your money on so far.

If anyone else wants to donate to keep us in the bulk shopping business for longer, we’d be really grateful. Remember: our money’s unfortunately worth less in Euros right now. Our suggested solution: give a bit more! 🙂

My time at the Schoolbox Project

In my third week in Athens, I started volunteering at a project called The Schoolbox Project based at gate E1 of the main ferry terminal, Pireaus, where hundreds of families are living in tents pitched directly onto the hard tarmac. It is hot, noisy and dusty.

The purpose of the project is to provide therapeutic play to refugee children. The refugees coming into Europe have been through so much: war, dangerous journeys in the hope of finding safety and now huge uncertainty in what the future holds for them. I had read many things about the toll this was taking on people’s wellbeing and mental health, so it seemed right to get involved in a project that was responding to that.

The Schoolbox consisted of a shipping container used to store materials, some gazebos for shade and a bit of outdoor space bordered by other containers. Activities happened outside the box, so we moved some of the drawing materials and a small play tent into the shade. Many children quickly appeared and some settled down to colouring but others were boisterous and energetic – their play-fighting quickly crossed over into actual fighting. We did our best to prevent and breakup fights, but it was a tough afternoon.  After 3 intense hours, we closed up for the day.

The Schoolbox

A calm-looking Schoolbox

In those 3 hours, I didn’t have time to stop and think about what I’d seen, but on the drive home I was suddenly hit with emotion. What I had witnessed was shocking: those children were really suffering and seeing it firsthand was overwhelming.  I also realised that in some respects, I was out of my depth – not being a parent, trained social worker or child psychologist.

When we did get a chance to get advice from one of the longer-term volunteers, however, I was reassured that I didn’t have to be any of those things – she gave us the confidence that just being there (whatever our background and experience) was helpful. Armed with some techniques to help calm the children and a new understanding of the structure and variety needed for effective therapeutic play, we started week 2 at the Schoolbox with renewed enthusiasm.

Things then improved in many ways. As volunteers, we had more of a sense of purpose and built more variation in the activities, which the children appreciated. It gave them focus and allowed them to exist in the present, instead of having time to relive painful memories or worry about what else was going on in their lives. They did rock painting, dream-catchers, flextangles 2 and some scratch crayon drawings. Some of the older kids also started English lessons with the volunteers who were teachers.

It was still non-stop hard work, but very rewarding. At the end of each day, a few kids would always walk back with us as we headed towards our cars or the bus stops, pleading for piggybacks or to play football. It was tough, but at least we could promise we’d be back the next day.

As is often the situation in this crisis though, things can change very quickly. On the Friday, we were told that gate E1 would soon be cleared of refugees. The Schoolbox would need a new home and it was decided that the activities would stop to allow the container to be moved. In the port itself, there were a lot of tensions: the police were intimidating the refugees, driving around on motorbikes at night. The knowledge of the imminent camp closure also caused a huge amount of anxiety amongst the adults: quickly picked up by the kids. Add to this, poor conditions at the port, bad food, the stress of observing Ramadan in such an unstable environment and sweltering heat (it reached 40 degrees).

Something had to give, and on the Saturday night, it all got too much. Fights started to break out amongst camp residents and the children responded similarly. Despite the best efforts of the volunteers who were there at the time, the Schoolbox container was completely trashed.

The kids were acting out their frustrations – fear of the closure of the Schoolbox and knowing they’d be forced to move (yet again), just when they thought that they had some stability, safety and sanctuary. Their journey in life has so far not been easy and for a few months with the Schoolbox and all of the volunteers, they had a safe place.

Some of the Schoolbox volunteers

Some of the lovely Schoolbox Project volunteers

It was a tough ending for everyone involved, but on reflection I am proud about what we were able to do. Since the closure, I’ve had reports back from some of the other volunteers who were able to go back to help out at other projects. The E1 residents’ tents have now been moved to underneath a motorway flyover at gate E1.5: really not ideal, but it does provide some shade. This is just a temporary location before they are moved again to camps outside the port. Tensions have dropped a bit, some of “our kids” have started to visit the child-focused activities being run at that gate, and the School Box will reopen sometime elsewhere.

I think about the Schoolbox children every day and I hope for a better future for them. I am also privileged to have worked with some amazing volunteers (the photo above shows only some of them).

One birth and a whole load of bureaucracy

Here, one thing can lead to a lot of others! That Facebook request we responded to took us not just to the makeshift camp on the outskirts of Athens. It also led me to support a Syrian family and, in particular, a young girl with a newborn baby in hospital. In the process I’ve not only encountered bureaucracy so crazy I’m not sure I can describe it, but also got to know a lovely family.

