Helping refugees in Athens

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Helping refugees in Athens

The growing humanitarian crisis in Greece is getting too much for Greece’s support systems for asylum-seekers, reports Jameela Freitas.


A man walks under graffiti of hands in prayer, on a tall building in Athens. © Salvation Army Athens, Greece

Not everyone is against migrants. Some people see the new arrivals as human beings who have suffered and need understanding and help. Greece has no money, but there is a lot of community spirit in Athens, the capital.

Many refugees are living in the parks and squares of Athens. This city was already in crisis, from the financial crash and austerity, and there are now even more homeless.

British street magazine The Big Issue said that there are about 20,000 homeless people in the Athens area alone. People who sell Greece’s street magazine, Shedia, are from all social groups. They now have many problems from Greece’s economic instability. And there are many more people who need help.

But social services in Greece cannot support so many homeless people. There are not many places to stay and no money. About 2,000 refugees come every day to the Greek coast. Then they go to Athens.

Big families and many young men from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have no money. They walk around slowly in the main squares of Athens and camp in the parks. The Greek government has said they will move them to a camp outside the city centre, but the site is not yet ready and there is no confirmed opening date.

So the refugees can only wait. They know they were not invited and they do not look good in the tourist areas. They know Greece has serious problems. Most of them do not plan to stay, but they are hungry, tired and cannot go anywhere. They are usually waiting for travel documents or for relatives to send money.

The Salvation Army of Athens has seen the problems of these families. It supports nearly 1,000 refugees every day. It goes to the main squares and parks each morning to give donated food, bottled water and other things they need. In the evenings, volunteers prepare hundreds of sandwiches to give to poor people around the city.


Refugee children sleep under a park bench in Pedion tou Areos, in Athens. The Salvation Army left sandwiches for when they wake up. Salvation Army in Athens

Polis Pantelidis is the Major Regional Officer for the Salvation Army in Athens. He has seen many new people arrive - the number of tents in the parks has doubled in a couple of weeks.

‘I met one mother and 6 children from Afghanistan who escaped after her husband was murdered by the Taliban. She told me through an interpreter that they have been running from the Taliban for 6 years, coming through Iran and Turkey before they reached Europe.’

Like most refugees in Athens, they are have no money and have nowhere to go:

‘This family has no money and is thinking of asking for asylum in Greece. But they don’t want to stay – they want to get to Germany, Austria, Sweden or Switzerland. But they need to get documents so maybe they need to stay here for 2 months.’

Polis says how difficult it is for the refugees: if they ask for asylum in Greece they can get help from the European Union (EU), but many don’t ask for this because they want to move on to another country. ‘They want to move on but they don’t have any money, so they have a big problem’ he explains. ‘They have to stay here in Greece.’

Ten children in the camps have had to go to hospital lately. This made the hospital’s doctors get involved with the charities helping the refugees. Polis is worried that the children became ill because of bad sanitation and 40-degree heat.

‘The living conditions are very bad. There are only a few portable toilets for hundreds of people. There was also a water tap running non-stop; dirty water was passing through the camp and there are many mosquitoes.’

These conditions are not the fault of the refugees. They are because of the very high numbers of people - this is too much for the camp.

‘They are lovely people – nice and very polite. There is a family atmosphere.’


Afghani women sit in a tent, their only home in one of the largest parks in Athens, Pedion tou Areos. Salvation Army Athens

He says that different groups of refugees are better able to find help with housing and paper work:

‘The single young men travel in groups, they don’t stay for long like the families do. They stay for one or two days and then they go. Some of the Syrians are better organized than the people arriving from Afghanistan. Some Syrians go directly to homes where other Syrians are staying; they pay 100 Euros a month and get help with their travel documents.’

But for the families in the parks, the health authorities in Athens are doing what they can to help. They do not have much money from the EU and people disappear if there is pressure to claim asylum in Greece.

Polis talks about the Afghan family he met and their problem:

‘We said to that family, the police will help them get documents so they can ask for asylum. There were 2 boys staying with them who looked under 18; when they heard the police were coming to help the next day, they disappeared.’

Charities and NGOs in Athens are trying very hard to help. But it is very difficult to help everyone in such a complicated situation. Greeks do not know the Salvation Army as much as Britains. But there are British people and others in Athens who are helping the Greek Salvationists.

The humanitarian emergency is getting worse in a part of the world where rich tourists go to see the history. Democracy (demokratia – ‘rule by the people’) started in Greece. Today, the country is surviving because of the people who live there and the community organizations.

They do not have enough help from state and international government organizations. So ordinary people are helping others in need – no matter their religion, where they’re from or why they had to leave their homes.

Jameela Freitas is a journalist and activist in London.

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