We’ve been in Athens for a week, slowly adapting to the heat (it’s boiling!), the city’s regular strikes, and the situation that we’ve thrown ourselves into for the next few months. This post is most definitely our first impressions. There are a lot of people who have been working here for months, maybe years, who have got their heads around everything that’s going on. One week in, we can only start to understand the complex web of camps, processes, services and support.
So far we have spent much of our time at the Caritas refugee centre in central Athens. They run a kitchen with military precision (feeding around 300 people from 10:30 – 14:00 each day), provide advice, support and translation services and distribute clothing among other things. Our first day was spent in a whirlwind of repeat tasks in the kitchens (I – Faye – am now one of the fastest dryer-uppers in town and Tom can lay out hundreds of trays with cutlery in seconds!). We have since spent time in the other parts of the centre and, from now on, will be dedicating 3 mornings a week to running the children’s playroom. A few paint pots, some building blocks and dolls, and an incessantly beeping cash register get some brilliant reactions when the children first walk into the room.
Alongside Caritas, we’ve started to make connections with other organisations: helping to sort a mountain of clothes collected by the Danish Refugee Council at Elliniko camp based in Athens’ old airport; and meeting with the director of Amurtel Greece, an organisation supporting pregnant women and new mums at the makeshift camp at Piraeus port, to offer my support with their communications and fundraising.
The situation is chaotic. There are tens of thousands of people in Greece, many in the Attica (Athens) region. Many, many organisations and individuals are working tirelessly to provide essential support on incredibly limited resources. Yet, it seems that everyone feels there is so much more to be done.
What has particularly struck us is the number of children. Everywhere you look there are kids wanting to play. And life goes on, with babies being born in tents pitched on concrete. Save the Children estimate that worldwide, 3 million refugee children are out of school, with those stranded in Greece so far averaging 1.5 years without an education.
The kids we’ve met and played with are incredibly well behaved and often greet you with a warm hug… or in one case, some gloopy red nail varnish that was mostly used to paint my fingers rather than just my nails.
People have traveled for months to get to Greece, and most have now been stuck here for many months too. “I took two months to get here. I’ve been here for three months.” is pretty commonly the answer to our questions. Unofficial camps are slowly being shut down by the Greek Government and their residents moved to official camps where, reports suggest, the situation and sanitation is not much better. There is no sense of when people will be able to move to more of a long-term home.
We’re working out our volunteering plans as we go, as we learn more and meet more people. We might not be able to do much, but hopefully we can help in some small way as the many people stranded here play the waiting game.