Greece, a country already bursting at the seams and under huge financial constraints is home to thousands of refugees caught up in an international crisis. The Salvation Army is there, demonstrating love and changing lives.
While travelling in Athens recently, I spent some time with Captain Ray Lamont, a Salvation Army officer from Canada, who with her husband Curtis, has been serving in Greece for the past 10 months. Aside from running the church side of the Army’s operations in Athens, Ray heads up the Army’s anti-trafficking work—the Green Light Project—and coordinates volunteers at the Salvation Army refugee centre where the couple work.
Strong family ties are the backbone of Greek society. In the 1990s, there were very few non-Greeks and no such thing as homelessness in the country. Fast forward to 2007, and it was a very different story. Homelessness, poverty, crime, human trafficking (in all its forms) were issues. And then, in 2008, the Global Financial Crisis hit. Today, a nation that has an incredibly strong value of family has been fractured as the middle-class have all but left Greece to find a better life elsewhere.
Not far from The Salvation Army is Victoria Square, which in the summer of 2015 became a makeshift refugee camp with over 1500 men, women and children sleeping there each night. Thousands of refugees began pouring into Greece, which simply did not have the infrastructure or resources to cope.
The Salvation Army mobilised to support those who found themselves in a foreign country where they did not understand the language, the culture and had little ability to fend for themselves. Most desperately wanted to get to Germany —to ‘Mama Merkel’ as they called her.
‘All throughout that time, we were helping these refugees by giving them food, drinks, new socks, comfortable shoes, underwear to change, and most importantly “safe information” as there was a lot of exploitation going on,’ says Ray.
In March 2016, the borders closed and 60,000 refugees were trapped in Greece. New EU legislation prohibits new arrivals who haven’t pre-registered from qualifying for its relocation or reunification programme. Their options are limited: apply for asylum in Greece, voluntarily follow the relocation process to return to their home country, or pay smugglers to take them to their preferred destination.
To avoid deportation, asylum applicants must register in Greece, Ray explains. But this then triggers a change of status, so that people are no longer able to access services and funding available to refugees and migrants through the relocation or family reunification programme. They also need to immediately find work, but without the money to pay for the necessary legal documentation to obtain a job or open a bank account.
Many are forced out of housing programmes only available to refugees or those in the family reunification programme. Many others discover that the services they have come to rely on for material support are no longer available because of their new status.
So they are essentially stuck between a rock and a hard place. They are in a country that has received international bailouts totalling over €240 billion, yet whose economy has shrunk by a quarter in just five years and with unemployment now at about 25 per cent.
People and businesses are restricted as to how much money they can withdraw from an ATM. They do not have full access to their own bank accounts. Imagine what that is like! Imagine having money in the bank, but your government won’t allow you to access it.
Individuals are only allowed to access €420 per week. The same goes for businesses. The Salvation Army group I was travelling with was encouraged to pay with cash wherever we could as businesses appreciated this instead of an electronic transaction.
Given the extreme financial constraints and the lack of jobs that Greece is experiencing, it’s not hard to see why refugees might want to be elsewhere.
Athens is a city bursting at the seams. It doesn’t have enough jobs or houses for its own citizens, let alone the thousands of refugees that have made their way here. City planners never took into account that the population might increase to such a size, and this increase was so rapid and large that the city is struggling.
There is evidence of these struggles everywhere—abandoned buildings, people sleeping on the street, and people trying to make money through begging or selling goods. The Salvation Army is working in the heart of the challenges, partnering with organisations from around the world.
There are free education classes, doctors offering medical examinations and medicine, translators helping bridge the cultural divide, and food, clothing and other essentials distributed to those in desperate need. Ray and her team of staff and volunteers are doing their best to offer quality, life-changing assistance.
As I listened to Ray tell us about the work going on and the needs of the people, I was struck by something. As much as the city is bursting, so was Ray. She was bursting with passion and hope and a genuine love for the people of Greece. You could hear it in her voice and see it in her eyes as she talked—that spark of hope that comes from believing the work they are doing is not only helping individuals and families, but also the wider society.
Ray and others from The Salvation Army are bearers of hope for a city weighed down by overwhelming human need.
I wish I could have spent more time with Ray and seen more of her work. Although working on the streets of Christchurch amongst the city’s homeless and sex workers some years ago was the hardest, most challenging work I’ve done as a Salvation Army officer, it was also the most rewarding. I got that same sense about Ray’s ministry.
Working with the most vulnerable members of society recalibrates your heart. And you never really lose that. Whether it’s on Manchester Street in Christchurch, or the streets of downtown Athens, to be a bringer of hope is something that makes a heart burst at the seams. Love changes lives.
by Shar Davis (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 12 August 2017, pp6-9
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.