In Athens, refugees tutored on new life in Europe

In Athens, refugees tutored on new life in Europe

At a Portuguese embassy briefing for Syrian and Iraqi refugees flying out the next morning from Athens, a young man wants to know how many cigarette cartons he can pack, while an elderly woman asks who will care for her once she lands.

About a dozen refugees are at the information session which Portugal, like other EU countries, is offering as part of the effort to relocate them throughout the bloc and help Greece, at Europe’s doorstep, cope with a massive influx of desperate people fleeing war and poverty.

A cultural orientation officer from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which is assisting the European embassies, fields the refugees’ questions and gives advice like not packing cooking gas cannisters in luggage as that "can really delay flights."

"They tell me it’s good in Portugal, the people are good," says Osama Jasm, a 26-year-old from Damascus, who admits it was his fifth choice for a relocation destination as his parents, four brothers and three sisters are in Germany.

But the former law student is hoping to make the best of the situation in Lisbon. "Maybe I can continue my studies," he tells AFP.

Portugal along with France, the Netherlands and Finland have accepted over 3,500 refugees out of some 5,400 that have so far been relocated from Greece throughout EU states.

The bloc had agreed last year to aid Greece as well as Italy after over a million refugees and migrants arrived on their shores in Europes biggest migration surge since World War II.

The move was also designed to dissuade illegal migration, which comes at deadly risk and helps enrich smuggling networks.

"We want to tackle human smuggling by offering a legal instrument like relocation," explains Andre Baas, project leader for resettlement at the Dutch asylum seekers’ reception agency COA.

Once in their new destination, refugees will be given every opportunity to integrate, says the Portuguese ambassador to Greece Rui Tereno.

"They will find people of many shapes and colors… they will not stand out," he says.

"The challenge is to provide them with information that gives psychological assurance that they will be welcome and safe and integrated," Tereno adds.

The EU countries welcoming the refugees have come up with various ways to introduce them to their cultures.

At an Athens hotel, Huda, a 23-year-old Syrian from Damascus, is elated to get her first look at France – images of Chartres cathedral, brie cheese and famous 16th century expatriate Leonardo Da Vinci.

"It’s really well organized," she says beaming at a recent cultural session organised by the French embassy for 100 Syrians and Eritreans, whose relocation got the green-light after long delays.

"We want them to feel that they are being cared for. That way, they will be even more eager to go to France," says Clelia Seynave, a teacher at the French Institute in the Greek capital.

The Dutch are offering a 2.5-day orientation course that includes a quick language lesson and televised messages from former refugees already in the Netherlands.

And the Portuguese have prepared a welcome kit containing a free phonecard, a glossary, some quick facts on life and rights in Portugal, and a T-shirt with symbols that will enable even those who only speak their mother tongue to get directions to a payphone, a bank or a restaurant.

A key message that all these EU states want to get across is that they value religious freedom but also gender equality.

"You see huge diversity, we also see very conservative people from rural areas who might have some other views," says Baas.

"It’s important we are honest to them, and say ‘this is what we expect’… management of expectations is so important, because it can prevent a lot of disappointment," he adds.

Several EU states have the additional task of explaining the rules on wearing veils and headscarves.

Under French law, girls have not been allowed to wear a veil to school for over a decade, and the burqa and niqab full-face veils were banned in public places in 2010.

"In France, we say that a person’s liberty stops where that of others begins," Lola Girard, the Athens liaison officer for the French office on immigration and integration, tells her group.

There are more than 60,000 refugees and migrants in Greece, most of them from Syria, who have been stranded in the country for months following the closure of Balkan countries’ borders early this year.

Among them are thousands of children, including around 2,000 minors who are entirely on their own – many under the age of eight.

Overall, there are 24,000 refugees currently eligible for relocation from Greece according to the EU. [AFP]

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