Visit from partner NGOs in Athens

November 2023

Athens November 2023

Ruba and I have been working on the council and board of the :do Foundation, a charitable foundation focusing on refugees and migration, since January. We award funds to organizations that support migrants and refugees. With our support, we want to make it easier to get to the destination country and to arrive and stay there. But what does this journey to the destination country actually look like and how do people fare along the way? How can we, as a smaller foundation, provide meaningful support? To find out, we also want to set off and travel to Athens for 5 days. We know from our funding partner Medical Volunteers International( that the number of refugees arriving there has risen sharply again since July. Many are taken from the overcrowded islands to the mainland. The initial reception camps in Athens are also full, the need for medical care is great and the team has a lot to do. State medical care is only available with a social security number. Nevertheless, they make time for us and establish contacts with other NGOs in Athens that we can support with our funding. The network between the NGOs is good – each one provides support with a different focus. Just a few days ago, Ion received a call from the organization Lighthouse Relief( There is another group at Victoria Square – the Greek government is no longer responsible for people with a positive or negative asylum decision, neither for food supplies nor for accommodation. People are supposed to move on, to their destination country or back to their country of origin – often impossibly without money, with small children, in a wheelchair or ill. In this state, people are dumped on Victoria Square. Ion on the phone – organizes food at the Saffron Kitchen Project(, an organization that cooks up to 500 meals a day for refugees, prepared by refugees who have found a job through the project. Ion also asks about possible initial accommodation in friendly hotels and collects sleeping bags from his own food and clothing store. That’s where he takes us. Supply bags will be handed out from 1 to 2 pm. 250 people are on his list for a period of 6 months and are allowed to pick up such a bag once a month. Then it’s the turn of others. Particularly vulnerable cases may remain on the list. In addition, there are more bags for emergencies; last month the organization supplied 350 families. Mara picks up one of these bags. She drove over an hour from the Ritsona reception camp north of Athens to get food and diapers for her three children. Why does she take this upon herself, we ask ourselves? Why is she spending more on the trip than the value of this bag? For diapers, pads, sugar and pasta, two pairs of pants for the one-year-old, a package of crayons. She doesn’t get that at camp.

Before we set off for Ritsona ourselves the next day, we are invited to the monthly cooking evening for the women at the Victoria Community Center. Here, various organizations offer a place for language courses, medical consultations, childcare, sewing workstations, breakfast or dinner, or simply just being in the women’s space, all under one roof. Today, people cook, laugh, dance and play with the children in the courtyard. The volunteers and employees of the organization Glocal Roots ( ) create an evening of joy and lightness for the women who live in camps, cramped temporary accommodation and sometimes on the street. Some of the women are lucky enough to have found a job in the organization’s sewing studio. Fanny packs are sewn here and sold locally and via an online store.

We can’t stay until the end, we still have an appointment for hip-hop training. HipHop4Hope( aims to empower underage solo travelers through hip-hop culture. When they arrive, the young people are often not even able to speak because of what they have experienced. “When you reach your limits through hip hop, create something, perform, you believe in yourself again and are ready for the next step,” explains Christian from Germany, who set up the project in Athens. The time before and after training and being together on performance days is also important. Christian asks how far they are with the language course, follows up on the progress of the asylum process and reminds the boys of manners with women that they have forgotten or never learned. We can see for ourselves the positive way in which he does this during training. A good network is also important here. He meets the kids through an NGO that provides accommodation for underage people traveling alone.

Unfortunately, the majority of refugees are not lucky enough to be in such accommodation. They live in the camps or initial reception camps or CCAC (Closed Controlled Access Center) outside Athens, where 2,000 to 4,000 people are accommodated at a time. We travel over an hour by public bus to Camp Ritsona. At the final stop, we are picked up by the team from ROSA(, who offer Rolling Saferspaces, mobile drop-in centers for women and children on the run, in front of the camps. We drive another 40 minutes by car and understand why only a few refugees still characterize the cityscape of Athens. We arrive in the middle of nowhere, just barren landscape and industry. Then long concrete walls and barbed wire fences in front of it. Nobody should be allowed to enter or leave here uncontrolled. The ROSA truck stops on a gravel road not far from the entrance to the camp – nobody has access to the camp except the refugees. We are happily awaited by a group of women and children who seem almost unreal in this environment. The team of eight young women who work here on a voluntary basis very quickly set up the Medi Space, the Women Space and the Kids Space with the help of the materials from the truck. The Medi Space is a small room in the truck where a doctor and a paramedic from the team offer consultations and treatments for women and children. There is a couch, educational material about the female body, medication and tea.

The doctor explains to us that the options for care are limited. Sometimes it’s good to at least be able to bring a cup of tea. ROSA is in Ritsona two days a week, on the other days they drive to the Thiva and Malakasa camps. Outside the truck there is a list showing which organizations provide medical care on the days when ROSA is not on site. The organizations exchange information about the medical situation in a weekly online meeting, mediate and drive medical emergencies to clinics. There is also a list on which the women can sign up for today’s visit to the doctor. There is seating for those waiting in front of the truck, as well as a sewing machine with fabric and thread. It is in operation all day long by different women. While the Women’s Space is still being made cozy with blankets and cushions in a quickly erected tent, there is already a lot going on in the Kids Space. The singing circle starts right away and it seems normal here to sing and dance head-shoulders-knees-and-toes between barbed wire fences and walls.

