On a cold Friday evening in February, I met Karima*, an Afghan physiotherapist, in Athens. We sat down in a cafe drinking tea and she told me about herself, her family and their ordeal as refugees in Greece.
For months, immigration officials collected evidence to verify that they are indeed in a vulnerable position and qualify for asylum.
They were eventually transferred to the mainland, where they realised that they had only escaped one nightmare to find themselves in another. They now live in a three-room apartment with 13 other people - three families in total.
They recently started receiving monthly cash cards with which they buy food. “It is not enough”, she said. She explained that they still rely on donations from volunteers to meet other family needs. Big NGOs do not really help.
For the past few months, I’ve heard many stories like hers. Every time I sit with refugees and I listen to them speak of their misery and hopelessness, I feel like I’m listening to my own story.
More than 20 years ago, I too was a refugee, fleeing the war in Bosnia.
I hated, and still hate, every day of my life as a refugee. I lived in the basement of a house in Zagreb for several months.
After living as a refugee for a year and a half, I decided to go back to my hometown, Sarajevo, which was still under siege. I felt better living under siege than living in humiliation as a refugee.
Today there’s a lot of talk from the international community on the Geneva Convention and there are many fund-raising campaigns for refugees by major international organisations. But European governments are not changing the way they mistreat refugees and international organisations are not actually providing any meaningful help on the ground.
Most of the 66,000 refugees and migrants in Greece have been living in inhuman conditions for more than two years. Meanwhile, the number of refugees in the country is increasing every day. According to UNHCR data, from January to mid-March, more than 3,300 new arrivals were registered in the country.
Different organisations and government entities spent billions, but the situation has not improved significantly. People are becoming desperate: The rate of suicide attempts and drug addiction among refugees has skyrocketed.
So far, Greece is the single biggest recipient of EU Home Affairs funding, with $1bn made available over two years in financial support. Greece has also received more than $330m from the UN’s Inter-Agency Appeal.
Part of the money has gone to big nongovernmental or intergovernmental organisations and part to the government institutions. But none of these organisations - according to volunteers and refugees - managed to do what is expected of them in order to make people’s lives bearable.
Currently, the volunteers and activists working with refugees are providing help and services in an effective way, but they cannot continue handling a humanitarian crisis of this scale on their own. They are constantly speaking out on how the current system is not working, that change is needed, and that the world should learn from past mistakes.
But those with the money, big organisations and governmental and intergovernmental bodies, are the ones making decisions and they have the power to shape the crisis. It looks like they do not listen.
*The names of the refugee women have been changed to protect their privacy.
This article has been excerpted from the article: ‘I listen to refugees and I hear my own story’.