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ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration

by Echo100plus
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration

Since our last published report, our volunteers sadly had to be evacuated from Leros and, like the rest of the world, the team and students went into lockdown and the HUB was closed. It seems, this was the best thing we could have done as luckily no one got sick, and our team was able to return to their homes safely. It was a difficult time for everyone but especially due to the fact that we had to halt all of our on the ground operations and couldn’t assist others going through this distressing time.

In order to prevent a complete lapse in education and activities, we transitioned all of our English, Greek, French and German language classes online. Students were able to join Facebook groups and have daily lessons with their teacher. We offered shared exercises, live sessions and Q&As. We reached as many students as possible, and had teachers from every corner of the world speaking to their students on a daily basis. Language groups were well attended, and we even had extracurriculars such as exercise videos (some prepared by one of our students), photography classes, yoga and relaxation, drawing and many more. It was important for us to maintain contact with our students and volunteers throughout this hard time to ensure we didn’t lose momentum. Furthermore, we wanted to offer a means of distraction and help tackle potential mental health issues during these distressing circumstances.

We wanted to give a sense that even though we were apart we were very much together in all of this. It was the perfect time for many of our volunteers to showcase their skills and share them with our larger community. The response from our students was very positive and we were happy to demonstrate our dedication through our online channels.

During the lockdown we were able to raise funds for safety equipment and products that were lacking on the island.  This included items such as masks, soap, hand sanitizer and additional PPE. The local team distributed these items in the hotspot to residents, to local care providers, and to other actors on Leros. We were very happy to be able to offer these much needed supplies for peace of mind and added safety.

Towards the end of June, a small team was able return to Leros and started sorting through our clothes warehouse, primarily replacing winter supplies with summer stock. Due to the lockdown, the residents of the hotspot and other housing facilities had not received clothes for months and were not at all equipped for the harsh Greek summer. Once the team had fully prepped the stock we were able to start our summer clothes distribution on the 20th of July. It ran until August 6th and in total served 984 residents on Leros. This included 257 babies and children (under the age of 16) and 34 unaccompanied minors. Due to the ongoing threat of the Corona virus, we were extremely prudent with the distribution, prioritizing the safety and health of both staff and beneficiaries.

For this reason, we moved it from the usual site of the HUB boutique, to the HUB garden. Here we were able to spread items out in the open air, all team members wore masks throughout and we invited residents to come in very small groups. These groups were all driven to and from camp in our vans to ensure people were on time, didn’t have to walk in the summer sun and acted in compliance with the first reception’s restriction rules.

On the 12th of August we were finally able to open the HUB again for activities and lessons. Our team gave then HUB a much-needed lick of paint and dusting after having been closed for so many months. We followed government guidelines on social distancing in classrooms and centers. This meant that we had limited numbers of students in classrooms, with desks 1.5m apart, mandatory mask wearing, and other such safety practices. With great energy and enthusiasm, we welcomed students back for English lessons and limited activities. Within a short period, we were able to add German classes and other extracurriculars such as photography, creative writing, music and outdoor activities including the very well attended and loved football session. We are pleased to see that during this time many of our old students had moved on to either the mainland or other countries. As a result, we are thrilled to welcome new students and register them for classes and activities.

Exciting times lie ahead for the ECHO HUB Leros as a new team, new students and a new schedule learn to navigate the new normal of living through a pandemic.

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Volunteer team leaving Leros
Volunteer team leaving Leros

Dear Friends,

We hope you are all well and safe in these challenging times.

Over the past months, events had been overturning at a pace hard to keep up with! Now, that we are all restricted to our home offices, we finally have a moment to reflect recent events, plan our future, and most importantly, update you on the situation in Greece in general and on our operations on Leros in detail.

Things already started to get bumpy in Mid-February, when the Greek Government began to implement the new asylum policies they had previously announced last autumn. These policies aim squarely on deterrence and deportation and previsioned fast-track asylum procedures to decongest the affected Aegean island camps that, at this point, already accommodated more than 42.000 asylum seekers instead of the designated 6,000. Among the first steps to be taken to facilitate the new procedures, Hotspot camps were to be replaced by "closed" detention centres, a plan that was not only vehemently opposed by Human Rights organizations, but also by the local population, who did not want their islands to become prison-sites. When the commissioned construction firms started to arrive on Lesvos and Chios, they were received with fierce protests by the locals, which riot police cut off with equally aggressive response and the situation quickly escalated. Enraged locals, who had enough of the strain of the ever-rising refugee population and the lack of support from governing bodies such as the EU, started to direct their frustration against asylum seekers and NGOs.

