‘If we don’t help, then who will?’

Mi­grant women’s net­work in Athens pro­vides nu­tri­tious break­fasts to refugee chil­dren

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY LINA GIANNAROU

The found­ing mem­bers of Melissa, a new net­work of mi­grants who live in Greece, did not hold a spe­cial coun­cil or vote on the is­sue. They sim­ply asked them­selves dur­ing a nor­mal con­ver­sa­tion one af­ter­noon a cou­ple of weeks ago: “If not us, then who? If we, who are women, moth­ers and im­mi­grants, don’t give a help­ing hand to the chil­dren of Pe­dion to Areos, who will?”

They got to work the very next day to pro­vide some re­lief to the Afghan and Syr­ian chil­dren liv­ing among hun­dreds of refugees in a makeshift camp in the down­town Athens park.

Maria Ifechukude Ohilebo from Nige­ria, Deb­bie Car­los Va­len­cia from the Philip­pines, Click Ng­were from Zim­babwe and the other women from Asia, Africa and the Balkans, all ac­tive mem­bers of their re­spec­tive com­mu­ni­ties who came to­gether to es­tab­lish Melissa with the aim of build­ing net­works of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with their host com­mu­ni­ties, no­ticed the sit­u­a­tion at the park long be­fore the author­i­ties did.

Over a month ago, Vic­to­ria Square, where Melissa has its new of­fice, was oc­cu­pied by Syr­ian refugees. Pe­dion to Areos, which many of the net­work’s women walked through ev­ery day, started fill­ing with new­com­ers too – en­tire fam­i­lies, moth­ers trav­el­ing alone with their chil­dren and un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors among them. Their num­bers be­came too high for the Melissa ladies to do some­thing for all of them, but they could do some­thing for the chil­dren at least. Start­ing about 10 days ago, they be­gan pre­par­ing 170 to 220 serv­ings of nu­tri­tious break­fast, with a dif­fer­ent menu ev­ery day: bis­cuits, car­rot, banana or or­ange cake, frit­ters, sand­wiches, muesli bars, etc.

“It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to watch them work,” an an­thro­pol­o­gist who helps the net­work, Nad­ina Christopoulou, tells Kathimerini. “These are women who start their day at 5.30 a.m., work a 10-hour shift and then go home, where they pre­pare break­fasts for the Pe­dion tou Areos chil­dren. These are in­cred­i­bly re­source­ful women who make some­thing out of noth­ing.”

The food is pre­pared ev­ery evening at one of the net­work mem­bers’ houses, pack­aged along with a piece of fruit at the Vic­to­ria Square of­fice and then dis­trib­uted the fol­low­ing morn­ing – and the en­tire cost is cov­ered by Melissa’s mem­bers. It is a sponta- neous ini­tia­tive that has not been reg­is­tered with any of­fi­cial author­i­ties and is there­fore not en­ti­tled to ap­ply for any fund­ing. As the women of Melissa say, they sim­ply couldn’t stand by and do noth­ing for the chil­dren – who could just as easily have been their own.

The sym­bol­ism is pow­er­ful: In the mid­dle of a full-blown cri­sis, among the first to ex­tend a help­ing hand to the refugees in the park, at a time when even the Euro­pean Union is act­ing sim­ply as an ob­server, them­selves count among so­ci­ety’s most vul­ner­a­ble.

Ini­tia­tives to help the refugees in the park are co­or­di­nated by the head of the Afghan com­mu­nity in Athens, who spends all day at Pe­dion to Areos. Those work­ing there say that the great­est amount of help is be­ing pro­vided by groups and in­di­vid­u­als who are hardly heard from, such as a Su­danese doc­tor who has been volunteering his time and ex­per­tise since the day the camp was set up.

Many res­i­dents of the neigh­bor­hood are also qui­etly of­fer­ing their sup­port. Some shop­keep­ers, for ex­am­ple, will give the mem­bers of Melissa twice as much as what they ask for when they’re buy­ing bread or fruit for the chil­dren’s break­fasts. Greeks and for­eign­ers liv­ing in the area ask how they can help and the Melissa women, who can­not ac­cept money do­na­tions, di­rect them to the bak­ery where the group has a run­ning tab.

The break­fasts are pre­pared ev­ery evening at one of the net­work mem­bers’ houses, pack­aged along with a piece of fruit at the Vic­to­ria Square of­fice and then dis­trib­uted to the chil­dren the fol­low­ing morn­ing.

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