Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece

by IsraAID
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Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece
Holistic Support for Refugees Arriving in Greece

On September 8, 2020, a fire broke out in Moria Refugee camp, located on the Greek island of Lesbos. Moria was home to some 12,000 refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and various countries in Africa, and was infamous for its harsh living conditions as the largest refugee camp in Europe. The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has made the situation on the ground even more tenuous, with more than 20 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those who previously resided in Moria.

Currently, refugees who lived in Moria are living on the streets surrounding where the camp, behind police barricades, where Moria used to stand. Vulnerable populations from Moria—specifically single women and families, have been moved into a new temporary camp adjacent to the Kara Tepe Accommodation Center located nearby, which can accommodate 5,000 people. The 400 unaccompanied minors and separated children who lived in Moria, have all been accepted by other European countries, led by France and Germany, for relocation.

Amid the extremely challenging circumstances on the island, the IsraAID team is working with our partners on the ground, including the UNHCR, to distribute urgently needed non-food items to affected populations. The team has already conducted a distribution of tents and battery banks, led by refugee leaders from IsraAID’s programs in the community. We have also provided 1,500 hygiene kits with items such as soap, hand sanitizer, reusable face masks made at our refugee community center in northern Greece, diapers, and female hygiene items for those living on the streets and in the fields. In addition, our Psychosocial Support and Protection coordinators have compiled children’s activity packs for children under the age of 8 and a separate kit for those older, to distributed to 100 children living under these circumstances. These kits include arts and crafts materials, drawing paper and mats, and children-sized masks.

Osama (name changed to protect identity), a teacher at IsraAID’s school for refugee children on Lesbos, is currently stuck in the zone behind police barricades, where he and his family are sleeping on the street. Due to current restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there has been extremely limited access to this area, and Osama and his family have been without sufficient food and hygiene items over the past days. The IsraAID team has been in close contact with Osama over the last days, and succeeded in getting a box of essential items to him and his family. Despite the extremely dire conditions in which Osama is living, he has been active in supporting the rest of the staff on the island, and is encouraging them to keep providing as much assistance as possible to other refugees affected by the situation. The whole team is hoping that Osama will soon be able to rejoin the team physically soon to help conduct distributions and psychosocial support interventions.

Thank you for supporting IsraAID's work in Greece during this challenging period.

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Cleaning the center
Cleaning the center

In March 2020, the government of Greece temporarily closed all educational facilities to try to slow the spread of COVID-19. For the 115,000 refugees currently hosted by Greece, over 40,000 of whom are living in terrible conditions in camps on the Aegean islands, this news is particularly devastating. Adding to weeks of anti-migrant violence on the islands, growing tensions across Greece and confusing changes to asylum law, the nationwide closure, while necessary, leaves refugee adults and children without any access to educational, social activities, and mental health support. However, the shutdown doesn’t have to mean that learning and development must grind to a halt, as IsraAID’s team in Greece has rapidly mobilized to demonstrate.

IsraAID operates two facilities in Greece: a bustling children’s school next to Moria camp on Lesvos and a busy community center in the town of Sindos, close to Thessaloniki. Both facilities, as educational institutions, have also been shut down for the duration of the national school closure. But the work we have been doing continues.

Sindos Community Centre operates a full program of education and psychosocial support for refugees of all ages, ranging from early childhood development activities for toddlers and homework support for children to Greek and English classes, job preparedness training and cultural awareness workshops for adults. The 100 people who visit each day have suddenly found themselves without anything to do after we followed government instructions and closed our doors. Not wanting to abandon the community, our staff have been busy transforming our activities into an e-learning program, easily accessible to all our community members and the wider refugee population.

Our Greek diploma class, who will be taking national Greek language examinations in two months, have moved their lessons online and are studying via Messenger Video. Our English tutor is creating short grammar instructional videos to upload to our new YouTube channel. Our team of language teachers are developing worksheet packs for distribution and quizzes via Google Forms, for both adults and children. Via Whatsapp, our early childhood development staff are sharing videos, photos and tips for activities to help parents keep their children entertained at home. We’re also working on a ‘how to’ for CV building, so that community members can still focus on getting job-ready.

