Children bundled up in scarves and coats mill around hauling suitcases into the coaches. The young men take selfies with their mobile phones. As the three coaches get ready to set off there’s a short delay – two little boys scramble out of one bus for a last-minute bathroom stop.
It is January 18 and a bitterly cold day in Oreokastro, Thessaloniki, at a disused and unheated warehouse which has been home for more than 1,000 refugees for nearly a year. The snow has melted, but the winter chill seeps in through leather and wool to freeze toes in just a few minutes out in the cold. Today, sixty people, all refugee families, are moving to warmer accommodation, part of an urban housing program run by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and funded by the European Commission (ECHO). Under the programme, NRC has provided hotel accommodation for 409 refugees since December.
The children will be clean and warm and I am very happy.FAWIZA KHALAF, mother and Syrian refugee in Greece
From camp to hotel
Fawiza Khalaf’s three young sons are standing guard over the family’s possessions while they wait to board the coaches. She is pleased to finally leave Oreokastro, which the family of five from Damascus have called home for the past ten months.
“The children will be clean and warm,” she says. “I am very happy”.
A total of 409 people have been rehoused in hotels in the wider Thessaloniki area since December, with more than half of them since the cold snap left areas in northern Greece, including Oreokastro deep in snow earlier this month. The EU-funded Urban Housing and Response programme will provide short-term accommodation for the most vulnerable refugees – such as children, pregnant women and the elderly – and help them adjust to their new community.
60,000 people stranded
But it is also designed to respond to urgent needs in camps and settlements that the Greek government has set up for the some 60,000 people stranded in the country – such as the recent cold snap.
The mood lightens as soon as the coaches pull up to the driveway of the hotel in the seaside resort of Agia Triada. Coats and scarves are shed, and children scramble through the lobby of the hotel, clambering up the spiral staircase, as their parents wait patiently outside to check in to their new but temporary homes.
“We will have walls and rooms,” says Widad Madavatsi, 17, from Aleppo, Syria. “Maybe even heating. In the camp I felt like an animal.”
She and her three siblings and parents will definitely have heating at the hotel. The warehouse at Oreokastro they have just left was nearly impossible to heat effectively. With an electricity system never designed to cope with 1,000 people, power outages have been common. Once winter arrived, the use of hundreds of heaters at the same time meant the electrical board was so overloaded it caught fire and melted.
We will have walls and rooms. Maybe even heating. In the camp I felt like an animal.WIDAD MADAVATSI (17), refugee from Aleppo, Syria
Moved from camp to camp
Like Fawzia and many others, Widad is a veteran of Greek sites. She arrived with her family on Mytilini, Lesvos, from Turkey, then stayed in Idomeni, the makeshift camp near the border with the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, one of the countries that shut its borders with Greece to refugees and migrants in February, leaving tens of thousands stranded. She and her family moved to another camp in Greece and then Oreokastro, where they have been for 10 months.
At the hotel, the guests will get three meals a day, with menus that have been arranged to take account of dietary preferences. There will be follow up and monitoring of health problems and other issues to help the refugees many of whom speak no Greek and little English.
But even while the hotel is warm and welcoming, it is not a long-term solution.
Next stop a flat or another country
The hotel stays will be for two months, which gives NRC time to find apartments that are more suitable for family living while the refugees await news of their bid to move to other European countries, a process that has been tied up in slow-moving asylum and relocation processes.
“It is important that the European Commission is providing the support to allow us to continue this work and ensure dignified accommodation for asylum-seekers and refugees,” says NRC’s Country Director in Greece Gianmaria Pinto. “This programme is not only a life-saving measure assisting refugees to move out of the current inappropriate conditions, it is also the most dignified.”
This programme is not only a life-saving measure assisting refugees to move out of the current inappropriate conditions, it is also the most dignified.GIANMARIA PINTO, NRC’s Country Director in Greece