Restored Houses in Athens Provide Shelter and Hope for Minors
Though the number of homeless refugee children in Athens is steadily rising, the Home Project wishes to restore abandoned buildings and the children’s hope for a better future.
Crayon drawings of flowers and hearts adorn the walls of Fotis Parthenides’ office inside a Home Project shelter for refugee children. A laughing toddler runs into the office to hug Fotis, then races back to the living room, which is painted in bright colors and murals. Parthenides, a social worker and Scientific Supervisor at the Home Project, explains that this once-abandoned building has been refurbished and now houses 18 refugee girls and underage mothers, just a fraction of the 200 minors living in their 10 shelters throughout Athens.
These girls are “unaccompanied minors,” meaning they have journeyed to Greece without parents or adult guardians. It is estimated that over 10,200 unaccompanied minors have entered Greece since 2016. Of these, EKKA reports that at least 2,200 unaccompanied refugee children are currently homeless or detained in overcrowded camps while they wait for child-appropriate shelter space in Greece. In 2016, Europol reported that “at least” 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children disappeared in Europe after entering the E.U. This lack of precise data is just one of many factors contributing to the vulnerability, invisibility, and exploitation of refugee children in Greece.
The mission of the organisation is to provide support, protection, education, and social integration services to refugee children who have arrived in Greece alone. The children currently living in the shelters in Athens not only receive a safe place to sleep, but also a holistic range of services covering social, legal, psychological, and educational support. It’s a stable home environment to some of the most vulnerable and traumatized children in Greece.
In October 2017, the Greek NGO received a 1 million euro grant from the IKEA Foundation to open more shelters, but many more refugee children are still in need of protective services. Sofia Kouvelaki, Executive Director of the Home Project, explains that many children’s shelters have closed since last summer due to changes in E.U. funding allocations, so the number of homeless refugee children in Athens is steadily rising.
Arrivals of unaccompanied minors to the Greek islands have also increased in recent months. Upon arrival, refugee children are detained and housed with unrelated adults in overcrowded camps. Alone and unprotected, many children experience sexual abuse, violence, and drug abuse in these camps, where they may live for up to one year awaiting transfer to the mainland. According to EKKA Statistics, only one in three unaccompanied children in Greece lives in safe and appropriate accommodation conditions. Many children without access to a stable living environment have turned to selling sex to survive. It is an open secret that in certain areas of Athens, adult men buy sexual services from teenage refugee boys for as little as 5 or 10 euros.
Director Sofia Kouvelaki explains that children are often more traumatized by their experiences in Greece than by the violence in their home countries or their dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean. While all unaccompanied children have experienced or witnessed traumatic events before entering a shelter, Kouvelaki says that more than 35% of the children accommodated in the Home Project shelters still suffer from serious mental health conditions such as severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Home Project operates shelters in collaboration with local and grassroots NGOs creating a sustainable community of support around unaccompanied minors. Once children are taken in by the Home Project, they begin their long journey to recovery and integration. Parthenides explains that their mission is not just to provide shelter, but to create a home environment for refugee children. Here, children receive basic material resources and psychological support. They also have the opportunity to attend school, art and music therapy, and other activities, from horseback riding to coding classes. Parthenides and other staff work together provide stability, privacy, and a family atmosphere for children of all languages and backgrounds. Although children have assistance from translators, Fotis says that the common language in the house is body language, and that the girls bond through music and games.
Since the Home Project began operating one year ago, 25 children have been transferred to other European countries under the E.U. family reunification scheme. Many more children in the program have applied to join their families elsewhere in the E.U. and are awaiting a decision on their case. No child housed has ever attempted a smuggled journey out of Athens, which Director Kouvelaki believes is a testament to the safety and warm environments of the shelters.
When children turn 18, the organisation helps them secure employment and stable accommodation. Kouvelaki shares the story of three boys and one girls who have already found jobs. However, the job market is notoriously depressed in Greece, and the Home Project continues to support 18-year olds who are still searching for employment.
Aware of Greece’s economic challenges, the Home Project seeks to incorporate revitalization into every aspect of their model. By refurbishing abandoned buildings to serve as shelters, property value to local neighborhoods is added, annual property tax is paid, and landlords are provided with regular rent payments. Additionally, the Home Project’s staff comprises 50% Greek employees and 50% migrant employees.
For his part, Fotis Parthenides has worked for nearly 15 years in shelters for minors. The most difficult part of his job is not to carry everyone’s burdens himself. He explains that the staff also have access to psychological support to help them manage their emotional response to such difficult work. When asked about working on such a diverse staff, Fotis grins widely. He loves his job and explains that the migrants on staff give children the hope that they, too, can find employment and build a life for themselves in Greece.
Fotis says that integration initiatives are children’s favorite activities. In particular, they enjoy the joint program with Greece’s American Community School, in which every child is matched with a local partner to practice English, Greek, art, math, and sports.
Between all these activities, Fotis says these children act like any other young people. They listen to music, see their friends, and relax in the house. In the words of Director Kouvelaki, “We don’t use the terms ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant.’ Children are children.”
For minors who have faced more traumatic circumstances than most adults experience in a lifetime, more resources and an improved legal framework are necessary to protect and support all vulnerable children in Greece. This improved protection must include freedom from detention, child-appropriate living conditions, and access to temporary caregivers for every child. In the meantime, for 200 children, the organisation has provided a supportive environment to revitalize their hope and be children once more.
Learn more about the Home Project: http://www.homeproject.org/