The Athenian Shelters Providing Sanctuary To Unaccompanied Refugee Minors

On March 23rd, it was my birthday. Like many of us, I had been watching the refugee crisis unfold and felt impotent to help as a flow of human traffic continued to engulf Greece, the crisis-stricken country of my childhood.

Just under one-million refugees and migrants reached Greece in 2015. Amongst them were thousands of children and teenagers who arrived alone. Many had lost their parents during the journey, others were sent by parents to flee war.

I was particularly struck by their plight, not least because when I was seven my father died, very suddenly and unexpectedly. Days later, I found myself in a foreign land that would become my home (UK), traumatised by the sudden loss of my beloved father, my home, my friends, my school, the familiarity of a language in which I could read and write, and the life I had known. My world as I had known it, had collapsed.

I viewed my birthday as an opportunity. I set up an online birthday appeal on behalf of the Bodassaki Foundation, a Hellenic organization working to protect and support unaccompanied refugee minors in Greece. On this trip to Greece I was able to visit their shelters and see for myself what my friends’ and family’s donations had helped to achieve.

Europol estimate that 10,000 unaccompanied refugee minors have gone missing since arriving in Europe. They have simply “disappeared”. It is a shameful contravention on the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, which has been ratified by all EU Nations.

Greece, has registered nearly 3,000 unaccompanied minors (2,951 to be precise) between January 1st and 18th July 2016 alone. This is four times higher than the rate recorded at the same time last year.

Existing shelters in Greece are full. Nearly half of unaccompanied refugee minors registered in Greece, are homeless. They have not only endured traumas that necessitated them leaving their home countries, separation from their families, or the ordeal of journey they have made, but 330 of them have been detained in police stations and in detention centers. They are vulnerable to human trafficking, prostitution, child labour, the drugs trade, and gangs.

I flew into Athens airport on Thursday morning fresh from the refugee camps in North Western Greece, to visit the Bodassaki Foundation and see their work on the ground.

My first point of call was a shelter, nestled discretely in the quiet, residential neighborhood of Kypseli near Athens’s centre. A small plaque on the door, told me I had arrived at the right place.

The shelter is run jointly by Stegi Plus and PRAKSIS, a Greek NGO working in partnership with the Bodassaki Foundation.

Sofia Kouvelaki of the Bodossaki Foundation and Sisi Levandi of PRAKSIS

I was greeted by Sisi Levandi, the shelter’s charming, bilingual coordinator. We were joined shortly afterwards by Sofia Kouvelaki, the program coordinator for the Bodasakis Foundation’s Unacompanied Refugee Minor Programme, Suzanne, The Executive Director of an American Foundation and Papa Jacobos, a 23 year old Harvard graduate who is now a priest, and who I later discover, drives faster than Michael Schumacher.

The shelter was established in January 2014. It is one of two operated by PRAKSIS, the second being in Patras. Greece’s Third Largest City some 215km from Athens. Each shelter has the capacity to house 30 unaccompanied refugee minors.

The ethos of the shelter is to provide a home.

The shelter houses 30 unaccompanied refugee minors. The day I visited, PRAKSIS had successfully reunited one boy from Afghanistan with his uncle in Germany and another would shortly be going to Finland. Including them, the shelter that day, housed 12 Pakistanis, 9 Syrians, 8 Aghans and 1 Bangladeshi. All of them are boys between the ages of 12-18.

Sisi told us that they have seen a rise in the number of unaccompanied refugee minors of Pakistani origin, since October 2015. Their understanding is that ISIS’s recruitment in Pakistani schools has fuelled this.

The day after my visit, three more boys were due to arrive. They had been referred here by The National Centre for Social Solidarity (E.K.K.A.), a state department mandated to provide social support to people in crisis. The shelters three new guests will be escorted here from their point of origin to ensure safe passage. PRAKSIS work alongside the IOM and Metadrasi, another of the Bodassaki Foundation’s partners, to escort minors to the shelter.

Once they arrive the newest members of the shelter will meet with lawyers with whom they will share their story. The lawyer will in turn speak to them about their rights, educate them about the dangers of trafficking, and then create a plan of action. Lawyers work in partnership with the shelter to establish whether there are family members with whom they can appropriately be reunited. This is a complex and sensitive process that typically involving cross border DNA testing to ensure the authenticity of claims.

While the legal mechanics are processed, boys at the shelter enjoy as normal a life as possible. They attend a local inter-cultural school, have language lessons at the shelter (mostly in German, though there is also a summer school in which they can learn Greek), play sports and once a week they are taken to the theatre. They are also provided with psychosocial support including from the centre’s psychologist and participation in drama therapy.

PRAKSIS are determined that the boys should feel at home here. And the shelter really does feel like a home. Physically, the centre is situated in a traditional Athenian town house. Each boy has their own bed in a bedroom which they share with a maximum of three others (there are 8 bedrooms in the home). They help to prepare food in a homely kitchen and there are computers on the ground floor which the boys can use to access the internet, watch films and do all the normal things any teenager does.

On average, boys are here for three-four months before moving on. They seem happy here. The atmosphere is familial and relaxed. It is surprisingly, given the trauma that these young people have endured, a cheerful place.

