Through a narrow doorway on a quiet Athenian street, a group of teenage girls are sat chatting in a colourful lobby. One is balancing a tiny tot on her knee while another nods along to a Kurdish pop song.
‘I love painting my nails,’ says one inspecting a fluoro pink finger and laughing. ‘I don’t like to do sport at school though in case it damages them.’
It’s a comment that might have come from any teenage girl, but it’s special here because these girls live in a shelter for refugee and migrant children who arrived alone, without family, in Greece.
The Home Project
Over the last year, international humanitarian organization ‘The Home Project’ has established ten children’s shelters around Athens to house minors from places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the children have had experiences that would be terrifying for an adult let alone a child. Rape, sexual assault and other violence are common along the route, along with exploitative dealings with smugglers, gunfire as they cross borders and risky journeys in the backs of lorries and inflatable boats. And so The Home Project seeks to help these children get off the streets, out of refugee camps and away from police stations or detention centres, and provides them with a safe space where they get to behave like children again, not the adults they have been forced to become.
The initiative is the brain child of a creative young Greek woman named Sofia Kouvelaki, and it’s working too: in less than a year of operation, the organization in conjunction with other partner NGOs (to which it provides funding, training and capacity building), has housed over 200 boys and girls, not only providing food and a roof over their heads but also access to a holistic network of services that cover medical, educational, legal and psychosocial support needs.
Kouvelaki’s approach to helping is clearly a pragmatic one. The situation for vulnerable children on the streets of Greece is dire, but so is the situation for many Greeks experiencing their eighth year of an economic crisis. Greece’s debt has pushed unemployment and poverty through the roof and has led to a 44% unemployment rate among young people. Kouvelaki therefore needed to come up with a model that elevated both sets of needs and didn’t appear to prioritise one group while ignoring the other, and risk creating grounds for resentment against a minority group.
‘We started from a place where we knew the model needed to be more than just providing shelters to be sustainable,’ says Kouvelaki, reflecting on her work. ‘We wanted The Home Project to be about building a community not just for the children but for Greek society as a whole. As a result, 50% of the 120 people we now employ are young Greeks while the others come from the refugee community. We also follow this ethos of community building when selecting the locations for a new shelter: we use abandoned buildings in Athens and then refurbish them to ensure we are giving something back.’
It’s an approach that has won some heavyweight fans: The Ikea Foundation donated €1 million to the project this year to scale up its operations, and international business the Libra Group financially supported its first five.
However, as it currently stands, only one in three unaccompanied children can be accommodated in shelters as the 3,250 children in Greece far exceeds the 1,150 places available through the Home Project and other sources. Much more funding is therefore needed.
The Dubs Amendment
The recent case of the first child refugee finally being transferred to the UK this month under the Dubs Amendment further underscores the need to find more safe places for children to live. The deeply traumatised boy is reported to have been detained until last month in a police cell in Greece with no access to medical professionals and was sleeping on an inch-thick mattress on the ground.
Human Rights Watch has also drawn attention to the squalid and abusive living conditions these children are forced to exist in while awaiting suitable accommodation in Greece, with reports outlining crowded, dirty police cells and no access to information on their rights.
But now that the Dubs Scheme is operating once more to bring unaccompanied refugee children to the UK, are there any children in Home Project shelters still waiting to be transferred?
The answer is no. The Dubs Amendment stipulates that only children who have arrived in Europe before 20 March 2016 are eligible and these children are now incredibly rare to find in Greece; most have already been processed for asylum elsewhere or have given up waiting and left the country illegally. Natasha Tsangarides of Safe Passage, an organisation acting as an intermediary between Greek and UK lawyers, is therefore demanding that the criteria be widened to include children arriving in Europe after this date, arguing that otherwise the scheme is rendered toothless.
Yet while politicians continue to squabble over tiny numbers of unaccompanied children being brought to the UK, it is to be hoped that organizations such as the Home Project at the forefront of the crisis in Greece continue to flourish and find real and immediate solutions for some of the most at-risk members of society. This way some unaccompanied children, vulnerable as they are, at least have somewhere safe to stay this Christmas.