Back in June shortly after we arrived in Athens, I’d spent a few days volunteering at a new project called The Orange House. 1 Based in a former shop in the anarchist area of Athens, they were hoping to refurbish their building in order to provide much needed accommodation and support for vulnerable refugee groups, such as unaccompanied minors and people from the LGBT community. It was a big job for skilled tradesmen, so once my limited DIY skills had been exhausted, I moved on to other things.
Skipping forward about 6 weeks, Faye and I settled down one evening after another tiring day and I saw a message flash up from Marina, the director of The Orange House. She told me that the house was now open: residents were beginning to move in, activities were being planned and a team of volunteers were helping to run things. Like many new projects, with lots of work but without a full-time professional team, things were getting a little stretched. Marina asked if Faye and I could come in each morning to help delegate tasks, and provide a bit more of a management structure, so that other volunteers could feel more confident and empowered to get on with their day. Thinking it would fit in nicely with our other commitments, we agreed.
A few days later, we started at the Orange House. We got to know the existing volunteers and residents and explained who we were and why we were there. We then delegated some tasks and left for our afternoon volunteer commitment. As the week went on, our responsibilities quickly escalated. Marina (who already had a full-time job) had to go away for a week and a long-term volunteer, with responsibilities for the rota, social work and covering a significant number of the nightshifts, decided to end her involvement in the project at short-notice. Suddenly, we found ourselves pretty much managing the on-the-ground running of the project. We had great support from the volunteers, as well as Marina, and two board members, Aida and Barbara, based in North America, but coming in for a few hours each morning was no longer an option. We still made it to our afternoon volunteering at the squat, but it would be straight back to the Orange House after.
It was exhausting, but rewarding. We had many challenges but we were able to use some of our project and people management skills to make improvements to how things worked – it was the first time we’d spent hours on end sitting at computers since we quit our jobs! We fixed some issues with the rota, recruited more volunteers for the unpopular nightshift, started giving new volunteers a detailed induction and used more transparent methods of prioritising, delegating and tracking outstanding jobs and tasks. We also worked hard to encouraged a positive attitude – which is vital in any job, but especially in the demanding environment of the Greek refugee crisis. There were many notable moments during our time with the project, both positive and negative, which will stay with us. Here is just one story that stands out:
Because the project provided support and a safe space for unaccompanied minors, a couple of the volunteers were tasked with contacting a teenager, J (not his real name), to see if he was okay and to ask if he wanted to drop by for a cup of tea. He was one of a number of people the project would check-up on.
Later that day, whilst Faye and I were at our regular afternoon commitment, we had a call from one of the volunteers. She’d been in contact with J by Facebook messenger, and he was in some difficulty. He’d travelled to an agricultural region about 90 minutes north of Athens to do some farm work on the promise of a ‘short-term, easy way’ to get himself a little money. He’d worked for a month, but the farmers didn’t pay him. That day he’d returned to the farm and was demanding pay, but it sounded like he wasn’t going to get any and it also sounded like he didn’t have any way to leave. We were concerned for his safety and sought the advice of a charity specialising in forced labour situations involving children. They took over and coordinated a rescue with the local police force. We thought perhaps we could pick up J the next day to bring him back to Athens. But late that evening, we had another call from the charity, who told us that the police were treating J has an adult who had been caught carrying out illegal work. They were going to detain him until he could be deported back to Afghanistan. Apparently J’s Greek papers (issued to refugees on arrival) stated that he was an adult. We felt awful – we had initiated the rescue and now the victim of exploitation was being detained by the police.
After a bad night’s sleep, we returned to the Orange House and called a group of lawyers providing free advocacy to refugees. They contacted the police station and reassured us on two counts a) deportation takes months, so he was not in any immediate risk and b) they had successfully prevented deportation in similar cases before. We were relieved, but things weren’t over yet. J was still in detention and his phone had been confiscated. We contacted the police and were told we could visit, so the next morning we drove out of Athens and up to the police station with some food and juice for J and accompanied by a translator called Sayed – one of the many Afghan translators who’d worked for the British military, later forced to flee his country after threats from the Taliban. At the police station, only one of us and the translator were allowed to enter, so Faye and Sayed went in. I didn’t see the conditions, but Faye recounted how terrible they were: dirty, overcrowded and hot. J’s mood and demeanor quickly improved when he saw Faye and Sayed and heard that we were working to get him released. He explained that his Greek papers did say he was an adult, because like many minors traveling alone, he’d lied about his age when first arriving in Greece. This was for a simple reason – he wanted to be able to travel freely in order to continue his journey north (without the interference of the authorities). But like most refugees in Greece, he became trapped when the borders closed. His Afghan ID did have his correct age, so it was a matter of getting the police to translate it from Farsi, recognise this mistake and let him go.
It took a frustrating amount of time – the workload of the lawyers in Greece is huge – but J was eventually released after 3 weeks (by this time, we’d left Athens) and is doing well. There are many things shocking about this case, not least the response of the police and the charity set up to support victims of forced labour*, but the thing that stands out for me is the thought of what would have happened if The Orange House hadn’t been looking out for J – would he have been left in that police cell for months? Would he have been deported? The case reinforced the need for projects like The Orange House, staffed by people who show genuine humanity and compassion. The incident forced us to examine our own actions too: in retrospect, it is likely that we would have more seriously considered attempting to pick-up J ourselves, even though we know all the risks.
We were only the managers of the Orange House for about 14 days, but so much happened in that short space of time it felt like a lot longer. It came at the end of our two months in Greece, and pretty much finished us off, both physically and emotionally. We were spent and it was time for us to leave: with great sadness at saying goodbye to all the people we’d met, but also relief: we needed to sleep and we need to decompress.
After sharing a few reflections on our brief time in Calais in September, in our final Greece themed blog, Faye will write about leaving Athens and look back on our volunteer experience as a whole.
You can read more about the Orange House on their Facebook page and website. They are in constant need of donations to support their vital work.
* we have decided not to name the forced labour charity, because although we disagreed with its response in this instance, it is just one case out of many and may not be reflective of their overall work or approach. We did provide them with feedback.