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Echo100Plus: Creating Community in the Midst of the Refugee Crisis

Echo entrance
June 11, 2018

For centuries, the Aegean Sea and Turkish Straits have served as the gateway between East and West. Through migration and exchange, it is from this crossroad that some of humanity’s greatest inventions and interactions thrived. It has also been the passage for and source of recent turmoil. Today, this region is a primary channel in Europe’s largest wave of migration since World War II.

With over 90% of migrants and refugees seeking safe haven by boat, the Greek islands (and Southern Italy) are the first points of contact and response in Europe. Fleeing war, persecution, and/or economic hardship, more than 2.5 million asylum seekers have applied for international protection in the European Union since 2014. Happenings here have fomented a divide across the European Union and within each member state. While Germany’s Angela Merkel implemented an open border migration policy, the backlash from which threatened her re-election, Viktor Orban’s far-right party in Hungary was elected for its anti-immigration platform. Impelled by the crisis, six European nations have built walls to keep migrants and refugees out. Reeling from the European Sovereign Debt Crisis, which precipitated a continental economic and social crisis as well as a rising tide of nationalism, it often seems that inclusion and compassion have fallen by the wayside.

Until the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal was signed in March 2016, migrants and refugees would register and spend 30 days maximum at their point of entry before moving further into Europe. Since the deal, asylum seekers wait up to eight months at a designated refugee camp for a verdict of either: asylum granted or immediate deportation. During this time, asylum seekers in Greece are not permitted freedom of movement, as dictated by the “containment policy,” and may not work. This limbo poses great obstacles for asylum seekers. Extreme vulnerability, an uncertain future, perceived hostility, and the challenge of integration make for a reality that elicits heightened isolation and mental illness among ‘residents,’ the local term used for asylum seekers. Stretched to the breaking point, under-funded local governments are regularly unable to respond to the needs of residents or provide solutions.

Enter Echo100Plus.

Located 25km from Turkey, Echo100Plus is at the heart of the refugee crisis in the Greek island of Leros. Local and longtime Echo volunteer Nicos Phocas explains, “During the last hundred years, Leros accepted people not typically welcome— orphans of the war, then the 3,000 patient psychiatric hospital, then the political prisoners of the junta (1967-1974), then it was again the psychiatric hospital until the mid-1990s. Leros has always accepted outcasts and helped them.” This is a special island; partly because of its history but really because of the Echo-HUB, an Echo100Plus project, and the people it brings together. Focused on adult education for both locals and refugees, the Hub is a unique response to the refugee crisis. Though small, it has filled a crucial void.   

A Mural in reception (inspired by Van Gogh) depicts Lakki, the town in which the Hub is located

Established in 2012 by friends with strong ties to the country, Echo’s mission is to support Greece and its response to the refugee crisis. As a grassroots organization, Echo is possible because of the generosity of donors and the leadership of its founders. It is successful because it listens and has evolved in response to developments in the refugee crisis. It is sustainable because two thoughtful and inspiring coordinators, Alex Sheaffer and Franzsika (Franzie) Dobringer, led a dynamic team on the ground with the support of members of the local community, notably Nicos and full-time English teacher Maria. Amidst all the chaos, and all the politics, this Austrian-based grassroots charity has brought light to an otherwise dark chapter of history. As the saying goes, it’s the people that make the place. For two months, I volunteered at Echo. The following is a collection of thoughts from members of Echo’s community.

Before the Hub, Echo ran a project at Ritsona Refugee Camp that focused on basic needs. Once a volunteer at Ritsona and now a coordinator on Leros, Alex traces Echo’s evolution:

(In Ritsona) What was killing people the most was boredom. Their lives were on pause in more ways than one. Every answer that they wanted or had was in someone else’s hands, like where they might live, what language their children might learn, where their next generations will be raised… When I heard about the project in Leros, which was serving adults, I was excited to be a part of this different model… Often, it’s the older (migrant) children who end up acting as a bridge between the new community and family. Thanks to the Hub, the adults are also learning the new, needed skills and taking them home to their children. It’s a beautiful thing to see young people taking on such power and authority for their family but it’s good to serve and not forget the adults who will have a much harder time integrating than their children will.

The Hub’s offerings include: language classes, Women’s Nights, football, chess, coding, CV workshops, environmental initiatives, and a literary magazine. It also distributes clothing and hygiene products to all the island’s residents. Maria explains:

For whatever reason, some are reluctant or do not see the value in education when they first come to the Hub. A success for us is having that reluctance become excitement for learning and opening up your mind…We prepare them (residents) to pass English language certificates, which is crucial for them if they plan to work and live in Europe. It’s a very joyful moment when they pass their exams and you know they are leaving the island and you have given something to them, something really beautiful. It’s a tiny thing, but it’s a thing that can help them in the future.