Amid this already tense situation, on February 27th, Turkey announced to no longer stop refugees from reaching Europe by land or by sea. Instantly, thousands of refugees started to move to the sea-shores and to the borders towards Greece and Bulgaria in the hope to be able to cross. The Greek Government immediately activated an emergency decree contained in the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement with the consequence that those arriving in Greece after March 1st, 2020 were to be detained in closed facilities with their right to apply for asylum suspended. Boat arrivals were to be transferred to the mainland, from where they should be deported to their country of origin or Turkey as quickly as possible. 

But by the time this became public, the land border in the Evros region in Northern Greece had already turned into a battlefield with Greek and Turkish army violently pushing refugees from one side to the other. Thousands of tear-gassed and beaten people ended up in the no-man's zone between the borders. When 1,180 asylum seekers had arrived on the Aegean islands after March 1st, the response was no less hostile. Refugees were threatened, and within days, numerous NGO facilities on Lesvos, Chios and Samos were attacked and set ablaze by agitated locals; individual volunteers and asylum workers experienced unprecedented threats. At this point, quite a few NGOs on the islands had to cease their operations and started to evacuate their teams.                                                                            

How did all this impact our operations on Leros?

The already present 3.200 asylum seekers on Leros were increased by another 252, arriving in the first days of March. The new arrivals were immediately put in detention on the Port Police premises right next to the ECHO HUB, a space unfit for the purpose, as it neither has roofed shelters, nor sanitary facilities. Luckily the over-whelmed Port police accepted our help for which we released emergency funds, and our team was allowed to supply the detainees with the basics. Our volunteers prepared and delivered formula milk bottles and baby food for the 28 children under the age of 3yrs; men, women and children were supplied with essential hygiene packs including everything from underwear, wipes/soaps, pampers, sanitary pads, etc. The 253 detainees (in the meantime, a baby had been born!) were moved to a camp on the mainland three weeks later. So far, they have not been able to apply for asylum.

All this was going on while COVID-19 started to spread all over Europe silently and more and more cases also became apparent in Greece, a country whose health system has been driven into the ground by the still ongoing financial crisis. Following the lead of other European countries, the Greek Government decided to shut all public schools, universities and educational centres on March 10th. By the 11th this included the private sectors, and on the March 12th, they shut down all asylum offices and procedures for the months to come. As a consequence, we had to close both our HUBs in Athens and on Leros and in a race against time, we started to evacuate our volunteers to get them home before the country was going to shut down completely. Luckily all of them have made it back home safely and healthily.

Since then, our concerns indeed continue to lie with our beneficiaries on the island. Should the virus contaminate camp residents, consequences will undoubtedly be disastrous, as neither camp infrastructure nor Leros' small hospital is prepared and can respond efficiently. All our efforts have, therefore, focused on assessing urgent needs and sourcing materials to help where we can.

As a first step, we managed to install more water-outlets to give people at least the possibility to wash their hands. - So far, the c 1,200 people living outside the official camp, just had a single water-outlet. To improve overall hygiene conditions, we organized and supplied the camp with 10 additional trash containers and arranged with the municipality to service them on a daily base. Another priority was to provide camp staff - doctor's team, First Reception and police staff - with protective gear, as they are currently the only ones going in and out of the camp: Facial masks, gloves, overalls, goggles and some medical supplies have been handed over to all of them about one month ago. Currently, we are busy supplying all the camp residents with the most critical protective items. Two weeks ago, we distributed a soap supply for each individual, as we received a very generous soap donation from the Greek Papoutsanis soap company. Hand-sanitizer and facial masks will follow in the next days.

In regards to our educational programmes, we are restricted, as due to COVID-19, the Hub is locked down and, our beneficiaries are not allowed to leave the camp for the time being. In order to stay in touch with our beneficiaries during this time, our teachers and volunteers have shifted Hub classes to online platforms, and we are happy to say, that quite a few residents are taking advantage of the opportunity to continue their studies.

We hope that all this will not last too long, as it is incredibly frustrating not to be able to do more for the residents in these difficult times! We thank you for your ongoing support and promise to be back as soon as circumstances allow us.

