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Some Greek people are inviting refugees into their homes

Posted September 29

THESSALONIKI, GREECE — Most of the world watched from a distance last year as more than a million migrants arrived on Greece’s shores and began walking north.

The people of Greece had a closer vantage point.

Some ventured out to meet the streams of refugees walking along their highways and through their towns, offering hot food or clothing for the journey. They watched as tens of thousands of travelers piled up at the Macedonian border after it closed, spilling over into informal camps near the village of Idomeni without sanitation or food, sleeping on the ground in freezing rain and hoping for the border to reopen.

Watching the drama unfold in their own backyards was surreal. Disturbed by the squalid conditions in their own towns and cities, some Greeks decided they had to do more than watch and took the ultimate step of inviting refugees to live in their homes with them.

The Greek population as a whole has mixed feelings toward refugees. A recent Pew Research Center report found that 55 percent of Greeks say refugees will increase the likelihood of terrorism in their country, and 72 percent say refugees are a burden because they take jobs and social benefits. On the other hand, most Greeks (57 percent) say refugees are no more to blame for crime in their country than others.

And yet, some Greeks are reaching out to the refugees in their communities in the most personal of ways. In mid-July, I visited several Greek families and other groups of people who have given shelter to refugees to find out what motivated them. Some felt God calling them; for others it was political ideology or simple sense of human decency. For all of them, it was a deep empathy and desire to do something in the face of immediate human suffering.

Here are their stories.

I: ‘God answered his prayer’

Kostas Koutaliagas and his wife Stavroula Dimarhopoulou pray about everything. When he was younger, Koutaliagas says, winking at his wife, he prayed to find three things: the right woman, good work and a place to live — and God helped him find them all.

So when the Thessaloniki couple saw news reports in March of refugees suffering in the rain and cold of the Idomeni camp and wanted to help, they prayed.

During one of those prayers, their 10-year-old son and only child, Yannis, asked God to send a boy his age from among the refugees so they could be like brothers.

Shortly after that prayer, the family contacted the U.N. and drove both their cars to Idomeni, determined to bring them back full of refugees to live in one of their two adjacent apartments. They told the U.N. simply that they wanted to host women with young children, and were introduced to two Syrian women with four children — one of whom was a 10-year-old boy.

“God answered his prayer,” Dimarhopoulou says. And the boys really have become like brothers: “Everywhere my son goes, he goes,” she said, including summer camp. “It will be difficult when it’s time for him to leave.”

One of the refugee women was pregnant when they met her, separated from her husband who had gone ahead to Germany. They scheduled doctors’ appointments and took her to the hospital two months later for a successful C-section operation.

Dimarhopoulou, 50, puts her hand on her heart as she quotes the Golden Rule from the book of Luke and describes weeping as she watched the news from Idomeni.

“I had this verse on my mind during those days,” she says. “I said, if I were in their position with my young son, what would I wish others to do for me? That’s what I have to do. Give them safety and shelter.”

In addition to their faith, the family is motivated by their family history. They grew up hearing stories about their grandparents, who came to Greece as refugees of the Greco-Turkish war in 1922.

Friends say they’re “crazy” to take in refugees during hard economic times, but Koutaliagas says they experience regular miracles. One day, a plumber knocked on the door and said an anonymous donor had paid for him to install a €1,000 solar system that reduces electricity costs and provides hot water for the refugees’ apartment.

“We’re not rich, but we are blessed,” Koutaliagas says.

He hands an English Bible to my translator and commands her to read from Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me … whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

“If you say you are a Christian and say you believe in Christ, you cannot act any differently,” says Dimarhopoulou. “It’s something that builds inside you and it’s part of you.”

II: Don Quixote

To the children at his kindergarten, Tasos Glantzis is a pied piper.

The principal, 53, blows a horn in the center of the playground and kids crowd around him, throwing hula hoops around his neck. He has that ineffable, magic touch with children, running and playing with them as they beg him to teach them how to roll the hoops.

Glantzis was a teacher for 15 years before starting this private kindergarten, which he owns with two friends, 10 years ago. Refugee kids have always attended alongside Greek students, and this year there are eight kids from Syria.

The U.N. contacted Glantzis in March to ask for help housing refugees during the harsh winter. He and several other teachers took refugee families into their homes — Glantzis has nine people living with him — and enrolled their children in the school.

One of the boys who lives with Glantzis is Omar, 8. “When he arrived, he was still in shock because his family had been bombed in Syria, and he had a problem making it to the bathroom in time because of his trauma,” Glantzis said. “But within 24, 48 hours he felt better and began to communicate and use the toilet and smile. He became a normal child again.”

