The day after for refugee NGOs on Greece’s islands

The day after for refugee NGOs on Greece’s islands

Nikos Tsakos may be 32 years old but he's only known what he wants to do when he grows up – what he's good at, the thing that will give his life meaning – for a few months. He started in the field he studied – information technology – but the firm he worked for in Athens went bankrupt and Nikos was forced to go back home, to the island of Chios. He spent a few years working as a waiter (the food and drinks business is the only solution for many unemployed, educated young Greeks, particularly those in areas with tourism), but found himself out of a job again last September. After spending a couple of months reflecting on his future, he decided in December to apply to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NCR), one of the humanitarian organizations active on the island.

“I was always sensitive to the issue but I had never thought I could work in that field,” he tells Kathimerini.

Nikos immediatly got a job in food distribution, which NCR is responsible for in the Souda migrant camp. For the past six months, he has been out in the field every day, serving food to the camp's resident – his awareness of the responsibility he carries and his humility in the face of the unfolding drama undiminished.

“We are very lucky to be getting paid for doing something that we like, for giving and for helping people in need,” he says.

Everything is about to change again, however, as dozens of NGOs are pulling out of the Greek islands because of changes to how they are funded. So far, they have been bankrolled by the European Union's ECHO humanitarian program, but as of July 31, the funding and management of services at migrant and refugee camps will be handled by the Greek government. ECHO will only continue to fund programs on the mainland.

“If we can secure funding, we'll stay on here. But only the Commission can fund international NGOs. It was the government's decision to take responsibility of the islands,” NCR's director for Greece, Gianmaria Pinto, says. “Our aim was to fill a vacuum. We still don't know who we're handing over to and this is what worries us.”

Besides distributing food to Souda's 1,000-plus refugees, NCR, which has been in Souda since late 2015, has also been responsible for supplementing food distribution programs in other camps on the island as well.

The group has created an educational program and other entertaining activities for children, opened an information center that has grown into a hub for humanitarian organizations on the island and is also responsible for maintenance in the island's camps.

“It might be possible for someone else to take over with the correct programing, but there isn't much of that,” says Gianmaria.

In Thessaloniki

Then there is the matter of the staff. In order to carry out all of these programs, NCR, with ECHO funding, has built a team of around 40 people, both Greeks and refugees, who will be left without a job come August. Many, like Nikos, did not have to give their next move much thought, applying for a position with NCR's Thessaloniki program, which is aimed at finding apartments for vulnerable refugees and migrants.

Thirty percent of NCR's Chios workforce has already been rehired and starts work in August.

“Basically whoever showed interest was taken on in Thessaloniki,” says Gianmaria.

No one was doing anyone any favors, as for the NGO, people are its most valuable asset. Those who worked in the tough conditions of the island camps had also gained a lot of experience that is not so easy to find.

“These people are our wealth. They were unemployed and within a year they have gained work experience with a major international organization. They have many skills and we did not want to lose them,” adds Gianmaria. 

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