A few weeks before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Europe, 17-year-old Ali* heard that his asylum case had finally been accepted. He was set to be reunited with his brother in Germany, who he hadn’t seen in seven years.
But recently he was told his plans have been put on hold due to the coronavirus. He’ll have to wait even longer to be able to start his new life with his sibling.
“Imagine waiting for something for two years and then you find out you can do it... Only to now be told you can’t,” Ali, who is from Afghanistan says, trying to encapsulate the hope and heartbreak he’s felt over the past month.
17-year-old Jamil*, also from Afghanistan, is facing a similar situation. He’d recently heard that he was going to be moving to Ireland, but last week was informed that processing his asylum case has been delayed due to the coronavirus.
Ali now lives in Athens in an apartment, supported by the International Rescue Committee, with three other teenagers like himself. 25-year-old Sotiria Nasiopoulou, an IRC social worker, visits them a few times a week. She helps them in lots of different ways, from helping them to understand the asylum process, get access to healthcare and education and provide psychological support.
The emotional upheaval of having their cases put on hold has been tough on the children she works with. “They had their interviews this month and they were cancelled. When the asylum-service opens, they will have their date again. Most of the children are worried about getting another interview, but we try to help them understand that they will have the interviews again. The IRC works with a lawyer, who provides us the information and is here to prepare them,” Sotiria explains.
As well as having their asylum-cases halted, they’ve also felt the effects of the pandemic in a way most people can understand.
“Most of them are a bit scared of coronavirus and they try not to go out all the time, every day they ask: when will it all be over?” Sotiria says.
Every day they ask: when will it all be over?
“The virus has had a big influence because I’m inside the apartment all the time, it’s like jail. I try to stay entertained by cooking, reading, doing exercise,” says Jamil, who lives with three boys from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Egypt in an IRC-supported apartment. “Luckily, I have a good relationship with my housemates, they help me with studying Greek and English.”
Sotiria’s efforts are put into ensuring the young people can support themselves. She helps them access the education and health systems, understand the asylum process and supports them emotionally. Today, she’s focused on ensuring they’re coping during the pandemic. “I think this situation has influenced all of us, but we try to help the children to maintain their daily activities so as not to get bored all the time. It’s not easy, it’s difficult for teenagers to stay inside all the time. Most of them are sleeping many hours in the day and you have to encourage them all the time to study and to exercise and to go out for a walk.”
You have to keep in mind that these children have passed so many difficult things in their life, so you must be careful in the way you are talking to them and your behaviour. You want them to feel safe.
“You have to keep in mind that these children have passed so many difficult things in their life, so you must be careful in the way you are talking to them and your behaviour. You want them to feel safe,” Sotiria continues.
Sotiria recalls some of the harrowing stories she’s been told by the children that arrive in Greece. “Most of the children come here with smugglers from Turkey. In Turkey, the living situation and conditions are very difficult, if the police catch them, they go to prison for a very long time, many of the children were in prison in Turkey for three or four months - in adult prisons, not with minors. It’s very dangerous, the adults can rape you, they can beat you. And in Turkey, they have no rights.”
Many of the refugee children Sotiria meets have come across the Mediterranean Sea on dinghies to overcrowded camps on the Greek islands before making it to Athens. There are currently 5,500 unaccompanied children, like Jamil and Ali, who are stuck in these terrible conditions.
Before Ali made it to Athens, he was living in Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesvos, a reception centre that is now six times over-capacity. It’s a terrifying place for an adult, let alone a child on their own.
“In Moria at night, when I was sleeping, I was scared because anyone could get in my tent and do what they wanted,” he says. “There are no doctors or a health system, I couldn’t get my medication.”
Sotiria also describes the extreme conditions in Moria. “They have no food, they have no healthcare and they have no doctors. The behaviour of the police… I can’t describe it. Out of all the camps, Moria is the worst, it was made for 3,000 people and it’s now got almost 18,000 people there.”
After such a difficult journey to safety in Athens, Sotiria is determined to give every young person she works with the chance to thrive. “They need a steady environment, they need someone to encourage them and they need to believe in themselves,” she says.
The IRC in Greece
In August 2019, the IRC launched a new child protection programme aiming at supporting unaccompanied children - 16 years old and above - to become self-reliant and transition to adulthood smoothly. The IRC supports 20 adolescents through semi-independent accommodation, individual and group psychosocial support, legal counselling, non-formal education, recreational activities and skill-building activities.
*Names changed for protection