Glantzis introduces us to Omar, a lanky boy who is at first cautiously friendly but freezes when he sees a camera. Still easily traumatized, he doesn’t want to speak with us. His younger sister Maryam smiles for the camera, asks us to play memory cards with her and says a few words in English.

The kids communicate with the help of a Jordanian doctor in the school who speaks Arabic. All the teachers carry pocket-size Arabic dictionaries, some of the children speak a little English, and everyone uses body language.

Glantzis is part of a network of around 40 teachers who collaborate with other refugee relief organizations in northern Greece. In addition to shelter, they provide cultural activities and excursions for refugee kids, including an outdoor evening of games and a clown performance where Greek and Syrian families mix.

I ask Glantzis about a sketch of literary hero Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho, hanging on his office wall. It’s a rare print of a Picasso drawing given to Glantzis by a man who told him, “I believe you are a real Don Quixote.”

Glantzis does face an uphill battle that some would call unrealistic. There are more than 55,000 refugees in Greece, and just nine in Glantzis’ home, but he’s undeterred.

“The most important thing is to take people out of the camps and put them in real homes,” says Glantzis. “This is better for children and families than going to the camp and spending a few hours playing with them. Children need a home. Children need a 24-hour sense of security. They can’t live in a camp and have a normal life.”

III: ‘A golden cage’

Stefanos Kamperis moved to the Kilkis region, about an hour north of Thessaloniki through rolling green countryside, to live off the land. Trained as an engineer in the U.K., he first describes himself as an anarchist, then corrects himself — “I prefer the term autonomous,” he says.

Kamperis, 35, speaks deliberately, with quick movements and dark eyes that give him a bird-like quality, as he describes his idea for sheltering refugees: give them as much autonomy as possible. For Kamperis, that means getting people into apartments, not camps. He’s written a 25-page proposal on how to do that for less money than the Greek government is spending on refugee camps.

He and other local volunteers have also set up The Housing Project, which helps refugees through the legal process of obtaining a Greek social security number and VAT tax number so they can enter into housing contracts — something Kamperis says is better for the refugees and better for the Greek economy.

Kamperis and two other Housing Project volunteers took me around Kilkis, a red-roofed village of less than 30,000 people, to visit some of the people they’ve helped in recent months. We stopped at a sparsely decorated apartment on a narrow street lined with apartment buildings where Yasim Alhashash, a construction worker from Syria, now lives with his family. After four months camping at a gas station rest stop with his pregnant wife and four kids, the apartment is a godsend.

“It was hard to keep track of the kids because the camp was so big,” he says. “Here, it's a relief, because I can be a father again.”

The Housing Project grew out of a Facebook page, “Volunteers of Kilkis,” where Kamperis and other volunteers first met and began coordinating relief efforts at the height of the cold and confusion in Idomeni. When the Greek government finally set up a refugee camp, it asked the locals to run it because they already knew the refugees and their needs. It was several months before the Red Cross and other NGOs took over camp operations.

For Kamperis, the humanitarian and political aspects of the refugee crisis are inseparable. He wants policymakers to focus on integrating refugees into Greek society rather than keeping them in camps, which he compares to ghettos. Greece isn’t like Third-World countries where tent camps were invented, he says. It’s Europe, and there are apartments, and they should use them to house people.

Kamperis goes so far as to predict that if the country continues its current approach, it could contribute to the rise of far right or fascist candidates in the next election as resentment of spending on refugees grows. If Greek people could interact with refugees as neighbors and see money going into the local economy instead of the black hole of a camp, they would be less likely to view them as a threat, Kamperis says.

So far, the Housing Project has helped 73 families into homes. Kamperis’ proposal calls for an eight-month pilot program to house 120 more people in rented apartments in local villages for eight months. It includes a risk assessment and covers rent, transportation, food vouchers, a mobile medical unit (which would serve Greeks and refugees alike) and social workers at a cost of 10 euros per refugee per day, or 2,734 euros per person for the eight months.

Kamperis has presented the plan to the European Parliament and universities in Greece and the U.K., but so far no one has stepped up to fund and implement it. He is looking for an NGO that would foot the bill and run the program, with Volunteers of Kilkis serving as advisers. He’s even identified which refugees and which apartments could be part of the pilot.

Kamperis dreams of meeting up with his refugee friends at a cafe rather than serving them as a volunteer. Even if the camps were high quality, he says, “a golden cage is still a cage. Refugees need to be able to have a dignified life on an equal basis with us.”

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