A recurring theme in our conversations with refugees is how their living conditions in Greece are tied in to their feelings of dignity and self-reliance.
Some camps, like the camp at the abandoned Elliniko airport, are mostly sustained by humanitarian organizations that provide daily meals, portable toilets, and medical care. People who spend time in these camps tell us that resources are strained and tensions are high. People are frustrated and embarrassed by the need to wait in lines every day in the heat for food, for the toilet, and the shower.
Conditions are better at other camps, such as the camp run by the Athens municipality. People are afforded more privacy, space, and their own toilet and sink. However, when asked, they said they wished they could make their own food, and they disliked not having choices about which foods they could eat each day.
The real issue is not about how the camp food could be improved; it is that people want to feel the dignity that comes from working and having choices. Many refugees in conversations with us have said that they would prefer to work or to cook their own food than to depend on others to provide everything.
There are also alternatives to camps aimed to increase the self-reliance of refugee families. The organization Praksis has filled 540 apartments around Athens with refugee families. According to one employee we spoke to, the UNHCR has called this program one the of the largest initiatives of its kind. Praksis visits each family several times a week and provides the families with transport tickets and grocery vouchers. Under this system, families not only have the safety and privacy of their own living spaces, but they also have the freedom of movement around the city and options about which foods and groceries they want to buy. Praksis provides the necessary support, and refugee families are also encouraged to learn how to navigate the city independently.
Another alternative to camp life is community living in one of the squats around the city. The squats we have visited are supported by Greek ‘solidarians’ (some prefer this term to ‘volunteer’), and they function like co-ops. Refugees live in community settings and play a role in the decision making and day-to-day operations of the squats. This includes contributing to communal cooking, cleaning, and even fixing the plumbing. Many people have also learned English from workshops in the squats. The people we spoke to told us that they preferred the working and cooking in the squats, because they were able to feel productive, even as they wait in Greece for the next step in their journey.
On a final note, although dignified living conditions are a day-to-day concern for refugees in Greece, most also say that their most pressing need is to have their case for asylum processed. One woman I spoke to said that many other refugees actually become worried when camp conditions improve, because they are afraid that this means the camp is preparing to be a long-term home for refugees. She emphasized that she wouldn’t mind the food or the conditions as long as she could know what would happen to her asylum application, because being granted official status in Europe would allow her and her family to find work and finally begin their lives again.