Then it’s off to the tables to knead today. My colleague Ruba mingles with the women as an Arabic translator, I make myself useful in the Kids Space – kneading, comforting, catching children who run into the Women Space. Today the women should have time for themselves. While I have the children in my arms, I keep noticing the full diapers or wet pants. Most children don’t run away and are happy in the Kids Space. It is always ensured that the offer for women does not compete with that for children and that is why modeling is also carried out there today. With colorful modeling clay that dries in the air. Most women crochet with wool and crochet hooks provided. There is also tea and music. I move to the women’s space and talk to a young woman who speaks good English. She comes from Iran and wants to live with her partner. Both fled together and have been in the camp for two months. They hope that they will soon receive a positive asylum decision and seem optimistic. Unlike Mara, who I remember from the food distribution yesterday and meet again here with her three children. She has lived in the camp for five years and two of her children were born here. I find out because a woman speaks good German and translates. She has already lived in Germany with her two young children, where she took language courses while waiting for her asylum decision. Then their return to the country of first admission. Dublin Rule, which states that the country in which the refugee first set foot on European soil is responsible for the asylum application. For the woman and her small children, this means back to zero, Greek first reception camp. She looks very tired. I meet the doctor outside the tent for a short break. She is just finishing a phone call and has asked a pediatrician friend for advice. She is a gynecologist, but today almost only children are brought in. One with suspected meningitis. She goes back to the truck, the list of today’s patients is still long. Then it suddenly gets crowded and busy around the truck, at 4 p.m. diapers are handed out. Four diapers per woman, ROSA is there twice a week. The crowds are huge and the mood among the women is changing. Four diapers are not enough. ROSA buys the diapers as normal – more would exceed the budget and capacity of the truck. Where are the diaper companies? Why are there no diapers in the camp? Why is life made even more difficult for women here because of something so trivial? Yesterday I learned that a young man who has to worry all day about food and a place to sleep for the night has no head for a language course. As a mother of three, I know that a woman who spends half the day on the road buying diapers for her baby and toddler certainly doesn’t have that either.

New women and children have now joined the Women and Kids Space. There is more dancing and sliced fruit is distributed, and the next activities are considered together in the Women Space. A cosmetics afternoon would be great. Crochet is the most popular, certain wool colors are desired. It’s slowly getting dark and the first people are making their way back to camp. ROSA is slowly tidying up. While we were busy all day and the positive and relaxed atmosphere in the Women and Kids Space was also transferred to me, it turned into depression when the prison-like floodlights above the walls came on. The women and children now have to go back in there. One woman shows a photo of snakes in the camp, another tells us about all the aggressive dogs running free and sends us a video of it later. Her children are 11 and 13 years old and go back to bed because they don’t dare go out to the toilet vans. Others do not let their daughters out of the containers for fear of the mafia-like gangs. A woman from Iraq has used up all her family’s savings to enable her 17-year-old daughter to travel on to Germany. I can sense that the mother is finding the separation difficult, but she would rather know that she is safe in a residential group in Germany than here in the camp. I’m also saying goodbye to a little boy. He’s only wearing bathing shoes, it will soon be winter in Athens too. The doctor comes out of the truck and looks similarly depressed. She is only here for the second day, and at the end of the day there are still many names left on the list of patients. Luckily, there are the other girls from ROSA who line up to form a check-out circle. What went really well today? How are you? I have to think of the thousands behind the walls who we did not reach today, but also of those who we gave the strength to persevere today. As a rule, ROSA does not ask the women why, where they come from or what happens next. But sometimes it does come up and an NGO with legal knowledge would be helpful. We can mediate, because we know the Fenix organization(, which we meet the next day. Fenix offers free legal assistance for people on the run in Lesbos and Athens. The list of clients is always full, but they are currently looking for ways to reach the people in the camps even better and inform them about their rights. Maaike, a Dutch woman who has been living in Greece for four years, explains her holistic approach to us in the Athens offices with so much conviction that we wish every refugee had the opportunity to be represented by her organization. Their approach is to give refugees the tools and opportunities to take their lives back into their own hands. This is also the approach of the Mazi – Housing Project team( The organization offers single men between the ages of 18 and 30 accommodation, food and language courses. Men of this age are not a vulnerable group, which is why they are excluded from many support networks and services. This makes it difficult for what is still the largest group of refugees to escape the cycle of homelessness or unemployment. I am convinced that Mazi is doing a great job for these people and should actually be much bigger. “But it doesn’t really fit our funding profile,” says my male colleague on the board from Germany. In our selection, we are guided by need and not by social groups. The neediness experiences an additional component of hardship when another aspect is added, e.g. underage unaccompanied travelers, physically impaired people. Young, healthy men would also fall behind here. But I also think of our vulnerable group behind the camp walls, threatened by men. One way of protecting them can also be to offer the men a perspective. And Ruba reminds me that behind many men on the run there is often a family that is still exposed to danger in the country of origin and is waiting to be able to join them under less dangerous circumstances.

We have been overwhelmed by the commitment of all the organizations we have met and are convinced of the necessity of their existence. Due to the many current crises and wars in the world, the spotlight has not been on Greece and the EU’s external borders for some time now. We remain there with our foundation and try to help with our financial resources, but also to support the helpers and those in need through communication and networking.