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Creative Series
Beyond Borders


Author: Alex King

Though you may travel,
here lies a home.

A group of excited young children are running across a hillside covered in olive trees, bathed in the light of the evening sun. They laugh and yell in Arabic as they urge each-other onwards to the summit. After startling a herd of grazing goats, they pause at the top to survey the technicolour sunset over the outskirts of Thessaloniki, in northern Greece.

This idyllic, carefree scene wouldn’t be at all remarkable, if so many kids like them, who had also been forced from their homes by war in Syria and Iraq, weren’t trapped in deplorable conditions; in overstretched and poorly-managed camps across the Mediterranean.

One boy puts his younger sister on his shoulders, so she can get a better view, while an older girl raises her face to the sky and stretches her arms wide like a bird’s wings, to let the wind ripple through her red top. In the distance, within a cluster of industrial buildings nestled beside the motorway crossing the valley below, they can just make out a grey warehouse that is their temporary home.

Constructed in an abandoned jeans factory, Elpída Home has provided shelter, medical services and psychological support to hundreds of the most vulnerable refugee families in Greece.

When it opened in July 2016, authorities were struggling to meet even the most basic needs of tens of thousands who had arrived on dinghies from Turkey to the Greek islands of Samos, Kos and Lesvos. 

Elpída quickly stood out as an island of humanity in a sea of chaos and destitution. Elsewhere, refugees were left in flimsy, overcrowded tents, at risk from extreme temperatures, disease, rape, human trafficking and even organ harvesting. Elpída offered dignified accommodation; private rooms with lockable doors for each family, fully-equipped kitchens to cook their own food and a wide-ranging education and skills programme for both adults and children.

But perhaps most importantly, it encouraged participation, independence and empowerment, rather than dependence.

“I have done humanitarian work in difficult places, like Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, Bosnia and Iraq, but what I saw when I arrived on Lesvos in 2016 was nuts,” explains Amed Khan, a financier and philanthropist from New York City, who co-founded Elpída.

“People were jumping into rubber boats in fake life-preservers to cross this treacherous sea with their children. The mass exodus from Turkey to Greece hit home because it was so obviously a failure of the system.”

“The Greek government, the EU and major aid agencies were present, but when refugees hit the shores it was a complete free-for-all, it was totally unorganised and no-one was taking responsibility,” Amed continues. “We couldn’t solve all the many serious problems, but we went out and spoke to people who were sleeping rough in [the makeshift camp at] Idomeni on the border with FYROM, and asked, simply, ‘What can we do to make your lives better?’”

Amed wanted to avoid recreating the toxic environment he saw in the army-run camps and reception centres in derelict warehouses, which he argues “strip away any shred of dignity.”

Instead, he wanted to involve families in the design of Elpída right from the start. Their biggest request was for jobs so they could support themselves, but this was a legal impossibility. However, the demands Elpída could meet were to provide Eastern-style toilets, educational programmes and give residents control of the day-to-day management of the centre.

Between 2015 and 2017, an estimated $803 million of aid has been spent in Greece, making it one of the most expensive humanitarian operations in history. Yet slow-moving bureaucracy, lack of leadership and poor decision-making have left thousands facing shocking conditions, without adequate support.

Amed convinced the Greek Ministry of Migration to give him control of a derelict warehouse site, and spent $1 million of his and Frank Giustra’s own money to create Elpída. In just a month, it was ready to welcome 160 refugees deemed most vulnerable; due to medical issues, trauma or risk of violence.

In collaboration with organisations such as Together for Better Days, who provided volunteers, Team Rubicon, who covered medical needs, and Medecins du Monde, who offered psychological support three days per week, Elpída soon expanded to 600 residents. Its freshly-painted walls blossomed with colourful murals, children began to explore and play together, and a tight-knit community started to form.

It was often simple things (that other sites proved incapable of providing) that had a huge impact and it was moments like seeing the excitement on kids’ faces as they got on the school bus for the first time that stuck in Amed’s mind.

“The humanitarian assistance system makes all sorts of mistakes, but one of them is dealing with refugees like they're aliens from another planet,”

Amed reflects. “These people were productive members of society before someone blew up their houses, their schools, their towns and forced them to flee for safety. When you have your home taken away, you lose your identity. You become a number, you’re pointed towards a tent and told when you eat."

"We founded Elpída Home because we wanted to help people reconstruct their identity and their place in the world.”

Amed has always opposed putting refugees in camps. Compared with apartments, camps provide low quality and poor value for money – let alone the negative health and psychological effects of being ghettoised in isolated and unsuitable accommodation. But when the Greek government and the EU made the knee-jerk decision to close all warehouses in May 2017, in response to negative publicity highlighting poor conditions at many sites, Amed refused to abandon Elpída until he had guarantees that residents would receive adequate support elsewhere. Elpída continues to provide educational, medical and psychological support to families even after they have moved into their new flats – although all but six families have now been relocated and are building new lives elsewhere in Europe.

At the beginning of 2018, as NGOs and international aid agencies continue the process of handing over responsibility for over 48,000 refugees left in Greece to the government, Elpída stands out, not so much because of what it has achieved – however impressive – but because far too many refugees are still denied what Amed argues are minimum standards of care; rights enshrined in the EU Charter and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Three years into this crisis and there is no policy – the system is built to fail,” Amed explains, exasperated. “The EU-Turkey deal has cut the number of refugees reaching Europe but it’s inhumane, it's not a grand solution. We will continue to use Elpída as a platform to pressure authorities to fulfil their responsibilities."

"But the hypocrisy of the whole system is what I would like to address. Europe and the US started these wars, which are being fought with weapons they manufactured, but they don't deal with the consequences."

"The international aid system is expensive, dysfunctional and leads to lives being lost. The charade has to end at some point, it just has to stop.” 

Elpída means ‘hope’ in Greek.

As walls and barbed wire go up along borders around the world, standing on this hillside in northern Greece, surrounded by young refugees gazing out at the sunset, it seems like an appropriate time to consider the great political hypocrisy of our time; that migration should be seen as an anomaly.

After all, this land has always been a bridge connecting East and West, the ground beneath our feet has changed hands countless times through the centuries between great empires, races and religions. This hillside vantage point has silently watched the ebb and flow of human migration for millennia — the onward march of crusaders and conquerors, the exodus from war, famine and disease, or, simply people journeying in hope of a better life. It is borders that violate the natural movement of human beings, not the other way around.

Credits: All images by Noaz Deshe except "Little girl painting the wall" by Radcliff Foundation