MY FIRST DAY ON THE GROUND
After our late night, Alexandra (my contact person here in Greece) was nice enough to let me sleep in a bit before having me head into the office. I woke up around nine, leisurely got ready, and had a fruit-filled hotel breakfast out on the front balcony, looking out over the Church of Holy Ascension across the street. Knowing that Alexandra would be calling my hotel room later in the morning to let me know when someone would drop by to pick me up, I stayed close to my room and sat out on my balcony and read a bit of the sci-fi book that I brought with me, while listening to the chatter of the street below.
I eventually got the call and was informed that I would spend my morning at the church offices of the Evangelical Church in Greece in Katerini. I first got a tour of the building from Alexandra and Dimitrios (one of the team members here who drove me home from the airport upon my arrival) and then went to meet with the pastor of the church. I spoke with him about my work in Budapest and what the Reformed Church in Hungary is doing for refugees there, while he told me a bit more about the work they’re doing here.
After that, Alexandra gave me an overview of their program here in Katerini. It’s a multi-faceted approach to integration that involves a strong focus on the following immediate and long-term needs: sustainable housing, food, and medical care. There are team members in charge of each of these categories as well as a lawyer and a translator on staff who come in as needed.
The folks here at the Evangelical Church in Greece are currently working with 42 people total in their housing program. They have eleven houses that are operational and in use by families, with another three that are pending and will hopefully soon be in use as well. The housing program began when a church member generously decided to open up his home to refugee families in need. Soon, others in the congregation began to do the same, and eventually people started offering up their guest houses, spare apartments that they own, etc, and the program spread by word of mouth from there. Even the apartments that are not donated for free for families to live in, the landlord usually offers a cheap price, which the church covers. As Alexandra told me today, it makes an incredible difference when families have their own, “door to close and key to hold.”
To help with family’s food needs, the church has set aside a portion of it’s food bank area to be stocked with food for refugees. The food bank is open to the wider Katerini public one day a month, but three days a week, refugee families in need can stop by and pick up fresh produce as well as other cooking staples. Attached to the food bank is a clothing bank that people can take items from as they need them. I had the opportunity to visit the center this afternoon for a little over an hour, interacting with the families who were there picking up supplies. A few of the women there spoke broken English, but many of the kids could hold conversations, so I spoke with them about their days in Katerini and other general pleasantries. A few of the women there were unaccompanied mothers who had traveled to Greece with their children in tow, following a spouse who had already settled in a western European nation. They are stuck here for now with their kids, but are working their way through the legal process to eventually be reunited and travel westward to meet their husbands – a story that is all too common here. This food bank and clothing bank center was originally set up by the church in 2012, as a response to the economic crisis in Greece that hit many people quite hard. The system was already in place when the migration crisis happened, so the church was easily able to tweak the system a bit to serve the growing population in need.
The staff here also attends to the medical needs of refugees in Katerini. Due to this, the staff is on-call pretty much 24/7. Just last week a woman and her three kids were all sick and in the hospital, and the staff of the church stayed by her side, taking three-hour rotations so that her and her children were never alone. Dimitrios also uses the church van to drive folks to medical appointments that are far away and might otherwise be impossible to get to. One doctor that a person here sees is so far away that it costs 65 Euros to take the train there, but when Dimitrios drives, they only have to pay for the fuel to get there – which is always drastically more feasible.
Following all these discussions, Dimitrios and Zoey (the other coworker that picked me up from the airport) took me out for lunch – Greek style of course. We had five different appetizers including tzatziki, roasted red peppers filled with cheese, some super salty fish thing, a Greek salad, and fried zucchini and eggplant served with more tzatziki for dipping. We also each got a main course as well – mine was obviously a lemon chicken dish and was absolutely superb. Dimitrios also ordered us some drinks, so I tried grappa again and also tasted a northern Greek spirit called tsipouro. We followed up our meal with melon and then lazily went our separate ways for the afternoon. I have never been so pleasantly fulfilled by a meal before. It was seriously perfection, the likes of which I’ve been craving but never been able to find in Hungary.
My evening in Katerini was very restful and just what I needed. I lounged around during the Greek siesta time, reading a book in the shade of my room (since it was around 96 today) and doing a guided meditation. Once it had cooled down, I ventured back outside to roam around the central part of the city. I sauntered through the streets, my eyes hungrily taking everything in after spending so many months in a city where people don’t even make eye contact with one another. I people watched and window shopped, and eventually stopped at a bakery for some dinner and a scoop of lemon gelato – obviously – before heading back to my hotel for the evening. When it’s this hot, what else are you going to do?