The Emfasis Foundation is not well-known, even though it has been helping street people for the past five years – under the radar, in the city’s nooks and crannies, far from the public eye.
Imagine the surprise of founding member Maria Karra when she recently received a phone call from Nicholas Pappas, president of The Hellenic Initiative Australia, a chapter of the global nonprofit institution formed by members of the Greek diaspora to provide support to Greece during the crisis.
The phone call led to a meeting, where THI Australia announced a donation of 23,000 euros (35,000 Australian dollars) for Emfasis. “To be honest, well done to THI for even finding us,” says Karra. “We are the epitome of a grassroots organization.”
It all fits in quite nicely. Emfasis was founded in 2013 by a group of Greeks here and abroad. “We had tried to send aid to Greece through donations to organizations but we weren’t happy with the rate that assistance reached the final recipient,” explains Karra, who lives in Dubai. “We wanted the money to reach the beneficiaries directly, without unnecessary delay. We also had a moral issue. The usual practice is for assistance to be given to people who ask for it. We wanted to do the opposite. We wanted to reach out to people in need, without having to subject them to the ordeal of waiting in line or reporting to social workers. Not forcing them to ask for help was a matter of respect for these people.”
The concept of street work was adopted from the get-go. “With two social workers, two psychologists and two sociologists, we scoured the neighborhoods of Athens looking for street people. This is not just homeless people, but also those who spend a large part of their day in the streets because life at home is hard and they need to get away, because they may be unemployed and haven’t admitted it to their families, or because they are truants from school,” says Karra.
Over time, the Emfasis volunteers forged bonds of trust with the people they reached out to. “We wanted to get our information from them. The fact that someone isn’t wearing shoes doesn’t mean that is their biggest problem. We wanted them to express themselves. They were suspicious at first, but started opening up as the relationship strengthened,” Karras explains. “Many told us that the fact anyone was paying attention to them was the most important thing.”
Emfasis street work teams have been providing support and counseling in central Athens for more than four years, while its mobile units distribute basic survival goods around the capital and Piraeus.
“One of the biggest issues we see is people who want to be reintegrated into society but can’t get any form of identification. We solved that. A lot of people also had problems with their teeth so we found volunteer dentists and dental technicians to help them and to improve their appearance. Many were scared to get blood tests, so we went to Interamerican and got them an Emfasis insurance card and, in cooperation with a certain clinic, gave them access to medical checkups,” adds Karra.
The THI Australia donation will cover the costs of the mobile units for a year.