Waiting with the weary
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28 (NIV)
Like much of Greece, Galatsi Arena is green. Unlike the bright green of surrounding nature, though, an artificial minty hue covers the enclosed stadium at the end of the 608 bus line. Built to host table tennis and rhythmic gymnastics in the 2004 Athens Olympics, the giant building transformed into an emergency refugee camp in October 2015, the third such accommodation in the Hellenic capital.
Official sports competitions have long stopped under Galatsi’s arching roofs, but pick-up football, volleyball and badminton matches currently last until 2:00 every morning in the compound’s cement courtyard, according to Deputy Mayor Manos Eleftheriou.
Over 10,000 refugees—99.9 per cent from Afghanistan—passed through Galatsi within the first month. Daily numbers fluctuate by 500 or more people, with most staying only overnight, or at most a few days.
Inside the main hall, families clump together across a rubbery green floor strewn with trash—a Nescafé wrapper here, a bottle cap there, small plastic balls scattered throughout. Men and women lie on the ground, recovering from the journey behind them, preparing for the trip ahead. In one corner of the room, heaps of stuffed animals and discarded toys wait for children’s use. Various pictures line the wall, pencilled drawings transitioning into rainbow-coloured sketches of houses, flags, mountains, trees. One paper’s message, in English, recorded a child’s single wish: “Hope. All I need. All I desire.”
“Children, everywhere in the world are the same,” Manos said. “The first day, everything they painted was black, brown and dark blue. After two days, they used all the colours. This was important for us because they smiled not only outside but also inside.”
Besides supplying food, warm clothes and a quiet place for refugees to rest and wait, Galatsi also offers medical treatment via an improvised pharmacy and adjacent examination room.
“The first day, we had one pharmacist and a bag of supplies,” Manos remembered. “Now, the doctors come here and tell us we don’t need more… We have almost everything.”
While the refugees are free to come and go as they will—small groups setting out for Greece’s northern border and the countries beyond supplied only with the clothes they’re wearing, maybe a backpack or sleeping bag, and a blue plastic bag of essentials provided by camp volunteers—news and media crews are not. To protect the refugees and give them a safe spot to rest, Manos strictly regulates cameras inside the camp.
Volunteers, however, are welcomed. Yannis Stokas, assistant international commissioner for the Scouts of Greece, said 25 to 30 volunteers from the youth organisation, largely teenagers, show up each day, especially on weekends when the young people are out of school. The scouts mostly sort clothes—endless piles of pants, shirts, coats and shoes donated from Greece and abroad. At the door to the hall, refugees present slips of paper with clothing requests compiled by a translator. A volunteer then yells the order for those clothes to the people sorting items in the long room.
“It’s like fast food, but with clothes,” Yannis joked.
When Galatsi first opened its doors to refugees, Gabby Markus, country leader of OM Greece, was scouting the situation on the island of Lesbos. However, as soon as he returned to Athens, he worked with a local church to prepare 500 portions of food and headed to the new camp.
Previously, OM had helped with other camps in the city. However as churches and other organisations showed up, OM’s role there became redundant.
“We decided to explore the opportunities, if there are pockets of needs that OM can actually help fill in,” Gabby said of his first trip to Galatsi.
At Galatsi, Gabby, representing OM and the Greek Evangelical Alliance, registered both organisations as volunteers. Alliance Relief agreed to arrange a rotating schedule of churches providing meals for the camp, and OM committed to running one children’s programme each week, with different churches hosting another two occurrences.
The work at Galatsi comprises one of OM’s main priorities, allowing not only OM staff but also local churches to make a difference.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for the church to serve and build its relationship with the community,” Gabby stated. “We’ve seen that already. The mayor’s office do acknowledge it’s the evangelicals who are coming… OM has been working with and through the church even before the crisis. We empower the church to reach out to the community.”
For Manos, who routinely spends 20-hour days on site managing the camp, “the important thing for us is that we see people coming with a big smile. It encourages us to smile while we work all the night. I tell the volunteers, ‘You are angels.’”
Ellen Cardenas, a church member volunteering with food distribution at Galatsi said her inspiration for helping out “is first God. It’s His love for the people. I just want to extend that love to them, to let them know He has not abandoned them.”
What can you do?
Would you consider serving the refugees passing through Greece? OM Greece needs people who can offer a week or longer to help. Particularly, the team needs volunteers who have the ability to speak Arabic, Farsi or Dari and are willing to share Christ’s love and compassion with others.
Nicole James is a freelance journalist, ESL teacher and adventurer. As a writer for OM Middle East North Africa, she’s passionate about publishing the stories of God’s works among the nations, telling people about the wonderful things He is doing in the world.
Credit: Nicole James · © 2015 OM International