Be safe and be well, The Echo Team

New arrivals on Leros in March
New arrivals on Leros in March
Team preparing Baby packs
Team preparing Baby packs
Soap distribution in the Leros Hotspot camp
Soap distribution in the Leros Hotspot camp
Protective gear for Hotspot's medical team
Protective gear for Hotspot's medical team
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In the last year, the number of refugees arriving in Greece has dramatically increased. Reports show that 1,224 boats have arrived on the Aegean islands just this fall. In the past week alone, 44 boats arrived, increasing the current population of refugees on Leros to 3,120, half of whom, including 550 children, are now homeless. In addition to homelessness, the refugees also suffer from inadequate and contaminated food and water supply, lack of sanitary facilities, unhygienic living conditions, clothing shortages, boredom, and limited mental and physical health care. The winter months have been severe; spurring a variety of illnesses and leaving the local hospital overwhelmed and overworked. Echo HUB Leros fights to ameliorate a number of these issues.

 

With the help of the Aegean Solidarity Network—Team UK, RENEW, Aide et Espoire, APOGO—and many generous Greek citizens and volunteers, Echo Hub was able to lead the drive in purchasing and distributing over a thousand blankets to the homeless residents suffering in the freezing temperatures with no shelter or warmth. Still, despite our best efforts, many residents are living on the streets facing winter temperatures with no respite.

 

With the now expanded “Hub Boutique”, a clothing provider operating on a points system, we provide clothes four days of weeks to the hundreds of residents who came with nothing but the clothes on their back. Due to the high influx of people already mentioned we have had to add extra boutique shifts to ensure that everyone receives some form of warm clothing, this inevitably has led to our clothes recourses running low, and we have increased our clothing collection from private donors and clothes distributors in Greece, as well as buying the vitals with funds raised from volunteers.

 

As well as the above, to try and create more pleasant and liveable conditions for the residents we have started a new clean – up programme. After realising that the trash removal of the Hot – Spot area hadn’t expanded to the new living squats we devised a cleaning programme with our volunteers and residents every Sunday to try and reduce the overwhelming levels of garbage that were bringing only filth, sickness and animals. This has already made a huge difference both for hygiene and general spirit, but more must be done.

 

Despite the diversion of resources, Echo HUB Leros maintains the core enrichment programs developed over the years to help the residents adapt and transition. We continue to welcome new registrations; our language programs have full enrolment and we plan to meet the needs of our students by adding more ABC English classes. Our daily art and sports sessions remain extremely popular and a new garden project is now underway to transform and update the outside area so we can use it to its best ability.

 

These challenging months could not have been done without our volunteers hard work and resilience and our donors continuous unrelenting support. Thank you! 

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It’s been a busy few months on the Aegean islands: Since September alone, over 18,000 people have arrived by boat from Turkey, 1026 of these on the island of Leros. Many more have been stopped by the Turkish coast guards, but still the numbers are rising and the islands are struggling to meet the needs of so many new arrivals. On Leros there are now c. 2,400 people, of which more than 1,000 are homeless or sleeping in flimsy camping tents around the hotspot camp, that is beyond capacity to accommodate them. The refugee populations now make nearly 30% of the island’s inhabitancies.

In light of this situation, tensions are unfortunately on the rise, and our Echo Hub Leros is needed more than ever; it provides a safe place and offers educational and recreational activities, that contribute substantially to the mental wellbeing of the camp residents. In the last two months, we have registered another 137 new students and attendance has been at an all-time high of about 1,000 students a week joining various classes and activities.

For some the wait on the island has reached the one-year mark, which means that finally their geographical restriction will be lifted. Eager to escape the camp and island life many move to Athens in search of new beginnings and a possibility to find work. In this period of uncertainty and unease we are happy and proud to be able to say we can now provide a new safe and welcoming space in the capital: The Echo Hub Athens!

Welcome to the Echo Hub Athens! A community and education centre, that opened on the 5th September in Kypseli, Athens. To date we have already registered over 450 students. The focus and aim of the Athens-Hub is on making sure that our students are provided with the necessary skills to integrate into Greece society and the job market.  

We decided to have a second location in Athens as we saw the influx of people heading to the city from Leros and other islands. We believed there was more that could be done help the community of refugees that had received asylum in Greece and wanted help with integration and develop their next steps. This included many of our students from Leros that had reached out to us asking for us for places where they could continue their studies, find a community of friends, or practice their skills.

In the new Athens Hub we offer six levels of English, totalling to 33 lessons per week, 3 levels of Greek taught three times a week, with the possibility of obtaining an internationally recognised certificate in the higher levels. As well as many extracurriculars; computer classes, mind and body – using meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and comedy therapy to help feel centred and project to the future, Poetry & Theatre class and CV & career goals workshop.

