The Greek state needs to help us help people help themselves

A few months ago, Yasmin and Ahmed spent their days on Katsikas looking after their 7 children and little else. Then, with the help of our Empowerment Fund, their Syrian café offered a way out of the tedium. The family had a purpose. Their bright 16-year-old son got involved. The activity was a great example to all their kids. They started to make plans. They had some extra sparkle. They were a hub for the camp and the food was great.

So it was disappointing when the police arrived on 11 January and told them to stop all activity immediately. The police also stopped a kiosk offering basic goods, another offering fruit and veg, another frozen chicken, a bread bakery and a games room. All of these activities have good stories behind them like Yasmin and Ahmed’s.

Like many other refugee camps, Katsikas is full of people waiting until they are given the authorisation, capital or opportunity to move on with their lives. That could take many months, or even years. It is a demoralising existence.

The Empowerment Fund was designed to tackle this promote self-sufficiency. Since we started in July last year, we have invested €12,000 in 16 activities. With the right support, some of these activities could become successful enterprises, enabling families to start again.

One of the conditions of our Empowerment Fund is that the activity must comply with Greek law. Indeed, one of the objectives is to foster integration with Greek society. We have always told anyone who would listen that this is an opportunity for refugees to be less dependent on the state and help them fulfil their potential.

And we always knew that they would face difficulties from the Greek authorities. Everyone in Greece needs to obey Greek laws and regulations and the state has a responsibility to enforce them. But these are social activities. They are the green shoots of self-sufficiency and independence in a unique, yet hostile, environment and they need to be carefully nurtured.

To be fair to the police, there was some leniency. But they have their job to do. What this action really highlights is how inadequate European policies are towards refugees. Their unique experience demands unique policies to help them rebuild their lives. It is not enough to give people a crowded home on an isolated refugee camp and no opportunities.

Just as with every other project we have started, we have had to deal with obstacles. What can seem obvious from a humanitarian point of view can conflict with rigid rules and regulations. We usually find a way to overcome the obstacles. We’ve spent the last 10 days talking to public bodies, lawyers, accountants and other camp actors to see how we can continue to support self-sufficiency and give people more of a purpose than just sitting and waiting.

We have to find a way to help people help themselves.

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