Solidarity Now Assistance Center Opens Up its Doors in Athens

ATHENS, …..  It is fifteen minutes past ten in the morning and the newly refurbished second floor of old Frourarchio building is getting seriously busy. The “Solidarity Center” set up here by organization “Solidarity Now”, at the heart of downtown Athens, made a low profile appearance last October while preparing for a full swing of services provision this year. Word though has gone around between the many needy in the city and plenty have already been receiving help and aid from various NGOs hosted in the Center. In the legal assistance office set up by NGO Arsis Theoni … is discussing the case of a defendant that carries a long history of legal and social problems. It is clearly a person that would be unable to provide financially for this service and the presence of this office ensures that the accused won’t be showing up at court without a trained legal representative who is seriously involved in her case.

In a slow day there should be another three lawyers in this office but all of them are already at court for various cases. “Each one of us has already piled up with 70 or 90 cases. We have to postpone meetings with people asking for assistance and we have just started here” says Theoni Koufonikolakou in a way that demonstrates how many people are in need of legal assistance. “We look into asylum cases, family law issues, even some criminal cases” she says. “Mostly we meet with irregular immigrants trying to short out their documents and individuals or families overburdened with debt. Both are the result of an undergoing social and economic crisis”.

Legal assistance and counseling offered by Arsis is just one branch of the various services provided by the Solidarity Center. Medical services as well as employment skills training and advice are provided by NGO Praksis, and a children’s support center as well as a helpline and psycho-social services to mothers and families in need are provided by NGOs Network for Children’s Rights and Together for Children.

Solidarity Now’s effort has been one case among the many different attempts alongside civil society to offer welfare services to people struck hard by the five year long crisis in Greece. But it appears to be a unique one given its emphases on providing an environment within which various organizations can meet and join efforts in tackling acute social deficiencies.

“Having four different organizations working together under the same roof on a daily basis is a unique experiment in Greece” says Epameinondas Farmakis, the newly appointed Managing Director of “Solidarity Now” pointing out that next to the priority for the Solidarity Center in Athens to provide basic welfare services for those in need, the organization is also interested in contributing to updating the local civil society ecology. “It is our intention to support and promote a collaborative culture among the Greek civil society actors, whether they are non-profit organizations, citizens’ groups, or active individuals. We believe that civil society actors should come together, exchange ideas and best practices in order to better shape their priorities and meet their common goals” Farmakis explains.

To that effect Solidarity Now also provides an open space for co-working practices, such as trainings and workshops, within its venue in Athens, hoping this could further enhance citizens’ collaboration. Crucial to the advance of this collaboration has also been the initiative of Athens Municipality, owner of the property, to release the venue to Solidarity Now for ten years in exchange for the refurbishment and reactivation of the property that had been disserted for years.

Co-operation with local community has been a very important factor explains Evi Papatheodorou, Director of ‘Thessaloniki Solidarity Center’ that “Solidarity Now” has established since the beginning of 2014 at the second largest city in Greece. Experience accumulated by this structure will be crucial for understanding the nature of the problems the new structure in Athens will deal with as well as for tailoring a holistic approach to problems, which is the methodology the “Solidarity Now” Centers would like to promote according to Papatheodorou.

“Often someone comes to us for medical reasons and soon after we find out that they also face legal issues or they need to be connected with other municipal or social services” she says. The Thessaloniki Solidarity Center has hosted 2281 cases since opening its doors, 961 received legal and 1320 medical assistance. From those 87 percent were unemployed and 82 percent had fallen off any kind of social insurance. Papatheodorou says she has been surprised by how many of those in need belong to the so call productive ages groups. About 66 percent of people approaching the Center were between 31 and 65 years old and another 30 percent between 19 and 30. Its possibly due to this that “in one year of function we have discovered that the importance of social services, beyond medical and legal, are more necessary than we though” she says “and our effort to provide complete solutions by following up the problems and referring people to social services offered by local authorities have made us already a well known element among the local civil society”.