We collaborate with other organisations to make the Echo Hub a one stop shop in order to meet a variety of refugees needs; through “The Language Project” we have found our language teachers, through “Social Hackers”we are able to provide computer literacy classes, a must for most jobs, and our collaboration with “Human Rights 360” means that three days of the week there are lawyers, social workers on hand to help with everything from obtaining tax numbers, to finding a job, to sorting legal and psychological issues. We are continuing to work on future possible relationships with other organisations to help achieve our goals and continue to offer our students the skills, peace of mind and knowledge to enter into Greek society and have access to employment opportunities.

Our future goals for the very new Echo Hub include; wanting to help arriving refugees with whatever is needed, we try to stay flexible in our response, but with a main focus on education, hopefully also vocational training with time. Psychosocial support, on the personal one to one level, as well as support and training groups for interpreters. We have found that a lot of our students here and in Leros have found work in this field and are often not given the correct support or training. This can lead to severe cases of PTSD and other issues. We want to help Greece or rather the local communities to deal with the very difficult situation and we hope to bridge some of the gaps and mediate between the arriving and the receiving communities. And the list goes on, and on and on…

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When you're on the pitch...life goes away.’ Maradona

 

Currently, there are 1,603 refugees on the island of Leros. The numbers keep rising as the warm and calm weather continues allowing refugee boats to attempt the dangerous crossing from Turkey. Now, more than ever, the Hub has become a vital part of the resident’s everyday life while they wait for their asylum case to be decided. The Hub continues to thrive, attendance to all classes remains at full capacity, and the success can be measured in the exams passed both in English and IT by our students. Greek lessons have continued to draw people in, the positive outcome daily visible in the streets of Leros, where our students are able to address members of the local community in the native language. With the arrival of so man people from different countries, diverse cultures and languages, it has been an opportunity more than ever to all to learn from each other at our Hub. This can be witnessed particularly during our Women’s Day, which is a haven of multicultural activities, new dances to diverse music and delicious dishes.

 

‘This team challenges you and I like that. Football is in my blood and I have to play. I’ll play with anyone, it doesn’t matter, but there are some very good players on this team.’ Hassan

 

Our team has taken full advantage of the warm weather and moved a lot of our extracurricular activities outside. From art classes under our newly constructed pergola to sports day in the garden, to swimming in the Aegean Sea, we are enjoying everything Leros has to offer. The most popular of all these activities remains football. Sport allows for clarity of mind, it provides our players with both a physical and mental release, which is of utmost importance, and that is why we continue to offer it in our weekly schedules.

 

‘On the football field, we all communicate with each other. Each player is a piece of the machine doing its job.’ Raed

 

We have seen a steady increase in attendance ever since the beginning of the year, with football teams often reaching full capacity. Due to the enthusiasm and commitment of the players, we started dividing playing time into two sessions. The first half consists of training, tactics, strength building, skill development, the other half is for playing a proper match. This is the time when players show what they have learnt in order to execute a healthy and competitive game. This new system ensures proper training and development of team-work, useful both on and off the field, as well as maximising the numbers of players, so no one gets left out.

 

‘I like the competition and the challenge. I am a competitive person!I like playing here because I can improve my skills.’ Ibrahim

 

It has been a very exciting time in terms of establishing football partnerships. We welcomed back Konrad from Buntkicktgut. Konrad focuses on participation, integration and identification, mirroring Echo’s philosophy that football is a common language that it is understood and accepted worldwide. His positive outlook is openly accepted and inspires our players to self-coach and support each other on and off the pitch. It has been a very exciting time in terms of establishing football partnerships. We welcomed back Konrad from Buntkicktgut.

  

‘Playing football here is better than staying at the Hotspot. It allows me to meet a lot of people from different countries and it brings us all together.’ Laith

 

This year we’ve also been lucky enough to join forces with ISMP (International Sports and Music Partnership) whose mission is to increase access to sports and music programming in shelters, refugee camps, orphanages, and vulnerable communities around the world as a means of bolstering positive mental health. Our partnership has brought in funds for new kits, boots and equipment for our players. This outside interest and support of our football team has released new energy, pride and belonging amongst the players, boosting morale and resulting in a 1-0 victory against the local team of Leros! It is true, football, like all sport, knows no barriers of culture or language and has worked wonders in furthering integration and acceptance of the refugee community on Leros.

 

‘I have fun playing with this team, even though some of the players are new to the game. I come to keep playing and because the members of the team treat me with respect. Thanks to this football team I have 10 close friends and we play together.’ Abdul

 

 

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Echo100plus

Location: Vienna - Austria
Website:
Project Leader:
Gabriella Dixon
Vienna, Vienna Austria

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