When war came to the Syrian town of Kobani, the widow Shamza Misto fled with six of her eight children across the border to Turkey and then to Greece. From there, she planned to cross through the Balkans to join her son and daughter in Germany.
But from the border town of Idomeni in Greece she watched with despair as the number of refugees allowed into the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia from Greece dwindled, to 15 a day, to 10 and then none as northern countries sealed their frontiers against refugees. Shamza and her children, aged four to twenty, were suddenly, like 60,000 others, stuck in northern Greece, the ancient and modern gateway to continental Europe.
A city with a history of refugees and migrants
The northern city of Thessaloniki has received waves of refugees and migrants over centuries – Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century and ethnic Greeks from Ottoman Turkey in the last century. It is in Thessaloniki where the Norwegian Refugee Council is now hunting for apartments for families like Shamza’s, part of a European Union-funded program to give stranded refugees a chance at regaining a normal life on their journey to somewhere else in Europe.
Shamza and her children lived in the makeshift camp of Idomeni – which at one point numbered as many as 14,000 people – before being moved to another camp. After 10 months in tents, they now live in an apartment in the Thessaloniki city center, a short distance from Egnatia street, named after the ancient Roman route that led to Europe.
Even though it is spartan, they have at least proper walls and bathrooms compared to shared showers on the sites. There is a kitchen, looking out on a park where old men sit and play backgammon. The balcony is just wide enough for Shamza and Amid, her son, to entertain visitors with coffee.
For the NRC, housing the most vulnerable among the refugees in apartments – like Shamza and her six children – is a priority. The plan is to move 2,100 people living in camps and hotels around Thessaloniki into apartments by the end of the year.
The project is funded by the European Commission until the end of July, with a budget of 1.8 million Euro.
A safe place to stay
Apartments give families and individuals a sense of privacy and safety after months of living among strangers in large communal sites, tents and warehouses. Apartments provide an environment where the refugees can start to re-adjust to normal community life – buying their own food, making their own meals. Children get a space to study.
Thalia Tzevrenzi, one of the Greek residents of the building, is grateful for the company. Shamza’s daughters have struck up a friendship with Thalia, 81, and go to her apartment to watch television even though the children speak no Greek and she speaks no Arabic. They scramble downstairs to help her with her groceries while Thalia maneuvers the stairs with her cane.
“Their needs now are very different from the time when they could just transit through Greece. There is an urgent need to provide these families with proper accommodation and ensure their children can go to school, giving them a chance to regain a normal life.”GIANMARIA PINTO, NRC Country Director
But as a child of Black Sea Greeks who fled Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century, Thalia frets about their fate.
“They should be in school,” she says. “They should be with other children, learning some Greek.”
In Thessaloniki, as well as on the island of Chios, NRC is providing informal education, addressing concerns such as those expressed by Thalia. So far, more than 700 refugee children and youth have had access to English and math lessons. A community drop-in centre, a space for refugees and migrants, is planned for Thessaloniki and non-formal education will be provided in the centre by NRC, alongside other activities.
“For many refugees, like Shamza’s family, long months of waiting in Greece for a reply to their asylum applications has now become a year,” said Country Director Gianmaria Pinto. “Their needs now are very different from the time when they could just transit through Greece. There is an urgent need to provide these families with proper accommodation and ensure their children can go to school, giving them a chance to regain a normal life.”