I started my journey with Refugee Youth Service as a volunteer in the unofficial Calais Camp last year and I am now the Operations Officer for our projects across Europe. Essentially, this means I work from my laptop in London supporting the operations of each project in ever changing contexts. To get a better idea of how things move on the ground at our project sites, I took time to visit the locations where fantastic support is being delivered to children and young people through the projects in Calais and Ventimiglia this spring.
Velos Youth Centre in Athens had recently opened (4 weeks to be exact) and knowing how much preparation the team in Greece had put in to kick starting the project, I took an opportunity to head out there and see the magic for myself for the first time.
On taking off from Luton, I had the usual mix of apprehension of visiting yet another place where children and young people face risks most would not dream of. In the year I have been working with children and young people on the move, I have learned of the diverse and frankly terrifying experiences which drive these young people to leave their homes. They face more risks travelling from Middle Eastern and African countries to the European frontier in Italy and Greece. Many will then proceed to move across internal EU borders to find family members, known diaspora communities or just to somewhere they have been told is safe.
Once in Athens, I realised that although I had good reason for the apprehension, I was also filled with an incredible sense of pride for the services that RYS is providing through Velos Youth to support young people in the city.
Up 6 floors in a rickety lift, the Velos Youth space is bright and furnished with handmade sofas, coffee tables and desks (the products of one of the very first practical workshops the young people participated in with a local carpenter). My first contact with the staff was warm as I was welcomed into the space. I thought at the time, how positive it would be for a young person to step over the threshold and be met with smiling faces, someone who would be able to speak their language (we have a bunch of wonderfully knowledgable and multilingual youth assistants) and an introduction to all the wonderful activities and services there are available to them. On the first day, I walked into an acupuncture workshop which was quickly followed by a delicious home made lunch from the Velos Youth kitchen. In the afternoon, a Krav Maga specialist arrived and delivered a workshop on non-violent de-escalation techniques which was welcomed by the young people using the service that day with some inferring it is a much needed skill.
It didn’t take long to get stuck in to the daily running of the centre, meeting the young service users and helping out with running activities. Each day more and more young people were accessing the space and services. Sometimes this was a result of word of mouth and young people bringing their friends along with them. The most powerful testament to the outreach work carried out twice a week, was the number of young people arriving with the small flyer in their hands which they were given during a street session. It was during these street sessions, my initial apprehensions regarding the acute risks children face throughout their journeys were realised. Children and young people are facing exploitation on a nightly basis in a nearby square. It is open and blatant to anyone who would spend 10 minutes there. I observed young people being misinformed about the cost of legal services by men who appeared to be Greek nationals. The men, who would give drastically inflated costs for necessary services for refugees, would then provide ‘opportunities’ for the young people to earn the money through various types of work. Street workers from partner organisations informed me that this would take the form of domestic servitude and sexual exploitation. Alongside the risk of exploitation, the majority of young people are faced with homelessness or resort to staying in one of the many squatted buildings in the central city area. The Greek authorities and UNHCR are overwhelmed by the situation and this can be seen in the long waiting periods for accommodation and cash cards. In the meantime, without secure shelter and some cashflow young people are most at risk of exploitation.
This is why the services at Velos Youth are so important. Using a case management system, trained staff are able to support young people become self sufficient and secure accommodation, gain legal advice, and identify their own pathways to a healthier and wealthier life.
At the very least they can grab a hot shower, bung their washing in the machine and wait for it to dry whilst tucking in to a hearty meal (prepared by young people) before playing a round of Uno with friends.
I am proud to be part of a team of professionals driven to create immediate safety for vulnerable children and young people as well as aiming to create long term solutions for their safety, security and immigration status.
Thank you to all of our supporters and partners. Without you we would not have been able to achieve positive outcomes for the children and young people we serve. That said there is still much to be done on all scales to address the needs and to fulfil the human rights of all displaced people.
To support us to continue our work with for children and young people across Europe, follow the link to our fundraising page: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/velosyouth
To keep updated with our activities across our projects, ‘Like’ us on Facebook @RefugeeYouthService
Follow individual projects on Twitter:
@VelosYouth, @RYS_Calais and @RYS_Italy