World YMCA Refugee Assistance: Thessaloniki

Date: 01 September 2016

One of the aims of the World YMCA Refugee Assistance is the support of local refugee projects.  World YMCA in cooperation with YMCA Europe is supporting the activities of YMCA Thessaloniki, Greece who are a good example of excellent local work for refugees.

Since its foundation in 1921, YMCA Thessaloniki has played locally a leading role in support of vulnerable parts of the society, such as the refugees who arrived in the city after the catastrophe of Smyrna, war victims, Roma and others. Every year since then, asylum seekers/refugees scholarship opportunities are given to more then 10 children annually to attend YMCA programmes.

Over the last few years, YMCA started collaboration with local NGOs, associations and municipalities, such as Praxis, Arsis, Medecins du Monde, Solidarity Network in Leros island, Red Cross, Reception Centre for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Municipality of Thessaloniki.

Since July 2015, YMCA Thessaloniki came in contact with the Solidarity Network in Leros island and gathered and sent food supplies and toys to children refugees in the island. During summer, they hosted 6 children from the Reception Centre for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in their programmes of creative engagement of children and sport camps. They also gathered a big amount of food supplies and clothes for children refugees.

In November 2015, YMCA Thessaloniki started supporting Red Cross mission in Idomeni (note: Place with huge concentration of refugees on the border with Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia) by assisting in the playground for children: more then 60 volunteers have been playing with children and helping with food distribution.

Since March 2016, YMCA Thessaloniki is assisting refugees in Diavata Camp, hosting centre for refugees in the suburb of the city.

Diavata Camp is run by the Ministry of Interior (in co-operation with other governmental and municipal bodies) and co-financed by The Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund of the European Union. Camp is located in former military base where majority of solid buildings are in weak conditions and refugees are living in tents, containers and other simple constructions.

Camp hosts mostly families – from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and some other countries. At the moment in the camp live 1,100 persons (but some time ago even 2,000). Majority of them arrived to Greek islands with boats (which we know from media), from there they were placed in Diavata. Nobody knows how long they will stay there as majority of them wish to go to richer countries of Northern Europe and procedures are long and complicated, as well as general policy towards refugees is unclear.

Additionally to camp- and security staff, some Greek and foreign organizations with own staff and volunteers are formally authorised to provide in the territory of camp different services: medical, educational, sport, programmes for children and for women. In some of them refugees themselves are involved as leaders (as in the first photo we can see two teachers from Afghanistan, with camp director and two leaders of YMCA Thessaloniki). One of the organizations is YMCA.

Already few months, almost each day at the same time at the morning the group of YMCA volunteers and staff (15-25 persons) is coming to the camp with mini-bus (bringing toys, educational materials, sport and musical equipment, etc.). At the same place in the camp near its main ‘square’, with blankets on the ground they wait for children to play with them – they play games, draw, sing and dance, learn Greek and English, talk. Quite many children are coming, majority of them regularly. Within YMCA team one person speaks Arabic (others are starting to learn), one is a psychologist.

On August 25th ‘TheatrAction’ came to the camp to perform ‘Peace Irini’ by Aristophanes. Even if the spectacle was addressed mostly to children, among quite big audience were also adults. And the director of the theatre and spectacle is an instructor from YMCA, and YMCA team supports the event with all logistics.

Moreover, YMCA Thessaloniki supported the camp with sports equipment for all: table-tennis tables, balls, football and handball nets. And more: just now, in September they will start to welcome refugee children in YMCA wonderful facilities down town to entertain them with creative workshops and sports. It is the part of UNHCR and Municipality of Thessaloniki programme ‘REACT’ (‘Refugee-Assistance-Collaboration-Thessaloniki’) with purpose of providing decent living, temporary housing (in rented houses and/or hosted by locals) and social integration for asylum seekers. The importance of this project can be understood from a conversation with Habi in Diavata.

Habi is from Iraq. She is 27 years old. She has learned English in the Camp.  She tells her dramatic story about the boat journey to Greece, her 6 months stay in the Camp and a completely uncertain future, with a smile. Habi told us that together with her husband who is an electrician, she would like to leave the Camp, to receive refugee status in Ireland and to start a normal life there: to study, to have children, to eat home-made yaprax. And today? Today she dreams only about an imaginary girlfriend who lives somewhere outside the Camp, to visit her home sometimes, to see an ordinary family life, to drink tea together, to talk and to be silent together…

YMCA Thessaloniki plans to develop refugee assistance and we, the World YMCA – with the help of global YMCA family – wish to undertake such challenge together with them.

They would like to develop their presence at Leros island, the place of first arrival for hundreds of refugees; they would like to develop their programmes for children and youth – both within ‘REACT’ project as well at Diavata Camp, and possible in other camps (as Camp ‘Hope’); they would like to start at Diavata programmes for males. To achieve such ambitious goals YMCA Thessaloniki soon will look for more volunteers, also from abroad – especially persons trained on psychology and with social work experiences, and those who can communicate in Arabic. And the World YMCA within our Refugee Assistance will help them with recruitment and trainings of such volunteers!

And moreover. YMCA Thessaloniki has the chance to get, for their disposal for programmes and office, a solid building in the middle of the Diavata Camp. It needs some renovation and adaptation, it needs also funds, but it is worth as it is needed and cold winter is coming.

Are you ready to help to get this building for YMCA refugee mission?


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