On the Frontlines of the Refugee Crisis: A Visit to Caritas Hellas

After almost a year and a half absence, it’s stricking how much of Greece, often for worse, remains fixed. There is the same unemployed man in the same exact seat at a nearby Plaka cafe where he spends his entire day. On a hill in Pangrati above the 1898 Olympic stadium where I run, there is the same woman outside her apartment asking passerbys to borrow their phone for important calls. On another run (marathon training), I saw Perama, subject of a haunting documentary (“The Fish of the Mountain”) I watched at the Thessaloniki Film Festival in 2015. Safe to say, this once proud shipping town near Piraeus, with its empty apartment buildings, abandoned construction projects, and closed up main avenue businesses, made America’s Flints or Detroits appear as thriving metropolises. The scale of litter, trash, and graffiti not only remains fixed, but seems to spread even further through the center of Athens.

I would remiss, however, if I did not mention my excitement on a visit to Caritas Athens (the equivalent of Catholic Charities in the United States). This is where I volunteered as an English teacher for refugees/migrants from 2014-2015. From the moment I entered their offices, I could sense an immediate change. The original flood of daily people requesting help every morning was much more orderly, with a new security guard and elaborate sign-in system. Every floor was covered with helpful information and maps for refugees in both Greek, English, Arabic, Farsi, and a few other Middle Eastern langauges I couldn’t recognize. All the staff were very excited to see me. Apparently I look older and much “more sophisticated”. Maybe that was simply becuase of a more decent effort at shaving and dressing up well that morning (neither of which are consistent personal habits as yet). But I’ll take the complement regardless.

The staff admitted to be very stressed, but they were incredibly optimistic for the charity. Caritas Hellas was now in partnership with Catholic Relief Services and so their annual budget had increased to about 1.5 million euroes from 150,000. They now had 33 employees, probably a 4-5x increase from my time there. There was a new building nearby where refugee children and mothers had a space to rest, play, and relax. New legal counseling and family therapy services were now offered for familes navigating fraught situations. In a few days, Caritas’ head social worker, Maria, explained, they will launch a new program for refugees to create hand-made traditional Middle Eastern crafts to sell.

No doubt the scale of the refugee crisis remained (about 50,000 refugees, registered and unregistered, in the country) and was even worsening in some respects. It is clear that many will be in Greece much longer than they expected. Because of closed borders in Hungary, Serbia, and FYROM, a route to the more prosperous North illegally is far more risky and futile. Nor is the legal path by applying to the EU for relocation always promising. According to Sofia, the fundraising director, Scandanavia and Germany have been far more favorable to Syrians from the middle class, with university education, and good language skills. Furthermore, certain demagographic groups like young single men have not been well favored. Nor is family reunification always an easy rationale in one’s application unless it is for the immediate nuclear family. Those who are rejected from the  relocation scheme are stuck in Greece, where they can then apply for asylum status. This can give them some sense of secruity, but they will have to stay here and try to make a life in a country with far fewer prospects.

Turning Greece into a home rather than a waiting house will be a tough challenge for the migrants. According to the staff, the knowledge that their legal limbo will leave them in Greece for a long time has caused many refugee parents to be very depressed and frustrated, leading to visible signs of neglect, indifference, or even abuse of their children. Many are in denial, showing no interest in looking for work in Greece, learning Greek, or sending their children to public school. Helping refugees accept the loss of their ultimate dreams (a decent life in Germany) is extremely hard. Where refugees are originally from deeply shapes the mindset. Afghanis are apparently much more accepting about a more permenant settlement in Greece. The Syrians, though, are generally much more frustrated; some have even told Caritas staff that they would even return home than stay here. Given the housing situation, such sentiments aren’t entirely ridiculous. Lucky ones can find access to housing offered by UNHCR and some NGO’s. Others stay in refugee camps outside the city, the worst of which are apparently now incubators of hepatitis and malaria. Still others make due with a patch of grass where they can find it in Athenian public parks.

In spite of Caritas’ expansion, some time volunteering at the soup kitchen assured me that the place retained its original core. It was a simple lunch of rice, lental soup, and bread. A Georgian cook ran the operation, with the help of a colorful mix of characters: a Burmese nun from the Sisters of Saint Joseph, a boisterous Argentine (“Hugo”) who founded a tango dance school in Athens, and a polyglot Spainard who married and raised a family in Greece and was one of Caritas’ most loyal volunteers. The latter gave me some interesting advice on Romania (“The Romanian girls are very beautiful. It’s a wonderful place. The people are very cultured with art, music, and literature. But watch out. They are incredible manipulative. They make the Greeks look like ‘juniors’ in comparison!”).

The three hundred refugees who came in over lunch were pretty quiet and mellow. You could see the exhaustion on many faces, especially the mothers. Here and there were also some very frail older Greeks who came in as well for lunch. Their sense of discomfort at receiving charity from strangers was very palpable and hard to witness. The atmosphere would have remained very quiet for it not for the children and a group of energetic (and very good looking) Portugese volunteers from the Jesuit Refugee Service. They were accompanying the kids throughout the day, and I was invited to join them next week for their daily 6 PM football games at the Jesuit Residence.

As the kids departed, they begin to sing the French National Anthem. One of the French Jesuits had apparently taught them the hymn. Surreal to hear this mixed group of Kurds, Iraqis, Afghanis, and Syrians burst out into this patriotic anthem. It was a moving sign, that if the continent could show consistent moral courage and commitment, Europe could indeed truly become the home of these youth. If such a task is ever attained, it will be, in the final analysis, due to the quiet, humble “labor of love” of people like Cartias’ staff. 

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