I apologise in advance for the length of this story. I felt it should be told in full.

Starting from the beginning

The volunteers mentioned in our recent post who were delivering donations to the unofficial camp outside Skaramangas had, on a previous visit, met a family of 6 – a mother, her 2 daughters and 2 sons, and the eldest daughter’s one-year-old son. That family was soon to grow – the eldest daughter (she has agreed for me to write this post but asked not to be identified, so I will call her R) was 9 months pregnant at the time. The volunteers not only gave their phone numbers and were ‘on call’, driving R to the hospital when she went into labour, but also found them a safer space to stay at a squat in the city.

At the point at which these volunteers left Athens for home, R had just been discharged from hospital after the birth. However, her baby had an infection and was transferred to neonatal care. And this is where I come in.

As R wanted to visit and breastfeed her baby during his expected 10-day stay in hospital, I agreed to support her – taking her to the hospital, a 45 minute bus ride from the centre of town, and advocating for her when there to ensure she could spend time with her son. What I thought might be one day of showing her the ropes with Athens buses and then leaving her to it, turned into daily trips with her and plenty of time sat in a boiling hot waiting room or wandering the streets near the hospital with R, waiting for the unpredictable hours when the nurses would let her in to the unit to see her baby.

Now, here I need to explain a few things. R is just 17. She married at 15 years old but her husband is in Syria still, as his parents felt they couldn’t leave. She left her home around the age of 13 to escape the war and hasn’t been able to go to school since she was 12. Her home no longer exists – it was destroyed by a bomb. She is incredibly warm, savvy and smart, she wants to study maths and science, but for someone who has lived in a war zone or on the move with her family for so long, dealing with buses and hospitals alone in a city you don’t know, let alone when you’ve just given birth, is tough. So, I didn’t leave her to it. Most days we took the number 21 bus together, conversing in slow, simple English or via Google translate, and spent a few hours out in a suburb of Athens together.

From what I’ve seen of friends becoming new parents, dealing with a new baby in a stable situation is tough enough. Add in all of the above, plus the fact that you’re living with your one-year-old in a squat without hot running water and your husband is still in a war zone, and it gets tougher. Then you come to the bureaucracy, just to make it more complex. That bureaucracy came in two forms – the Town Hall and the Asylum Service.

The Town Hall

Firstly, we needed to register the baby’s birth. R doesn’t have a passport, her papers including marriage certificate are all in Arabic and an official translation would have taken at least 10 working days, but most likely double that at huge expense. We thought we’d give it a try without and turned up, papers in hand, at the Town Hall (which incidentally is on a street that you can’t find without doing lots of research online because the Greek street name has fewer words in it than the phonetically transcribed name on Google maps… who knew?!).

Amazingly, lots of smiling, pleading, thank yous and a little bit of me pretending that I could read the Arabic on her marriage certificate got us to a birth certificate of sorts after an hour. Then we questioned why they had not included the baby’s first name – surely an essential part of a birth certificate – and the trouble started. I have since found out that, in Greece, first names are typically only listed on birth certificates once the baby has been baptised, which may take place when they’re 2 or 3 years old. And, legally, both parents have to be present to register the first name, often needing paperwork from the baptism.

For R, a completed birth certificate can’t wait that long as she is applying for family reunification in Germany. Her father’s asylum claim has been accepted there as he travelled ahead, before the borders shut. She plans neither to baptise her baby (since she’s Muslim) nor return to Greece in a few years’ time. Plus, her husband will not be coming to Greece but hopes to reunite with her eventually in Germany if possible.

The solution according to the Town Hall… for someone to certify and stamp a letter and ID from her husband proving he agrees to the chosen first-name. So why doesn’t her husband just pop down to the Greek embassy in Syria (which most definitely does not exist) or could R go the Syrian embassy in Athens (again, does not exist), or couldn’t her husband visit a lawyer in his city (there are none, there are no services)? So far, we’ve found no real solution, but I’m working on it. For now, they have a baby that officially exists in Greece, and he has a surname. A success in part.

The Asylum Service

And then we get to the second bit of bureaucracy – the family’s asylum claim. They had originally been based in a camp in the north of Greece, moving to Athens due to constant flooding of their tent and a snake infestation that made R fear for her and her children’s safety if she gave birth there. Despite their move, the Greek Government is still processing their registration and asylum claim in the North, with no option to move it to Athens.

One evening, when R and I returned to the squat in Athens from the hospital, a day or two before the baby was due to be discharged, we found her mother had received a call to say they had an appointment with the Asylum Service. That appointment was going to be in Thessaloniki the next morning at 7.30am. They were excited – an appointment is hard to get! – but Thessaloniki is a 6-hour journey, it was 5pm, and all train services in Greece were on strike.