Isolation and boredom can quite easily take over during this time and our psychosocial support staff are working hard to develop communications and content to reassure and support the population. From meditation videos to regular content on dealing with stress distributed via our Whatsapp groups, our staff will endeavor to maintain positivity and emotional resilience amongst the population. We’re also working on translating guidance and instruction provided by the World Health Organization into Farsi, Arabic and French, to ensure the wider community is taking appropriate measures to protect themselves and their families.

Maintaining some kind of routine for the children is a priority and our goal is to minimize the disruption to their already fragmented education as much as possible. Teachers are busy working on homework packs to distribute via letterboxes outside the school, with exercises in Greek, Farsi, English and Math to keep the children busy. Students will also be able to collect activity packs, with fun puzzles and games to entertain them and some calming techniques, such as breathing exercises, to support their mental wellbeing.

Lack of hygiene and appalling sanitary conditions means keeping clean in Moria is almost impossible, but it’s important that residents do everything they can to minimize transmission and protect themselves and their families. To provide reassurance to parents and disseminate guidance on prevention and risk reduction, staff are carrying out regular check-ins with families via phone as well as producing posters and leaflets for distribution.

The situation for refugees in Greece was already at breaking point. The shutdown of services and schools across the country has left them more isolated and marginalized than ever. But the communities that IsraAID and our partners have built are strong and committed. So, while this new reality is nothing short of alarming, our strength and resilience, along with technological know-how, is already allowing us to find new ways to come together and learn.

Thank you for supporting IsraAID's work in this especially challenging time. 

E-learning - Greek Diploma
E-learning - Greek Diploma

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In the last months, the number of refugees arriving on Greek shores has spiked. Today, the UNHCR reports that more than 18,500 refugees are living on the island. The situation on Lesbos is nothing short of alarming. With winter at its start, conditions are life-threatening, resources are scarce, and more support is urgently needed.

IsraAID first arrived on Lesbos in 2015, deploying an emergency response team to providing medical and psychosocial care for what we now know as the Refugee Crisis. Asylum seekers originally from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Congo, Somalia, and other locations, embarked on the treacherous journey across the Aegean Sea in rubber dinghies, hoping for a life of dignity and safety in Europe. In the 4 years since 2015, the influx of new arrivals has ebbed and flowed at manageable rates, with political realities in Turkey, and across the Middle East—and IsraAID has remained on the ground, shifting our programming as needed to address the changing situation.

In light of the ongoing surge of new arrivals, IsraAID is deploying additional resource to address the massive renewed need on the island. Despite the enormous need, the media is no longer covering this humanitarian situation, and funds have dried up.

Emergency Item Distribution: In the past months, responding to high needs in the Moria Camp, IsraAID distributed 1,400 sleeping bags to new arrivals. IsraAID remains in close contact with authorities on the ground so that we can best provide support, and conduct a secondary distribution if necessary. Camp winterization is of serious concern, as most residents live in makeshift tents and rely on sleeping bags and other blankets for warmth, with no insulated building, heating, or reliable hot water.

Psychosocial Support for Refugees: IsraAID, with our local partner, has opened a community education center across the street from Moria Camp. The center provides a variety of daily services to the camp’s residents, focusing on the urgent psychosocial need to improve wellbeing and create social connections between people, on the backdrop of chaos and scarcity.

Daily programs include basic schooling for 90 children, taught by refugee teachers recruited from the refugee community, who are regularly trained on issues pertaining to Child Protection, Psychosocial Support, and administering Psychological First Aid. Activities for children at the center include a curriculum in Social and Educational Learning, and expressive arts such as theater to support the psychosocial wellbeing of the children. The center also offers daily Greek and English classes, self-care workshops, and cultural integration activities with local Greeks, to provide an outlet for refugee adults to build relationships, develop new skills and coping mechanisms, and prepare for resettlement on the mainland. Specific winterization needs are critical to maintaining the center’s daily operation, to heat classrooms and construct additional shelters for rain and snow.

Thank you for your ongoing support in responding to needs on the ground!

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IsraAID has been working on Lesbos, the flashpoint of the Refugee Crisis since 2015. Today, IsraAID provides psychosocial support and education for refugee children at the Stand By Me Lesvos school, where refugee teachers provide daily classes for kids from the Moria Refugee Camp. This blog post was written by Giuliana, a junior at Johns Hopkins University, who supported IsraAID's team on Lesbos.

“For every school that opens, a jail cell closes. Education is the most important thing. Education is safety.”

