Athens, Greece. Of the 53 thousand refugees living in the Greek islands, 4,500 are in the camp at Piraeus. It is an “informal” camp totally supported by volunteers. Twenty three year-old Elena Fanciulli is amongst the volunteers who visit the place regularly. She belongs to Pope John XXIII Association and has been living in Athens since December after she finished her studies in Sciences for Peace. The young Italian has been watching the situation as it rapidly evolves.
“When I came to Piraeus for the first time my job was to wait for the boat, to welcome the refugees and give them some food. They would disembark and be rushed to the buses that would take them to Idomeni and the other border camps. Greece wasn’t their final destination. Ever since the borders were closed in March, Piraeus has been a hell on earth. There aren’t enough toilets, no showers, barefoot children in men’s clothing and trying to walk in men’s trousers . . . Food is the latest problem. It often runs out. Since Piraeus is an “informal” camp there isn’t any coordination and it’s likely that much of the food donated by Athenian citizens is lost. Everything you see in Piraeus has been donated. Despite the fact that it’s such a living hell, there are some people who are trying to bring a bit of Heaven.”
What lies ahead for the 4,725 people that have been stranded in Piraeus for over a month? “The number of refugees has to be reduced to zero. We’re on the threshold of the tourist season and the refugees will be sent to other open-air camps, so that the port area can be vacated and the cruise ships can arrive. The refugees will encounter more stalling. Greece runs the risk of becoming one huge open-air refugee camp. Here, there are mainly Syrians, but also Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians and, in the prisons of Athens, there are Moroccans and Algerians who typically arrive without documents and are mostly economic migrants.”
Besides John XXIII Association, there is also the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Mensajeros de la Paz, Red Cross, Pampeiraiki and the Focolare who distribute aid and entertain the children. “Sometimes, all you need is a crayon and a sheet of paper, a balloon and a hula-hoop to raise their morale,” Elena explains. “But,” she reiterates, “the operation is carried out as a network, and no one is in charge. Associations and churches come to work here because it’s especially here in these informal camps that there is more need.”
The associations meet every week with the UNHCR to coordinate. Updated information about arrivals and distribution of refugees can be found on their website. And whenever possible, technical and legal support is accompanied by spiritual and human support. “Once a month we meet with the other Catholic Associations at the Jesuits’ Kentro Arrupe. We plan but also pray and encourage one another. We also feel the pain and need a listening ear so that we can let it out. We let out our fears, our thoughts about the future, how we can improve things. If a volunteer gets fed up, then no one will eat, no one will be clothed . . . Volunteering has to be in place, but it shouldn’t be the only resource.”
“These are depressed human beings here, shoeless and without any light in their eyes. It’s only thanks to the humanity of so many Greeks that we are able to carry on. Doctors can be found – for free – up to three o’clock in the morning. This is their outlook at the bottom of Europe where so many people are doing whatever they can to help.”
What led you to do this? “After graduation I felt it was time to put into practice what I had learned. I decided to leave [Italy]. A friend recommended Pope John XXIII. I was just in time for the missions course that prepared us to stay at the camp and deal with our emotions and, after the interview, I set off. I had asked to be sent to a place that would turn my life upside down and where my studies would be affirmed. I’d been thinking about Latin America, but they recommended Greece because that was the eye of the storm. Now I’m here doing whatever I can, at times with my knees to the ground, since I’m no one politically speaking, but I can do at least something, and I do it with many tears in the evening before going to sleep. I know I’m only a drop in the ocean. And perhaps I am in need of the poor, of this encounter with another.”
Maria Chiara De Lorenzo