Welcoming the stranger in Athens: the Church responds to the refugee crisis

14 August 2015

Sanitary facilities are extremely limited in the makeshift camp, with just one hosepipe, one outdoor shower, and two chemical toilets for over 800 families, who have been brought to Athens by ferry boat this past week from landing points on the Greek islands. Fr Malcolm first met them on the metro as they travelled up from Pireaus harbour.

As Fr Malcolm and Captain Polis distribute the sandwiches, they meet up with others who have brought food – freshly baked cheese pies from a local bakery. Milk is also on hand to give to families with children. The sandwiches have been made up the evening before by volunteers at the Salvation Army’s headquarters.

One of the migrants, a young boy, speaks English. “I would like to thank you for all you are doing for us. We need as much support as possible and more. I ask you to pray for us,” he tells one of the Salvation Army helpers, who assures the boy that many will pray for him and the others in the camp.

While media attention in northern Europe focuses on the tense situation in Calais and its effects on Britain and France, the churches in Greece, including the Anglican chaplaincy of Greater Athens, continue their ministry to the growing number of migrants and refugees in the country.

“In Greece, heroic efforts of Churches and community groups are being stretched to the limit as they respond out of human kindness to the needs of the new arrivals,” says the Rt Revd David Hamid, Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese in Europe. “[They] are remembering that to welcome the homeless and refugee is central to the Gospel mandate.”

About 124,000 migrants have arrived this year to the Greek archipelago by sea, according to Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR director for Europe, and by mid-2015 arrival numbers had outpaced even Italy. 5,000 migrants are presently on the island of Kos alone wanting to be processed before being sent to Athens, with more arriving each day, says Fr Malcolm.

On Friday, the Government of Greece put out an SOS to the international community for assistance.

Bishop David points out that the migrants are landing in a country mired in financial crisis where the population is barely coping with the fallout of crippling austerity measures

It’s a “fast-changing scene along with a sense of [political and economic] meltdown,” comments Fr Malcolm.

The Anglican senior chaplain states that more coordination among the churches involved in humanitarian outreach is urgently needed given the highly unstable situation. The Chaplaincy already works very closely with Apostoli, the administrative hub for the Greek Orthodox Church’s welfare work. Recently, Fr Malcolm has been instrumental in organising planning meetings bringing together Apostoli staff, Anglicans, the Salvation Army and others.

The Chaplaincy has been responding to the needs of both migrants and Greeks in the Greater Athens area since well before the present crisis, however.

Six years ago the Chaplaincy paired up with the Greek Orthodox Church to establish “Church in the Street”, a soup kitchen that provides up to 800 meals each day of the year for migrants and homeless Greeks. The Orthodox Church takes the lead, says Fr Malcolm, but donations from the UK and Anglican Chaplaincies in Europe support the programme and volunteers from the Chaplaincy help serve meals.

At the beginning of 2015, a cold snap caused four deaths in one week at the Amigdaleza Detention Centre on the edge of Athens, which was housing 400 migrants in increasingly critical conditions. Some had been detained well over the statutory time of 18 months and 40 were unaccompanied minors. The Chaplaincy brought a substantial collection of clothes, shoes, toiletries, blankets, sleeping bags and telephone cards for the detainees. Recently, the detention centre was partially closed down, Fr Malcolm says.

The Chaplaincy also channels funds to different residential programmes run by the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Evangelical Church that care for vulnerable members of society, such as senior citizens and people with Down’s syndrome, and provide emotional support for kindergarten pupils and their parents in a deprived area of the city. Fr Malcolm notes that such programmes have been hard-hit by austerity cutbacks.

Bishop David laments the political paralysis and the seeming inability of governments to find dignified solutions to the current humanitarian crisis. “Europe is the world’s richest continent. Yet we [in Europe] cannot seem to find an effective way to address the needs of migrants and refugees who are arriving in our midst.”

What is needed is to arrange for decent temporary shelter, food, shoes, clothing, toiletries and health care, while also setting up a way to process those who have asylum claims, he says.

“The time has come to link in an effective way the efforts of governments, agencies, religious communities and NGOs to serve those who flee to [our] countries, seeking protection and an opportunity to live in peace. Surely that is a more humanitarian response than reinforcing fences and sending in extra security,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Fr Malcolm appeals for support for the Anglican Chaplaincy of Greater Athens’ humanitarian outreach.

“Funds are extremely scarce and the need is growing every day.”

The Anglican Alliance is arranging a conference call on Tuesday 18th August so that other Anglican and Episcopalian churches and agengies can hear directly from Fr Malcolm and consider together a wider response through practical support and advocacy.


Photo: Fr Malcolm Bradshaw visits refugee families in a park in Athens