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Nov10TueCanadian Salvation Army officer shares his first-hand experience serving refugees in Greece. November 10, 2015 by Major Rick Shirran
Major Rick Shirran is a Salvation Army officer from the Canada and Bermuda Territory, where he holds the position of emergency disaster services director and SATERN director. He is currently in his second week as team leader, serving refugees in Athens, Greece, while working alongside Major Haris Giannaros (United Kingdom Territory with the Republic of Ireland) and local corps officers, soldiers and volunteers.
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The situation in Athens continues to be unstable. Most of last week was very quiet because there was a transportation strike, and the ferries were not arriving at the Port of Piraeus from the islands. As a result, there were few migrants and refugees in Victoria Square (the "Plata"). When the ferries do arrive, refugees congregate in Victoria Square in order to get tickets and meet the bus that will take them north to the border of Macedonia.
Those who have money—usually the Syrians—purchase tickets and move north quickly. Those who are attempting to have money sent to them so that they can continue their journey must wait in one of the three refugee camps until their funds arrive, either through Western Union or some other method. Some of the methods of transferring funds are a little shady and the migrants are taken advantage of. For those who have no access to funds, it is even more difficult. The smugglers' network from here into the rest of Europe is very active and effective.
The weather is not cold here yet (at least by Canadian standards), which is helpful for those who sleep outside or have no place to get shelter during the daytime. Temperatures have been in the low to mid-20s C during the day, but are lower at night. The refugees we saw today (November 9) appear to be dressed for the cooler weather.
At first, the corps would take food to Victoria Square to feed the hungry, and provide warm clothing, blankets, hygiene products, baby formula and so on. In the past week, more NGOs have appeared and are providing food as well, so the corps has scaled back food distribution in the square, rather than duplicate service.
Team members visit the square on a regular basis to meet people and try to provide services that might be falling though the cracks. I met one young man this morning who was from Afghanistan. He had worked as a translator for the British and American troops. It took him two months to get from Afghanistan to Turkey through much hardship. Crossing the borders was always challenging. Upon crossing the border into Iran, his best friend was killed by the Iranian army. There is always the threat of someone attempting to recruit the men into the Taliban or ISIS, or of being detained at the border. Upon arriving in Turkey, he had to endure a ride in a small rubber boat for two hours to reach the Greek islands. He lost most of his personal belongings during the trip. He has been waiting three days now to receive a money transfer from Afghanistan and has been staying in one of the refugee camps. When his money arrives, he hopes to continue his journey north to England. This is just one of thousands of similar stories that have been shared in these days.
Although the majority of the refugees are landing in Greece on one of the islands, The Salvation Army is not active in the responses there because of capacity. However, we do hear stories about what is happening there. For example, we've heard that, on the island of Lesvos, the refugees far outnumber the local population. The situation there is becoming critical because there are reports that the refugees are cutting down the olive trees to burn. This could destroy the livelihood of the local population who depend upon the crop of olives.
The task for our team is to find a location and assist the corps in setting up a care centre where refugees can access reliable information, get food and clothing, and access the internet free of charge. To date, we have found a suitable location between the corps and Victoria Square that will be easily accessible. As soon as approval to rent the facility is received from the Italy Command, we will begin to set up the facility.
Please continue to pray for the Salvationists in Greece as they try to meet the needs of the refugees, many of whom have lost everything to find a safe new home.