The founding members of Melissa, a new network of migrants who live in Greece, did not hold a special council or vote on the issue. They simply asked themselves during a normal conversation one afternoon a couple of weeks ago: “If not us, then who? If we, who are women, mothers and immigrants, don’t give a helping hand to the children of Pedion to Areos, who will?”
They got to work the very next day to provide some relief to the Afghan and Syrian children living among hundreds of refugees in a makeshift camp in the downtown Athens park.
Maria Ifechukude Ohilebo from Nigeria, Debbie Carlos Valencia from the Philippines, Click Ngwere from Zimbabwe and the other women from Asia, Africa and the Balkans, all active members of their respective communities who came together to establish Melissa with the aim of building networks of communication with their host communities, noticed the situation at the park long before the authorities did.
Over a month ago, Victoria Square, where Melissa has its new office, was occupied by Syrian refugees. Pedion to Areos, which many of the network’s women walked through every day, started filling with newcomers too – entire families, mothers traveling alone with their children and unaccompanied minors among them. Their numbers became too high for the Melissa ladies to do something for all of them, but they could do something for the children at least. Starting about 10 days ago, they began preparing 170 to 220 servings of nutritious breakfast, with a different menu every day: biscuits, carrot, banana or orange cake, fritters, sandwiches, muesli bars, etc.
“It’s fascinating to watch them work,” an anthropologist who helps the network, Nadina Christopoulou, tells Kathimerini. “These are women who start their day at 5.30 a.m., work a 10-hour shift and then go home, where they prepare breakfasts for the Pedion tou Areos children. These are incredibly resourceful women who make something out of nothing.”
The food is prepared every evening at one of the network members’ houses, packaged along with a piece of fruit at the Victoria Square office and then distributed the following morning – and the entire cost is covered by Melissa’s members. It is a spontaneous initiative that has not been registered with any official authorities and is therefore not entitled to apply for any funding. As the women of Melissa say, they simply couldn’t stand by and do nothing for the children – who could just as easily have been their own.
The symbolism is powerful: In the middle of a full-blown crisis, among the first to extend a helping hand to the refugees in the park, at a time when even the European Union is acting simply as an observer, themselves count among society’s most vulnerable.
Initiatives to help the refugees in the park are coordinated by the head of the Afghan community in Athens, who spends all day at Pedion to Areos. Those working there say that the greatest amount of help is being provided by groups and individuals who are hardly heard from, such as a Sudanese doctor who has been volunteering his time and expertise since the day the camp was set up.
Many residents of the neighborhood are also quietly offering their support. Some shopkeepers, for example, will give the members of Melissa twice as much as what they ask for when they’re buying bread or fruit for the children’s breakfasts. Greeks and foreigners living in the area ask how they can help and the Melissa women, who cannot accept money donations, direct them to the bakery where the group has a running tab.