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Back home, to help the homeless

Maria Karra is seen in Tibet where she worked at a local orphanage back in 2008. In June she helped set up Emfasis, a Greek NGO for the homeless.

By Ioanna Fotiadi

Maria Karra first started to make an impact with her charity work in Southeast Asia. Persistently and systematically, the 47-year-old activist helped to upgrade the living conditions of children with disabilities in Malaysia before focusing her time and energy on young orphans in Phuket, Thailand. She spoke about her 10 years conducting charity work across Southeast Asia as well as her more recent undertakings in Greece during a TEDx event in Athens this weekend.

“It all started in 2000 in Dubai when I settled there after a few years of traveling across Europe,” Karra told Kathimerini in a recent interview.

“There, I was approached by a strong woman, Laila Armstrong, an Egyptian whose vision was to bring all child-focused NGOs in the Middle East and Asia under the same umbrella so that they could work together more effectively. This became known as the ‘Love for All’ project.

“Although I had just given birth to my second son, I joined the effort because it appeared that I had some natural talent for social work,” Karra said.

In the beginning, Karra was able to help through her contacts. After all, she had worked as manager at an international hotel chain for years. Thanks to her rich contacts list, she was able to organize fundraising and public awareness events. Later, however, she started getting involved in more hands-on work. She and her family moved to Malaysia, Singapore, Phuket and then Tibet, with Karra always putting herself at the service of local NGOs.

“It was in 2009, as I was traveling back from Dubai, when I heard the first bad news from Greece.” At a school reunion in Athens, Maria spoke with Tasos Smetopoulos, a volunteer for local NGO Praksis. “His stories were shocking,” she said. “They were reminiscent of conditions in Third World countries.”

These discussions led to the creation of Emfasis, a nonprofit organization based in Dafni, near central Athens, in June.

“We do four hours of street work every day to locate people who live on the streets, and we try to build a relation of trust,” said Smetopoulos, who now leads a 18-member team made up of social workers, psychologists, medics, workers and volunteers.

“Homeless people require a delicate approach. When you go to speak to a homeless person you need to be humble and respectful because the bench is his space, his home,” he told Kathimerini.

The Emfasis team informs the homeless about the services which are available to them as they are often poorly informed.

“We recently met a drug addict in Aghios Ioannis who did not know there was an OKANA rehab center 25 meters down the road,” Smetopoulos said.

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