Upstairs, there is a further bedroom, which PRAKSIS refer to as the Transit Room. The room has two sets of bunk beds in it. It is used in emergencies when children are in urgent need, typically because they have been found on the street. PRAKSIS are able to scoop them up and offer them temporary sanctuary here, before referring them to EKKA who will provide longer-term solutions.

PRAKSIS are clear that having this room is a luxury. They feel fortunate to have it. Government regulations in Greece mean that the maximum number of unaccompanied refugee minors permissible in centres of this sort, is 30 at any one time. The transit room is separate to this.

We left the centre an hour and a half later and scrambled into Papa Jacobos’s car to whizz through the backstreets of Kypselli to a second shelter. Our racing driver Priest multitasked impressively, driving at speed, texting, map-reading, talking on his phone and speaking to us about the work that is being done. I didn’t know whether to be impressed. Or press an ejector seat button.

We arrived at the second shelter, another Athenian town house set on a quiet street in a residential area, intact. This shelter has been supported entirely by the Bodassaki Foundation and will be called “Giving for Greece” when it opens in August.

It has been a day centre since 2008, but the Bodossaki Foundation have now taken it over and are transforming it into a shelter modelled on the one we have just seen. The Foundation have succeeded in getting in kind support for the works and has invested just €20,000 here, a fact by which I am hugely impressed! It is to this shelter that my birthday fund went. Together my friends and family contributed around 25% of the renovation costs.

We are greeted by Iasonos, who will be the home’s coordinator when it opens. He has been overseeing building work at the site since work began three weeks ago, painting and busily preparing for its opening. He is exhausted but relentlessly committed to what is happening here. He has one of the kindest faces I have ever seen.

He explained to us that the team at the shelter will include 3 social workers, 1 psychologist, 1 cleaner and 3 night guards. The house will be a home to 16 boys between the ages of 12 and 15. They will be given English, French and Greek lessons here and the shelter will be run on the same model as the first home we visited. Initially, the home will be accepting unaccompanied minors from Samos. They have been refereed here by EKKA.

After a quick look around the home, the Americans, Sofia, Papa Jacobos and I return to the car (I gripped the chair in front of me tightly feeling like an extra in Starsky and Hutch) and raced to our final destination.

10 minutes later we arrived at another quiet street and walked to a large building displaying a brass plaque that said Malliopouleio Paidiko Asylo Kypselis. The Malliopouleio Foundation was established in 1922 following the population exchange between Turkey and Greece. The population exchange resulted in an estimated 3 million Greek refugees of Asia Minor origin arriving in Greece. 300,000 of them were resettled in Attica and Central Greece. The Malliopouleio foundation was set up to provide support to the many thousands of unaccompanied refugee minors who arrived in Athens alone.

The parallels between that situation and the situation in Greece today were not lost on any of us. And neither it seems, had they been lost on the Malliopoulleio Foundation who have donated this historic building to the Bodassaki Foundation in order to create a shelter for unaccompanied refugee minors in Greece today.

Until 2008, the centre was a kindergarten offering support to impoverished families in the area to enable parents to work. It has since 2013 been abandoned. But soon it will have new life breathed into it.

Manolis, the architect responsible for renovating the building showed us around and explained how the building will be transformed into a state of the art shelter to accommodate a further 30 unaccompanied refugee minors. They will be given the same services we have seen at the previous shelters. The shelter, like the first one we visited, will be run by PRAKSIS.

The Bodossaki Foundation have through their network, secured in kind support from a local building contractor who have agreed to do all renovation work for free. Given the level of work needed (over €100,000’s worth) and the current economic climate in Greece, this is an extraordinary act of generosity. IKEA have agreed to equip the building. A consultation has been conducted amongst the local community who are extremely supportive of the venture.

It is an extraordinary accomplishment. It illustrates clearly the exceptional nature of the Bodossaki Foundation and their ability to bring together not just organisations, but individuals and companies, to support unaccompanied refugee minors.

I am so heartened by what I have seen. From the chaos and hopelessness in the refugee camps, to the organised, structured and strategic work that is being done by the Bodossaki Foundation and its partners. I feel that there is a plan. That the most vulnerable are being supported by a strong, determined and thoughtful team of people, with not just the ability, but the commitment to practically support those who have arrived in Greece alone. They are determined to protect the most vulnerable and provide them with the best possible chance of a positive future.

It costs the Bodossaki Foundation €30 per child, per day to do this. I have spoken to donors in the UK who believe this is expensive. But I have this to say, in response.

The Bodossaki Foundation are not just feeding, clothing and sheltering those they support. They are bringing together NGOs, individuals, Foundations, government departments, commercial enterprises, doctors, lawyers, host communities and of course racing Priests, to provide tangible, holistic support to the most vulnerable faces of this refugee crisis.

They are giving them legal representation, family reunification, DNA testing, psychological support, education, access to proper healthcare. And above and beyond everything, they are giving them a home. A sense of family. They are in some way, seeking to ease the pain experienced by these young people, so that they are able to move beyond it and create a better future for themselves.

Nelson Mandela once remarked “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”. €30 a day seems a small price to pay.

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