Quoting Victor Hugo, the Afghan refugee and community spokesperson attending the education meeting spoke confidently in English to the Greek representative from the Ministry of Education. The tent where the meeting took place, a stone’s throw from the Moria refugee camp, was stifling; however, this didn’t stop representatives from the UNHCR and various NGOs including IsraAID, the School of Peace, Refugee for Refugees, and others from being present.

Hunched over child-sized desks at one of the education centers, the representatives discussed a range of issues: the difficulties of enrolling refugee children in formal Greek education, the pros and cons of setting up education centers within the camps, the value of grouping refugee children in the same classroom regardless of their country of origin, and more. Everyone seemed united around a mutual understanding: education gives kids a sense of normality and structure, helps them integrate into the host country, and increases their safety.

The few days that have passed since touching down on the Greek island of Lesvos have been a total whirlwind. This week we received an orientation of Lesvos, a briefing of the refugee crisis on the island, and accompanied the team to meetings like the one described above. I’ve come at a really interesting time for IsraAID in Lesvos. They recently transitioned out of some major projects and are about to start new ones in July. The new programs focus on the use of art and play therapy. I’m helping to plan sessions, build program materials, and essentially bring the programs to life in the next week. The process started long before I got here — building programs takes weeks of planning, research, and need-assessments — but it’s been fascinating to go behind the scenes and understand the careful work that goes into them. The hope is that the programs will have a lasting impact and contribute towards the larger goals of integration, empowerment, and stability.

It has also been an overwhelming time. Our visit to the Moria camp was vital to grounding the crisis in reality; as one would expect, it was also brutal. When I first got there, I tried to force myself to act as if everything around me was normal, even though my mind was screaming that it wasn’t. There’s no use in gawking, in staring incredulously at the makeshift homes, at the strollers being pushed through rivers of dirty water. What broke through my numbness was a woman’s garden: a plastic flowerpot hung precariously from a wooden post nailed to the side of a tent; a makeshift fence made of spare planks propped up by wire; small flowerpots set in rows; and in the center, a pond, created by pressing countless water bottle caps into the bottom of a hole until they formed a solid bottom that water couldn’t seep through. It was a beautiful, heroic refusal to relinquish human decency. This woman probably had a garden back home — along with a job, a community network, and a house. I wondered if I would have the strength to continue living as she does, were our circumstances reversed. The Afghan community spokesperson, while discussing his efforts to improve refugee education at the education meeting, put it this way: “As human beings, we are trying our best.”

Thank you for your ongoing support!

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A huge influx of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East and parts of Africa has overwhelmed Greece since 2015, now recognized as one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises. During a period of national instability, worsened by the ongoing economic crisis in Greece, the Sindos Community Center meets a crucial need for refugees and the wider Sindos community by providing a foundation for future rehabilitation, integration, and prosperity. Refugees themselves facilitate and teach the daily schedule of classes, supported by IsraAID’s Greek and international staff. Every day more than 70 refugees come to the Community Center, where a holistic rehabilitation program offers job training, language classes, music, and art therapy classes, and a child-friendly spaceJordan is currently attending Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. He is one of two IsraAID Humanitarian Fellows volunteering in Greece for summer 2019.

It was my second day working at the Sindos Community Center in Thessaloniki when I met Idriss. I decided to sit in on the afternoon professional development class to observe and gain a better understanding of the center’s work. As everyone gathered in the classroom and took their seats, I noticed the ethnic make-up of the participants. All African men, mostly French-speaking, and somewhere in their mid-20s to early 30s. There was an older gentleman who spoke Farsi, but he seemed to have the gist of what was going on. A French translator and two instructors who spoke Greek and English led the session. I was intrigued.

The class started with a presentation on making a Greek CV, but after the lead instructor, Georgia, noticed that most of the men were new to the class, she quickly shifted the lesson to a more participatory group discussion. She instructed everyone to circle their chairs and get comfortable. We were then told to go around the circle and introduce ourselves. Georgia asked the men to share about their previous work experience, education levels, and the kind of work they’re looking for in Greece.

The room fell silent when Georgia asked who wanted to start. The men looked around, laughing and gesturing as to who should go first. A brave soul from Guinea volunteered to break the ice. He shared about his extensive knowledge and training in electrical work, saying that he could wire an entire house if needed. Although a certified electrician in Guinea, he had lost his official documentation and certificates on his journey to Greece.

