Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Greek citizens’ movements mobilise for refugees

This article was published by Irin News
Children wait for a food handout at the Larissa camp (John Psaropoulos)
Larissa, Greece - The deal reached between the EU and Turkey on Friday, to send all new migrant arrivals to Greece back to Turkey does not cover the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants who have become stranded in the country since former Yugoslav Macedonia and other countries along the Balkan route sealed their borders to all refugees earlier this month.

The government has put the number of stranded migrants at nearly 50,000 but the real figure may be even higher as thousands of people are tucked away in private homes and shelters that have spontaneously sprung up in petrol stations and open lots.

The army has been opening disused military camps at a rate of two a week for the past month, but roughly one thousand new arrivals a day have swamped official capacity to provide housing, food and healthcare.

Citizens’ solidarity groups that formed early in the economic crisis to alleviate the suffering of impoverished Greeks are jumping into the breach. Now, as before, they are mobilising networks of donors and volunteers to fill in gaps left by the state – this time to help refugees.  

“I try not to think about the long term, because a few years from now we might find ourselves in their position,” says Ioanna Moraiti, an IT student in the agricultural town of Larissa in central Greece. “It’s our obligation as Greeks to help, each according to his means.”  

Moraiti is a volunteer with Prosfero (literally, ‘I offer’), a small grassroots group helping to distribute meals prepared by the Air Force to some 1,000 refugees encamped next to an abandoned textile mill. The first 400 arrived by bus a fortnight ago; another 600 arrived over the weekend, having been evacuated from the island of Lesvos. Under the new EU-Turkey deal, Greece must still evacuate some 5,500 migrants and refugees from its eastern islands.

Another Larissa-based group, Energoi Polites (‘Active Citizens’), has mobilised its donor network on behalf of the refugees and now has a basement and a garage filled with clothing and blankets.  “We can’t handle the donations and we’re looking for a space,” says Kostas Kedras, a leader of the group.
“We helped set up the tents people are staying in – putting wooden pallets and nylon sheeting under the tents to keep them dry, handing out clothes, blankets, sleeping bags and prams,” he adds.   
Grassroots groups on mainland Greece first got wind that the refugee crisis had arrived on their doorstep last autumn when only certain nationalities of refugees were allowed to proceed north across the border. Previously, the vast majority of migrants who arrived on the Greek islands, headed north as soon as possible after being transferred to the mainland by ferry. As the numbers of migrants and refugees accumulating at the border became unmanageable, police began holding back the buses ferrying them north at motorway service areas along the route.  

“The police officer on duty called us and said there are 350 people on the motorway, 50 of them children,” remembers Ilias Tsolakidis, who founded O Topos Mou (My Domicile) in the town of Katerini, in the shadow of Mount Olympos. “’I can’t bear to watch it any more. They’re crying, dropping at our feet and asking for food,’ said the officer.”  

The group took food to the refugees, and has remained on alert ever since. When a busload of stranded refugees went thirsty earlier this year, the group gathered a ton of bottled water in the space of 45 minutes. “We have a network and send emails out to 36,000 people,” says Tsolakidis. “If just 500 people read it and 50 people respond, you’ve got a collection in half an hour.”  

The ability of grassroots groups and volunteers to self-organise and distribute aid quickly and efficiently in their local areas has made them indispensable to government efforts to feed and shelter migrants and refugees in the weeks since the Western Balkans route has been sealed off.
They have taken over food and clothing distribution in many official camps where government and international NGOs lack sufficient manpower. At the camp in Idomeni on Greece’s northern border, where 13,000 migrants and refugees are now staying, they are cleaning muddy tents and assigning them to new arrivals as well as flagging refugees in need of medical attention.

 Making a difference 

An Afghan woman waits for a sandwich with her child (John Psaropoulos)
The ability to mobilise local volunteer networks is what Tsolakidis refers to as a “fire hose”, always at the ready to extinguish a crisis before it grows out of control. “If we put out one fire and a second one starts we will try and deal with it also,” says Tsolakidis. “But the burden is greater [than it was when we were helping just Greeks]. The effort has to be more fast-paced and intense. More people need to be mobilised.”  

For thousands of refugees in Greece, the work of the volunteers has made a miserable situation slightly more bearable.  

“Greeks are a great people… kind, and willing to help everybody,” says Walid Jemu, who fled Syria a month ago with his pregnant wife and two small children after his seven year-old nephew was killed by a bomb while playing in front of his home in Aleppo.

Jemu is grateful simply to be allowed to live in a tent on the concrete pavement outside a petrol station, about 20km from the northern Greek border. About a thousand others live in tents here.  
“The [Greek] government didn’t give me money or anything like that, but they allowed us to come here and stay,” says Jemu. “They are working with the people – the opposite of others – Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia or Macedonia governments.”  

People from the surrounding villages bring food to the petrol station. A local family even invited Jemu to spend a week in their house “and have warmth for the children”. He refused because he is still hopeful that the border will re-open and he will be allowed to continue to Germany.  

Tsolakidis believes this is unlikely and that the numbers of migrants and refugees stranded in Greece will continue to climb, despite the deal with Turkey. He has little faith in a voluntary EU relocation scheme that, under an agreement reached last September was supposed to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece to other member states over two years, but has so far only resulted in 568 refugees being moved from Greece.

He worries that donations from Greeks will eventually dry up and that help will need to come from elsewhere. “I believe that the people who now offer freely from their surplus will soon be unable to do so,” he says.

Tsolakidis has already launched successful appeals for medical supplies in France and Germany and has been able to distribute the donated medicines to local hospitals treating refugees. In the process, O Topos Mou is transforming itself from an organisation that distributed humanitarian aid locally to a group that is sourcing aid internationally to distribute nationally.

“We’ve opened a door and walked into a different room in our history,” says Tsolakidis. “Some people don’t want to walk in. They think things will change while they’re hovering in the doorway. But time is pressing…Let’s go in while there’s space and time to plan something.”  

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