From an abandoned factory building to a place of refuge, Elpida Home in Thessaloniki, Greece, is truly an inspiring story of how public-private partnership (P3) initiatives are making significant positive social impact on the lives of refugees.
by Cheryl He
In partnership with the Greek Ministry of Migration, Amed Khan worked with local partners to materialize a home for refugees in northern Greece. Funded initially by American philanthropist Amed Khan, along with support from Frank Giustra, Canadian businessman and philanthropist, Elpida Home was successfully launched in July 2016. The home itself currently provides shelter to 200 Syrian and Iraqi refugees and will soon house 600 people. In stark contrast to military camps, where canvas tents serve as makeshift refugee shelters and where safety is more of a concept than reality, Elpida Home provides every family with a room with a lockable door for privacy, fully functioning kitchens for making home-cooked meals, and programs for adults and children.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Sandra Hakim, Chief Community Liaison at Elpida Home, who engages with stakeholders across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to ensure that the home’s development and operations can be conducted smoothly. In our interview, she spoke about Elpida’s success story, bumps and all.
Refugees live in canvas tents and are only given one blanket per person. There is no way to lock these tents and so safety is a big issue – anyone can enter your tent and steal things. There are no proper medics or medical care. If you have a serious condition like epilepsy, cancer, or a heart condition, all the doctors do is to give you a paracetamol pill. Although there is funding for medical supplies, it’s not enough to buy supplies for everyone.
Many camps also don’t have clean running water and there’s no hot water. Bottled drinking water is distributed since there is no potable water in the camps. People have to heat up water by filling the water bottles and placing them in the sun, then using that to take a shower. And the shower is made up four curtains put together and there’s no light. You can’t make this stuff up. It really is a nightmare.
Drugs and prostitution. There’s nothing for the people to do in the camps. They can’t work and there are very few programs for them, if any. NGO staff come in from 10am to 5pm, so by 4.50pm these camps are like ghost towns. And mafias take advantage of this and give free drugs to kids in the camps. Minors who are there without their parents are especially susceptible as they are easy to manipulate. Once they are hooked on the drugs, the gangs use them to push drugs or for prostitution. It’s easy for these gangs to enter the camps – as long as you don’t use the front gate, you can enter the camp through rips in the fences.
Elpida is a refugee accommodation and we only take vulnerable family cases. We bought over an abandoned factory building and hired contractors to build partitions and rooms. We put in heaters, coolers, beds, carpets, and dining room furniture to try and make a comfortable living environment. Each family has its own room and lockable doors. We also built commercial-sized kitchens, each shared by two families. In the other camps, refugees get catered food, but Middle-Eastern refugees are not used to the food and its ends up being thrown in the garbage.
When I visit the camps to conduct intake interviews, I would see refugees gather wood to make a fire and cook their own food. They would buy a few things like tomatoes, and other vegetables and cook them and they all eat from that one pot. The camps are in the middle of industrial lands, so they are stuck in the middle of nowhere with no access to supermarkets or shops. Elpida has a small market which provides vegetables and protein for free so our refugees can use it to cook their own food so that they can feel more at home.
At Elpida, we care and listen and observe. We have community meetings every Sunday, which I used to run until recently, and we would ask them what is it that they like and want to do. For example, they told us they preferred Turkish toilets, and not the chemical toilets that other camps have. Their kids often have difficulty using it and it’s not hygienic. And they said not to bring in a wash team, they wanted to wash it by themselves. They also tell us what type of interests they have. One woman said she liked to sew, so we bought some sewing machines and started a sewing club. They’ve made pajamas for all the children in Elpida as well as backpacks. And they’ve also fixed many clothes that we distribute that don’t fit them appropriately – they fix them to fit the way they like it.
As I mentioned, we have community meetings every Sunday to listen to our residents’ concerns. A lot of them wanted education for their kids and so we partnered with a Greek NGO (Emergency Response Centre International) to provide education from two to 17 years old. The classes are segmented by age and run from 10am to 12.30pm. The Greek government also started an initiative to send refugee kids from selected camps, of which Elpida is one, to attend the Greek public schools from 2pm to 6pm. It’s fully funded by the government and we’ve seen positive results so far – the kids are so happy standing in their backpacks and waiting for the school bus to pick them up.
We also have programs for adults all taught by our volunteers. We have adult English classes for all levels. For the women, we have yoga, aerobics, and belly-dancing classes. The men have furniture-making workshops and they have made beautiful shoe racks we use in the home. They also have martial arts classes, which teaches discipline, respect, and fitness.
We try to build a community of safety and a feeling of home. The refugees have really made this place their own. We had a resident who was a gardener by profession who started planting herbs and other edible plants. The place used to be so dull, and now we have a fully grown herb garden. It’s a great place for them to pick fresh herbs to cook with. We also have an olive grove that was part of the building’s estate when we acquired it. The residents made pickled olives from the first harvest. Now we are making olive oil from the new crop. An American school in Thessaloniki offered to press the olives for free.
What are the existing challenges and barriers faced by organizations like yours in Greece?
The situation is difficult. There’s a lot confusion going around in Greece, in Europe, and in the rest of world about Syrian and Iraqi refugees. There’s a lack of understanding about them, and there’s a fear that refugees are draining host countries.
Being able to secure employment is still a challenge. You can’t apply for a work permit in Greece if you’re still the in approval process of seeking asylum. The problem is that most of them don’t want to wait to get the approval because they don’t want to stay in Greece. They can’t find jobs to feed their children if the locals can’t even find jobs too. Most want to go to Germany where they have family members already there and where they know they can find employment.
I think there needs to be a platform to enable more understanding between host communities and refugees, and also benefit Greek youths to develop a positive outlook towards the future in a depressed economy. It could be an event that connects locals or private businesses, or just people who want to make a change, with adult refugees from different camps to exchange ideas, learn from and inspire each other. It could have invited speakers every now and then to focus on specific topics that inspire development and hope such as entrepreneurship. This could be an initiative driven by the Greek government in partnership with NGOs like UNHCR, and private businesses. This could even be something that Concordia could help organize.
We are overwhelmed with requests to take in families everyday. But space is limited and as much as we would like to help, we can’t. Right now, we house 200 refugees and once the basement is finished, we will house 600 people. We’re now working on a second project and are happy to work with as many partners who are like-minded. We’ve had the privilege of working with wonderful partners which made Elpida a success story. I’d say to potential partners, tell us what you want to provide and we’ll find you an outlet. We’re always looking to offer more services, programs, and food to refugees through our partners.
Elpida is a testament to what can be achieved by individual actors who come together in partnership to address a large-scale global crisis. The situation in Greece exemplifies the failure of the international humanitarian assistance system but also demonstrates what can be achieved by nontraditional partners when they apply their time, resources, and skills directly. Here are some takeaways on how prospective partners can get involved:
Takeaway #1: There is a great need for creating economic opportunities in Greece, for both Greek residents and refugees. This is where P3s that create jobs can add value and positive social impact.
Takeaway #2: Fear is still very much a barrier to creating a cohesive society in host countries. More platforms for increasing the understanding between residents and refugees are needed. These platforms do not need to be large events. Rather, start small in your local community. Every action, no matter how small, makes a difference. And no matter your background, there is always a way to get involved and contribute.
Takeaway #3: While P3s are important in addressing refugee issues, they are not without their challenges. Finding like-minded partners is key in getting over many of these barriers. Look for organizations that have demonstrated success and want to scale up their operations and impact, such as Elpida Home, but could do so better and faster with added resources.
If you’re interested in finding out how you can partner with Elpida or Concordia on migration and refugee issues, please email: email@example.com