The BLOG: Lifestyle

Refugees in Greece

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Greece is – as you may know – a hub for refugees heading west from unrest in the middle east; last count I heard, there were around 65,000 refugees in the country. I get folks asking about the refugee situation here, and the truth is: I’m not too well-versed in it. 

Last week though, I got an up-close look for the first time since we arrived. I had an appointment for my crazy ear in Athens, and it so happened that a Crete friend was spending several days volunteering at a Salvation Army post in central Athens that serves refugees. So I joined her (and her two sons) for half the day.

The center’s located in a rough area – depressed, ill-kempt, and in the red light district. Around 10,000 refugees are in Athens, and while the centre’s not geographically close to refugee quarters, folks come in on public transportation to utilize the services offered – a clothing and supplies distribution center, assistance with paperwork, that sort of thing.

My visit was a stop-in much more than a deep dive, but here are a few quick takes by way of first impressions:

1. The language smorgasbord is astonishing – and so are the people mastering the languages. I was helping to unpack and sort clothes donations, and the folks directing me in the distribution center were the regulars – kids in their late teens or early twenties who’d been there long enough to know the ropes and earn responsibility as lead helpers. One was from Iraq, another Afghanistan, two more from Iran, pleasant people… and their language skills were incredible. They spoke Farsi, English, some Greek, and bits and pieces of others. Between the four of them, they could seemingly communicate with anyone who walked in the door looking for clothes. Learning a language is not easy (says the girl bumbling along with her Greek five months in); I was awed to see how skilled and practiced these kids were. Brave, engaged, clear-eyed folks, making the most of their circumstances, schooling themselves and acquiring the tools that could lead toward success. Humbling.

2. Though refugees and migrants are technically different, they seem to function similarly. Refugees are people who are forced to leave their country because of persecution, whereas migrants make a conscious choice to leave to seek a better life elsewhere. I think the folks I talked to (the ones serving in the clothing center) were technically migrants, but I sensed that they had no options for a future in their countries of origin – Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan. Similar to the migrants I see when I work with the local nonprofit organisation here in Crete.

3. It’s tough to be a migrant or refugee in a country where more than 20% of the native population is unemployed. There’s just no work to be had. One project the Salvation Army offers at the Athens site is an outreach to prostitutes, and it’s clear that many of these folks (some refugees, many teens) – while perhaps not technically “trafficked” – do what they’re doing because they can find no alternative options for income. 

4. There’s no one quite like the Salvation Army for stepping into areas of need and serving. I had the privilege of writing a business plan for the Salvation Army for a consulting project in 2003, and I was beyond impressed. The Army is unique, compelling, humble as it sets about tackling tough issues with efficiency and low overhead. I saw the same thing in Athens. They’re renting a large building in an area optimally suited to assisting populations in need, and they’re offering a variety of useful programs that are making a difference. No pomp or fanfare, just getting the job(s) done.

There are many, many organisations offering services to refugees in Athens, but for me it was an honor to sit on the doorstep of the Salvation Army and see them do their work.

5. People willing to show up and do unglamorous jobs make a huge difference. My friend was with a group of a dozen plus Brits who’d come for a week to serve the Salvation Army however they could. These folks performed a variety of tasks: distributed clothes, organised supplies, cleaned out storage area, refurbished couches, played with refugee children, threw a party for refugee/migrant families. The work was very basic, and some of it was indirect service – not interacting directly with refugees but rather helping those who were helping them. But it was clear that the jobs they were doing were invaluable to the overall effectiveness of the Salvation Army’s mission.

Example: two women sat in a chilly room with dim lighting over a sewing machine for two days (maybe more); I caught them on the afternoon when they’d been at it for hours. They were sewing new cushion covers and throw pillows so that the street workers who entered the space for support and help would be comfortable and have an attractive place to sit. Their gifts – diligently, invisibly – to bless someone else who’s saddled with a hard life. 

Teddy Roosevelt said famously, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Last week I saw three groups of people doing this, each in their own way: the refugees/migrants, the Salvation Army, and the volunteers who came to help out.

Lots to learn there.