World Refugee Day: “On the World Refugee Day… I would like to speak TO the refugees themselves and not FOR them.”

Marina Kanta, Team Leader, Legal Service

Athens Solidarity Center*, SolidarityNow

 On the World Refugee Day, I would like to speak TO the refugees and not for the refugees. I do not know the language of the programs …”means of verification, results, inputs, outputs, indicators, numbers”… However, I know the language we have spoken with the beneficiaries in the Athens Solidarity Center (ASC) since 2016, when my own trip there began. I know that the beneficiaries of ASC, refugees, migrants, or Greeks, trusted us because we always had the doors open to everyone regardless of nationality, race, politics and religious beliefs or income criteria and I would like to thank them for that.

I would like to tell them that we tried to listen to them, but also to listen carefully and understand deeply their request. We tried to understand the explicitly expressed but also the hidden request. Behind the phrase: “I want a house, I want papers, I want a job” we heard: “I want someone to care, I want acceptance, I want understanding“. We tried to frame and offer integrated services to the beneficiaries, offer a shelter where socially excluded, vulnerable, tortured people would find a solution for most of their needs. Anyone entering the Center could receive the services of a social worker, consult a psychologist, receive legal advice and representation, visit a job counselor, or receive accounting services. And they trusted us… and came again and again to the point of reference.

Our journey with the beneficiaries was not always easy, we had successes, we laughed, we rejoiced, we hugged but we also experienced setbacks. We experienced tensions, anxiety, and became witnesses of human suffering and trauma. We opened and closed circles, but above all I would like to tell our beneficiaries how much we have learned from them. We admired them for their strength; we learned how you rebuild your life even though there is only debris around you; how you survive when all your dreams collapse; we learned to make sense of things that seemed meaningless; we discovered the resilience we hide. In other words, we matured.

Response to the urgent condition

We managed to keep the “doors open” through hermetically sealed houses, behind glass screens, among empty streets. We have adapted to the digital age, we have responded by all means to the new condition of the pandemic, but the beneficiaries have also adapted, and we all joined forces. We fought with viruses, fines, sms, restrictions on movement but the connection was not lost.

I met S. shortly before the first quarantine, a strong woman from Afghanistan, who speaks five languages. I will not talk about what she suffered in her country as a victim of gender-based violence, nor about her serious health problems. I have only to say about the power of her soul, a woman-inspiration for me. We spent a year in quarantine, communicating inside and outside the hospital, preparing an interview with zoom, skype, teams and whatever was needed. We went together to the first interview for her asylum application, and shortly before the end, S. fainted. Her body just paused, she wanted to stop remembering. The second interview was postponed due to Covid-19. We went to the second interview together; we went to win this time – to win a small battle against gender-based violence.

But if I could address the Center’s beneficiaries, I would like to talk to all those for whom I tried but I failed due to reasons beyond my -and our- control. I failed to help them get the refugee status, I failed to help them in their family reunification request. I would like to tell them I am sorry, and I hope that from now on each of their next journeys and efforts to be successful.

A special dedication

For this day, I would like to make a dedication to a woman refugee, a woman holding a special place in my heart. A woman who did not manage to reunite with her husband. A woman who told me how she literally carried her three baby children on her back and walked day and night on snowy mountain peaks and steep slopes to bring them safely to Greece. She told me about the prison in her country of origin and the tortures she had suffered because she dared to speak her mind. She asked me to get her to Germany quickly, because she was tired, but unfortunately, she did not make it. We did not make it.

I dedicate the next efforts and battles to her.

*Since May 2019, the Athens Solidarity Center is financed by EEA Grants, with CROWE Greece and HumanRights360 as the fund operator. The Center is also supported by the Municipality of Athens.