A Herculean effort is underway in Greece to care for the immediate and long term needs of thousands of children who have been unwillingly caught in the web of war and violence– and have somehow ended up in the streets of Athens and detention centers and police stations throughout the country.
According to official accounts, there are 3,256 of them. Although the average age is 14, children as young as 13 months old, who fled war zones back home– countries like Afghanistan, Syria– somewhere along the way were separated from their families.
Some lost them on the sea crossing from Turkey while others were separated during chaotic moments of their journeys when they were forced to flee their homes. Each story is an individual one.
There are no “amber alerts” for these missing children and no emergency SMS messages buzzing on cell phones alerting people that a child has been lost or abducted. Their faces aren’t appearing on milk cartons either like they do in the West.
These children are largely forgotten– the most vulnerable element of this refugee crisis that has seen millions flee their homes.
Enter the Bodossaki Foundation and an important human welfare campaign that they have launched to address the needs of these vulnerable children.
A foundation founded by a Greek industrialist in 1973, Bodossaki has done exceptional work over the years in assisting Greek students throughout the world with academic support and research grants, as well as numerous other social welfare, cultural and educational endeavors.
But as society’s needs changed in March 2015, the foundation too decided to shift some of its focus to the immediate humanitarian needs facing the influx of refugees in Greece, with emphasis on unaccompanied minors.
“They are the most vulnerable,” Sofia Kouvelaki told me during our first meeting.
“They have fled violence and have arrived in a place– without their parents or loved ones, scared, scarred, and they need our help,” she told me, while sharing passionately, their story.
“When These kids arrive in Greece some of them are officially registered like all other refugees. Since the closing of the border these kids are trapped in Greece where accommodation facilities are not adequate to shelter all of them. Hence they end up in camps, detention centers and even police stations. The conditions we have witnessed are horrible. Our goal is to get them out of these conditions and allow them to be kids again, while supporting their proper development as humans.” -Sofia Kouvelaki
And as in any situation, it is the most vulnerable who are first taken advantage of by the criminal elements. Already, child prostitution rings have popped up in seedy bars and parks in central Athens where refugee children are pimped out for sex acts for €5 or €10.
Love and compassion is the answer
Kouvelaki, a specialist on unaccompanied minors and socially vulnerable groups, was enlisted by Bodossaki to undertake its new efforts to alleviating human pain and suffering taking place in the streets of Greece in 2013 and has since helped develop the efforts for unaccompanied minors.
Through a network of collaborations with existing non-governmental organizations and partners working on the ground in Athens, Bodossaki hopes to open an adequate number of shelters to house these forgotten children who are currently trapped in a government-run network of detention centers and even police stations and jails after they have arrived in Greece, if they are not already on the streets.
The first shelter opened just a few days ago in a central Athens neighborhood near Agios Panteleimonas Church and will become home for 18 children– with a warm bed, cooked meals, social workers and psychologists to help children integrate into Greek society and overcome fears and trauma of separation.
The building– donated by a generous grocer who didn’t have children of his own– wanted his memory to be kept alive after his passing in a way that would benefit children. Today, the front entrance of the shelter bears his name.
The concept is simple: to provide these children an environment that resembles a home. Bedrooms, games and recreational areas, freedom to move in and out, meet and play with other children in the neighborhood and become integrated as quickly as possible.
Greek language lessons are offered and the children are taken to the theater and other events taking place throughout the city. There’s a curfew and round the clock security all children are required to follow “house rules.”
The Bodossaki foundation created the Giving for Greece Program for Unaccompanied Refugee Children to help spread the word about the challenges faced by the unaccompanied minors, as well as to raise funds from people and companies that want to help.
According to Kouvelaki, it costs around €27,000 per month to run a 30 children shelter, which includes food, staff, security and all of the costs involved to support the children. That comes to about €30 per child per day, for all of the costs associated with trying substitute these children’s missing families including a home, food, as well as all of the additional social services being offered.
Currently, most funds come from the foundation itself, as well as from donations that have been received from events and donors.
*We are currently developing a communication strategy together with The Bodossaki Foundation and will share updates via our website and social media channels. In the meantime, stay informed by following Sofia Kouvelaki on Twitter, or Giving for Greece via their website, on Facebook and Twitter.