What I See
Finding Refuge began when we saw firsthand the limits of housing services offered by the government and other humanitarian aid organization for refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers in Athens.
How can someone work on their asylum case, find a job, learn a language, and gain important skills if they don’t have a roof over their head? How can people endure these difficulties after fleeing war and oppression?
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The homelessness of refugees in Athens is a systemic issue. Government housing is crowded– wait times for obtaining housing ranged anywhere from 3-4 months. Refugees occupy vacant buildings to form self-autonomous squats, but the government evicts those as well.
Finding a place to live through renting out an apartment is an extremely difficult process for refugees and asylum seekers in Greece. Bureaucracy around obtaining the proper paperwork like a tax ID number to be able to rent an apartment is nearly impossible.
Because of this, refugees and asylum seekers have to rely on the informal sector of subletting apartments. But without proper regulations on this market, they are often exploited and tricked into paying two or three times more than the price for a small cramped room.
In fact, the going rate in the informal sector is 150 euros per month per person. This means, a family of four may be expected to pay 600 euros just for one room. It is for these reasons many refugees and asylum seekers are forced onto the rough Athenian streets.
At Finding Refuge, we not only want to provide housing, but we also want to ensure people have the peace of mind to be able to start working towards their long-term goals rather than worrying about where they will sleep for the night.
Note: In July 2020, the Greek government enacted a law that would make thousands of recognized refugees in government (and EU-funded) housing homeless. The aim of this law was to alleviate crowding in the islands and allocate more resources to housing projects on the mainland. Instead it has only exacerbated an existing homelessness problem amongst vulnerable and neglected refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers in Athens.
Proud Facts About My Organization
While we have only been open a short time, in just the last year, Finding Refuge has housed 106 people in 35 different accommodations from anywhere between one and nine months. Now in our new community housing center called Duniya House, we are providing safe shelter to about 40 people.
Finding Refuge also has a general needs fulfillment program because we realize that sometimes shelter is not enough. Through this program, we can offer emergency cash assistance for services such as a life-saving surgery, to baby milk for a toddler with health conditions and a disability.
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We also realize that in order for people to be self-sufficient, housing is not enough. That is why we launched our Language Education and Development Program, which trains Arabic speaking refugees as educators and connects them with Arabic language learners. Through this program we help refugees facilitate their own tutoring business. We currently have three educators and have had over 11 students sign up for classes!
Finding Refuge began from humble beginnings as a gofundme initiative launched by two women of color university students. They had a vision: actively ensure that refugees and asylum seekers have the ability to access their right to safe and dignified housing.
Our co-founders Lena Azzouz and Ghania Chaudhry volunteered with many refugee-led organizations in Athens, Greece prior to starting Finding Refuge. It was through this experience that they realized there was a major service gap related to housing.
In March 2019, prior to the start of Finding Refuge, our co-founders tried to find shelter for three vulnerable women who were survivors of sexual assault which they faced while being homeless. Some of these women were mothers to young children.
They tried to access housing through large NGOs and even squats but all the avenues were either full or not accepting new applicants. Although they felt defeated, they channeled those feelings into creating something that would solve these struggles. Through Finding Refuge, we are able to ensure that refugee lone women and single mothers facing homelessness can find a safe place to live.
I Feel Happy When
Let us share a happy story of a birth which took place NOT in a cold tent in a city park, but in a warm, clean, local hospital.
About a month ago, the Finding Refuge on-site team was conducting intake calls with families who applied for accommodation at Duniya House. One of the families we called via video only had a tent they had set up in a park in Athens.
The family, originally from Syria, shared their story of how they had been in Greece for some time planning for their new lives and applying for asylum. They received a negative decision on their asylum case, and were abruptly kicked out of their UN-funding housing as a result. The mother was 9 months pregnant.
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She showed us her bulging belly over video and told us it was her biggest fear to have this baby born in this tent.
The family did not want to give up on their future in Greece. They were in the process of appealing the negative decision on their asylum case and were doing anything they could to try to stay in Greece, even if it meant living in a tent in a park while being nine months pregnant.
The family was approved for housing at Duniya House and were moved in promptly. Just hours after the family moved in, the mother went into labor!
It was about 10PM when our on-site coordinator quickly made his way to the building while other Duniya House residents were quick to come make sure the mother was okay. We ordered a taxi for the family, our coordinator, and another resident — a Syrian mother who wanted to be there in support — to the hospital.
At 4:27 AM, a healthy baby boy was born to the family at a local Greek hospital. It was a miracle that we were able to move in the family just hours before the mother gave birth. She later mentioned to us that she feels like the baby was waiting until they were in a warm, safe place to call home before coming into the world.
When they left the hospital, they came back to beds and blankets, neighbors sharing food, and congratulatory words instead of a cold tent in a city park.
Why We Can’t Do It Like You’d Expect
Finding Refuge is a small organization composed mostly of university students, recent alums, and Palestinian and Syrian refugees. Due to the nature of our project and limited funding resources, all of our off-site team members are volunteers.
We have only two paid staff members who work on our on-site team—and they themselves are refugees. Having people on our team that are a part of the refugee community in Greece gives us insight on how to best stand in solidarity and serve the community.
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Here is an example of how crucial they are is in the context of our vetting process for moving in new families:
We conduct one-on-one intakes with potential residents via a WhatsApp video call. These interviews allow us to gain a deeper understanding into the level of their vulnerability and how we may be able to best support them.
Having Suhel, our on-site coordinator and a refugee from Syria, on these intake calls is essential because he is most familiar with the asylum process in Greece and can detect true vulnerability and know whether or not someone is truly in need.
Besides this, having people from the community on our team, providing services to their own community, decreases the power dynamic usually found in conventional humanitarian aid delivery.
A Direct Grant
Our residents have many things to offer. Some of the refugee women are hair stylists and makeup artists. A single father has carpentry skills. One family worked in agriculture back in Syria.
An unrestricted direct grant would help us purchase the necessary materials for them to be able to start offering services based on their crafts.
We would like to set up a salon, a workshop for carpeting, and maybe even a rooftop garden to plant fresh fruits and vegetables that can then be sold at local street markets.
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Receiving a direct grant would mean being able to provide holistic support to our residents to ensure they have all their basic needs met to be able to navigate their host country as an active member of society.
We would like to expand to a larger building so we could house more people. We would also like to give raises to our Duniya House staff as they are refugees themselves and are currently not being paid enough for all the work that they do.
Want to Learn More
Make a Direct Grant?