After he finished sharing, stories started pouring out like water from a faucet. The men seemed eager to let the group know of their accomplishments and former experiences. When my turn came, I shared about my first job at the age of 16 and the life lessons I’ve carried with me since. It felt great to share and see only attentive faces from the group of men. This blissful atmosphere faltered as we moved on to the next person.

Sitting to my right was a man named Idriss. I hadn’t paid him much attention, as he had been reserved for most of the discussion. We all waited for him to speak, trying not to stare in his direction; I could sense the pressure he felt, perhaps from the group or from the weight of the question.

He focused his attention on the instructor and said in confusion, “I don’t know what to share.” His English immediately caught my attention. He was the first African man to not direct statements at the translator, so I interjected and said to him, “Say anything. This is about what you want the group to know.” I peeked at Georgia hoping that she approved of my intervening comment. She nodded and I returned my focus back to Idriss. He warned the group that it might be a long story, taking a slow, deep breath, trying everything he could to evade the question — but I was determined to hear this man share.

He began by telling the group about growing up in Sierra Leone during the country’s civil war. “This was a hard time to be a kid in my country,” he explained, but quickly shifted the conversation towards his work experience. He told us how he began “formally” working in 2009 under the supervision of a German mechanic who trained Idriss in technical and automotive work. This trade served him well in the following years when began working for the Red Cross in 2014 as a transporter during the Ebola crisis. He became certified in defensive and off-road driving techniques under the Red Cross and was later promoted to lead transporter.

Idriss’ body language and emotional demeanor shifted to a more introspective, isolated state while sharing these details. It was as if, mentally, he had left the room and was back driving through the rugged dirt streets of Sierra Leone. He explained how he was respected by his bosses and that other employees looked to him for direction. I could hear the defensiveness and feelings of unwanted pride trembling in his voice as he recounted the sweet memory. I wondered if he thought we didn’t believe him. He ended his story by saying, “Now I have nothing but a picture of what I accomplished. What am I supposed to do next?”

A heavy cloud of confusion and hopelessness drifted into the room. Georgia thanked him for sharing, but we all could feel the painful memories this had triggered. She asked him about his present emotional state to which he quickly and without hesitation responded “depressed.” I paused. It’s heart-wrenching to hear that word, to understand the weight it carries. Idriss knew exactly the mental and emotional state he’d experienced since arriving in Greece and wanted to make sure that we knew.

I valued this act of bravery from Idriss and understood how difficult it is to publicly relinquish layers of pride and shame, all for the sake of participating in a group activity. Georgia asked if there was anything the center could do, but he shook his head in refusal. I decided to throw my advice in the ring and told him that it’s healthy to remember times when he was proud of himself. That it was okay to keep those memories of feeling responsible and valued in the forefront of his mind because those feelings are the kind that he’ll need to confront this uncertain and sometimes hopeless chapter of his story. I explained that no one likes talking about themselves — it’s weird and uncomfortable — but that I was happy to learn about this side of him and hoped that he could be proud of his story too.

We shared a look of deep empathy and understanding. I couldn’t begin to imagine the pain and heartache he’s endured that forced him to block out these joyful memories of achievement. What we shared was a brief, defining moment of acknowledgment. I wanted my eyes to say what words couldn’t. That I hear you. That the community center is here to support you. His soft smile let me know that he received the messaged. We finished going around the circle and eventually ended the session on an uplifting note.

Idriss approached me after the session and asked if I had a few minutes to talk. I happily said yes, and he started to show me pictures on his cell phone of the driving certificates from the Red Cross. I felt that Idriss, like many refugees that I’ve spoken with, only desires for people to understand that they are not broken. That each day they’re still trying to make the next day better than the last, despite the hardships life has presented them with.

The goal of the professional development class is to prepare members for entering the workforce. This means updating CVs, teaching Greek interview techniques, finding out what jobs they’re interested in, and helping members regain the confidence needed to land a job. Overall, the Sindos Community Center primarily serves refugees living in the pre-integration phase of their resettlement by offering educational lessons, cultural activities, and psychosocial support, while they eagerly wait for asylum.

I’m learning how this mission is carried out each day through the support of dedicated staff and the presence of resilient participants. Together, they exemplify what it means to be hopeful.

Thank you for your support!

Idriss, 26 years old, from Sierra Leone.
Idriss, 26 years old, from Sierra Leone.
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IsraAID

Location: Tel Aviv, Merkaz - Israel
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Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv Israel
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