We went back to the hospital to try to get some kind of paperwork to show the Asylum Service that the baby existed (the birth certificate wasn’t yet ready) so that he didn’t get left behind in Greece. And because all but essential services at the hospital shut at 2pm of course, resorted to a photo of her with the baby showing his hospital tag and a handwritten note from a kind nurse. Then Tom and I put them on an overnight bus and explained how they could find the Asylum Service office when they got there – guess what, same problem with finding the place on Google maps!

The next day, the excitement had most definitely faded. They’d been contacted on the wrong date. Their appointment had been the day before. They explained their journey from Athens, they explained they’d left a week-old baby in hospital, but their names were not on the list so they were most definitely not coming in. The mother of the family, R and R’s son left the other siblings behind with friends in their former snake-infested camp and travelled back to Athens deflated.

A little bit of luck

The baby with no official first name was luckily discharged the next day. We only waited 3 hours for the handwritten discharge note from the doctor saying he needed some over-the-counter vitamin drops. But after the wait, I was lucky enough to see this tiny little baby meet his brother for the first time, helping R to manage the insane excitement and jealousy that mixed into one as her older son realised that he was no longer the only one.

Catching the 21 bus for the final time with her son

Catching the 21 bus for the final time, this time with her son

Then the next morning, they called me to say their asylum appointment had been rescheduled; again in Thessaloniki, again at 7:30am. Another bus journey was organised. This time with not one but two babies to entertain for 6 hours and this time their appointment took place. The whole family has now returned to Athens with no information about what stage of the asylum process they’re at, when they will hear more, and what will happen next. They’re in the system somewhere, we just don’t know where.

I’ve taught R the phrase “fingers crossed” in English. She says it all the time now. She recognises that however much they deserve asylum and deserve a safe home, they also need a lot of luck to get that anytime soon. I am keeping absolutely everything crossed for this family and hoping things work out from now on.

Some new friends and a case of mistaken identity

In our second week in Athens, we responded to a Facebook request asking for someone with a car to help deliver supplies to a camp called Skaramangas.  What we thought would be a quick job, turned out to be a long but rewarding afternoon and evening.  Because of this trip, we met some amazing volunteers and refugees. (N.B. Another blog to follow with a much, much longer story about one particular family that we met.)

Skaramangas is one of the better official camps in Greece, although it is not without its problems. Situated near a foul-smelling industrial zone, 8 miles outside of Athens, its residents sleep in air-conditioned cabins and its facilities are of a higher standard than most.2

However, outside the walls is a small unofficial camp with around 60 tents. The people in these tents hoped that by setting up outside the official camp, they would eventually be allowed in. Rumour has it that they might have been let in this morning (fingers crossed the rumours are true!), but when we were there these people were in a desperate situation: living in a hot and dusty corner right next to huge road, without running water, toilets or regular access to food. It was to this unofficial camp that we had agreed to help deliver and give out supplies.

The delivery had been arranged by Cecilia, Zeynep and Leslie: three friends who had travelled from Istanbul, Barcelona and Boston to volunteer in Athens. They were supported by Percin, an entrepreneur, also from Istanbul who was visiting Greece and had connected with them through Facebook.  They are veterans of the crisis and knew what they were doing, so we followed their lead. We met at their rental apartment in central Athens to load the cars before making the 30 minute trip to the camp.

To help give out the supplies, which consisted of vital baby food, nappies and hygiene products, we were assisted by a wonderful group of young men living in the main, official camp: a mixture of Syrian and Kurdish refugees – a warm, friendly and helpful bunch. ‘Crowd control’ is a factor when working with tired and hungry people, so our young men helped manage the queues and translated for us as we distributed supplies.

We spent several hours at the camp without too much trouble, until one angry man accused Faye of being from the Greek Government (why, we do not know). Needless to say he was not a big fan of the Greek Government, and therefore not too keen on Faye. At this point, we had given out most of the supplies and decided it would be safer to call it a day.

To say thank you to our young friends, we took them out for some food at a nearby roadside cafe. To hear their stories is upsetting and shocking, but their spirit and attitude is inspiring. We saw photos of the aftermath of bombings in their home towns (images too shocking to appear in the British media), found out about the journeys they’d taken and the family members they’d left behind, and heard about the problems in the official Skaramangas camp (a small group of trouble-makers stealing, threatening and committing acts of violence against other residents with the Greek police refusing to do anything about it). As the sun set, we took our friends back to the camp and then headed home.

skaramangkas_dinner

Dinner with our new friends