By Martina Liebsch, CI migration advocacy officer
While in Athens for the preparations of the Global Forum on Migration and Development, I took the opportunity to meet up with my colleague Begoña Kalliga, from the Caritas Athens Refugee Programme.
Begoña is a journalist and works as a volunteer in the Centre which is located in Kapodistriou Street in the centre of Athens. The centre runs a soup kitchen for refugees and migrants and provides material assistance in the form of food bags, clothing and bed linen to cover basic needs, language courses in Greek and English, assistance from a social worker and a vaccination programme for the children. Two hundred and fifty meals are served daily five days a week. The centre is always full.
“Sometimes, when I look down at the long line of people in front of our centre queuing up for a warm and decent meal, I ask myself how we are going to cover all those needs for the coming months”, says Begoña. “But then the telephone rings and often we have news of a new donation. Often it is a call from a school which has collected food, or parents who through their children have heard about the needs of these people and offer clothing and sometimes money. We get donations every day. So, if you want to witness the work of Divine Providence, you should visit our Centre.
A number of the 70 volunteers have made presentations at schools, the aim of which is to sensitise the children to the problems and needs of migrants stranded in Athens. We ask them each to donate half a kilo of rice or 1 Euro from their pocket money and maybe a pair of jeans they do not wear any more. This campaign has also helped us engage parents and students who come to do voluntary work. At the beginning, they are slightly intimidated by the number of refugees. But when they realize that these are generally friendly and grateful to be served a hot meal, the new volunteers stay and become regular helpers. Some of them ask: why do these people often steal our spoons, glasses and plates? We explain that desperate circumstances, such as living in the park or an abandoned house with small children, might make people take desperate action .”
When asked about the current profile and provenance of migrants to Athens, Begoña said: “We now see more families with babies and very young children coming to us. They are mainly from Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Morocco, even Guinea Bissau. The majority are in transit to places they believe to be better like Italy and other European countries as there is little or no future for them here, and they have usually run out of money. Although,” she said, “with the economic downturn, we also see that those who are documented here have greater difficulty than before to get a job. Employers tend now to give jobs to Greek people although many who are undocumented do get some small jobs here and there. ”
I asked Begoña whether the centre is ever questioned by government agencies about facilitating the stays of people who are undocumented. “So far we have not had problems” she said, “We tell the government that we have not invited migrants to Greece and that if we help them, at least they are not going to steal.” I also asked her if they would do advocacy in favour of migrants. “That is beyond our possibilities for the moment, we are happy to have survived thus till now!”