Refugee Stories from Athens - The Personal Reflections of a Salvation Army Relief Worker
published on 26 Oct 2015
As The Salvation Army’s ministry to refugees in Greece continues, the local team is being strengthened. Major Haris Giannaros, a Salvation Army officer from Kent (United Kingdom Territory with the Republic of Ireland), is one of the team members recently deployed to Athens to assist with the humanitarian response.
His personal blog reveals the scale of human needs and includes vivid recollections from some of the refugees The Salvation Army is helping. Stories of violent threats from people smugglers and frustration with the ever-present corruption from those who seek to benefit from the unfolding situation are countered by the major’s passion to serve vulnerable people.
Major Haris writes: ‘Pray with me that God will give us wisdom as we work together with The Salvation Army in Greece to try and fill some of the gaps that exist in the humanitarian response.’
Illustrated highlights from his blog – available in full here – appear below. Up-to-date information about The Salvation Army’s refugee response across Europe, including an interactive map and opportunity to give securely to support the work, can be found at sar.my/europerefugees.
Large numbers of refugees entering Athens typically remain several days before beginning journeys toward the borders leading to northern Europe. The Salvation Army is assisting refugees with information, medical care, and pastoral care. This includes sanitation services – providing such as toilets and showers – as well as communication services through the provision of computers with internet access. The Salvation Army is also working at the port of Piraeus in Athens and meeting families and individuals arriving via the islands of Kos, Lesbos and others, serving approximately 600-800 refugees arriving daily from Syria and North African countries. Support has been offered from around the world, including US$40,000 provided by the USA-based Salvation Army World Service Office (SAWSO) in September, followed by $16,000 in October.
From Major Haris Gianarros's blog:
What story can these feet tell?
As I walked through the streets of Athens today, I saw a pair of feet that spoke volumes to me. I reflected on my rather comfortable existence in Kent, being able to wash on a daily basis, having food and shelter and more ... What about him? How far did he walk? When was the last time he was able to have a shower? Why do some of us have it so good and some suffer like this?
Then I walked through Victoria Square – a stone’s throw from where The Salvation Army is based. The buses had come and picked up more than 1,000 refugees but some were still lingering around. Have they reached safety? How much more would they have to travel? Is someone going to help them on the way? Female members of the team gave the children a small rucksack they could take with them along with some small items such as water, toys and some food. The words of Jesus came to me: ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers or sisters you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:40).
Each number is a fellow human being
Today I sat at a two-hour meeting headed by Alessandra Morelli, Senior Operations Coordinator, UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). I was just astounded to hear that the record day for crossing over to Greece was 19 October, when 9,500 people landed on the Greek islands in one day alone.
The average [daily] arrivals for the month is 5,900 and, as Ms Morelli said, the priority now for all humanitarian response should be what she termed Operation Winter. She echoed the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who said that not one person should die because of the winter in what has come to be called ‘The Great March’, and she urged Church leaders to lobby their governments and the EU to provide more accommodation places in the islands. Only 7,000 places are to be provided by the end of November when the advocacy was for 50,000.
As I share with you this, I think how often when we use big numbers like this we forget that each number is a fellow human being, a person made in the image and likeness of God, therefore precious in God's eyes.
Stories and sandwiches
After a night of heavy rain and thunder, the morning started with a visit to the local Salvation Army hall. A little while later, Maria (the local Salvation Army officer), Jan (my International Emergency Services colleague) and I went to Victoria Square, but the rain started again and we sought shelter under a cafeteria's canopy. Soon we were sharing the space with a number of Afghan refugees.
I got to speaking with Bahbood – one of seven brothers and sisters. He is on ‘The Big March’ with his sister, her husband and their two children. They spoke of suffering, of a life lived in fear and insecurity. They spoke of young men well educated who are not able to make a living or know that there may be a tomorrow for them.
Then I got speaking with Noor and some of his friends. As we were speaking the cafeteria owner came and threatened to take down the canopy because my friends’ rucksacks were leaning against his young olive trees.
I’ve heard from Noor of their march that took 30 days, of the dangers, the threats, of smugglers who would cut off a person’s nose or an ear because they didn’t respond to demands for more money. He spoke of crossing the sea and arriving in Greece, of the relief of making it alive to Europe. And he finally spoke of his sadness about the violence that he saw within the camp in the Greek islands, as they waited to be registered, and of the lack of food and water.
Speaking with Noor, Hashmant and Behroz, I found out that they had run out of money and had to wait for their families to transfer some to them. I was to be enlightened by my friends that because they had no ID as such to receive money they had to depend on people who obviously were taking advantage of this whole situation. They are people of Afghan origin who have settled in this country; the money is transferred to them and they receive a 20 per cent commission.
I feel sick with the idea that one can try to take advantage in such a ruthless way from people who have taken their lives in their hands in order to escape conflict and persecution.
When I was leaving my corps (church) to come to Greece I was handed some money by our Cameo (Come And Meet Each Other) Club and corps members to help someone. I took €50 out of my pocket gave it to my new friends. They were very touched. It's the seeds of kindness we sow, I thought to myself, that may help heal the trauma that these people have lived for years.
Then back to the hall and the making of sandwiches was in full swing. There were days that the volunteers at the corps made up to 1,000 sandwiches to distribute to the refugees. This evening was a quiet one, a little over a hundred would be sufficient.
With funding received from the International Headquarters of The Salvation Army, the corps has distributed well over 20,000 sandwiches. Athens corps officer Major Polis Pantelidis told me they have lost count by now.
We gave a hand to finish, and Major Polis, Jan, Kostas (a volunteer who is blind and comes and helps to wrap sandwiches) and I went back to the square with 120 double sandwiches and 60 litres of milk. Within a few minutes it was all distributed to Afghan men, women and children. Their hearts were full of gratitude and our hearts full of thanks to God that he would chose to use even us to bring some sense of comfort, love and reconciliation.
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