Art Class

Maria’s zeal for helping her students does not stop in her classroom. She has helped many students apply for scholarships available through schools like the American College of Greece. During a recent application cycle, nine students were accepted. Unfortunately, Maria reports that:

Six of them were unable to go because in the asylum process it does not matter if you are accepted for a scholarship, we could not get them off the island because of geographical restrictions. But still… it’s a success to be able to send some people there.

With education at the heart of its mission, what has emerged from this project is a beautiful microcosm of what should be: a community built by exchange, creativity, and skill-building between Greeks, Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Cameroonians, Somalis, Afghanis, Kurds, and volunteers from around the world.

Most importantly, the Hub fosters a sense of belonging and giving back. From Somalia, Noora travelled to Greece alone. Granted asylum and now living and volunteering in Athens as a translator for NGOs, she reflects on her time at the Hub:

The asylum process involves people constantly questioning you and your story… it’s different at the Hub. People don’t want to talk about their journey here; it’s hard to find common ground. At the Hub, people talk about music, what they used to do. It’s not about asylum or why you came here, it’s more about you as a person… In the school setting that the Hub provides it becomes much easier to integrate into society, whether within the refugee community or the local society.

While the Hub is a cheerful and empowering place, there are challenges. The Hub operates in a transient environment. While asylum seekers stay on average eight months, volunteers spend between 2 weeks and 6 months on the island. This ebbing and flowing can complicate dynamics. Franzie considers the Hub:

Often it seems what we do is never enough, especially when it’s in the heat of the moment and you can tell there is so much more that people need. Sometimes you have the feeling you cannot do enough. But, then it’s the little things, like a ‘thank you’ here or the feedback sheets that we get with comments like ‘thank you for showing us humanity.’ One lawyer from Advocates Abroad who said ‘you have no idea what the situation is like on other islands where there is no Echo. You really do have an impact and make a difference.’ Movements like Echo are of enormous importance. The feedback shows us that what we do has an impact. It motivates you and it keeps you going.

Women cooking during Women’s Night. Every Monday, a different group of women take the reigns. All women from the community are invited to enjoy a dinner together, with most evenings including dancing and a lot of laughter.

Matthew Guiffré, who has been volunteering at the Hub for two months, contemplates the relationships forged at the Hub as well as the impact of trauma:

The issue of how connected can you get with a resident comes up. You want to acknowledge their humanity. You want to acknowledge that we are equals and can be friends. But, you also need to reevaluate and think: Have we connected too far? Are they now going to view me as yet another loss in their life once I leave? Many of them (residents) are going to leave behind every person they’ve ever loved and known. Now, they sit in a refugee camp on an uncomfortable bed with food they are not enjoying. They’re sitting and wondering: What is going to happen to their lives? Will they be granted asylum or deported?

For Maria:

I’ve had the honor and burden of hearing their stories. It’s a very big thing for them to open up. It’s a very difficult thing to stay strong in front of them because you understand how small your problems are. In comparison… there is no comparison.

Of note, several successful asylum seekers have yet to leave the island for fear of what lies beyond, Alex touches upon the issue of the broader context vis-à-vis the experience at the Hub:

It’s a very delicate balance. Some refugees who have moved have told friends still on Leros that the next step (Athens) in their journey is not as friendly and difficult to find your way. Athens is overwhelming. People get scared to move on and they want to stay here because it’s a nice community and at least they are learning. But in this way they are jeopardizing their asylum process or at least slowing it down. This is quite concerning. I think: ok, well how open and community-centered should we actually make the Hub because we don’t want to be the reason to jeopardize someone’s process?

Despite these challenges, the Hub has been a beacon of hope for many and a local catalyst for acceptance. Remembering her friends’ time on the island two years ago, Franzie mentions:

It is beautiful how integration seems to work here. 7 Gates (a café) was one of the few places that offered refugees a home during their stopover on the island. Today, the local community supports the refugees, our project, and other NGOs on the island.

Volunteers Matt and Alex reflect upon the hope and change they are witnessing. Matt states, “As a volunteer, you put faces to numbers. You’re able to carry with you these experiences and hopefully help drive conversations at home.”

For Alex, What sticks out to me is that this is the most genuine and honest example of integration, mutual curiosity and willingness to learn.”

Nicos agrees that the locals have been very helpful and accepting but he does not see full integration:

I think Echo has started the process. It’s not easy… Greece lived through one of its greatest economic and social crisis. Something that has helped is the local economy now has 1,000 more active members. There is paid work for locals helping refugees. This activity has helped Leros’ local economy do better than other islands and increased acceptance.

Maria also commented on the desire of  the residents to give back to the community:   Younger students were asking, “How can we help this island?” This struck me because they came here and they hated this place and after a few months, the place got into them, they wanted to help the community and the Greek people. That was a very nice moment.

As there is no end in sight to this refugee crisis, there is an urgent need for the work that Echo is undertaking. What has flourished is not a perfect picture but a far better one than at most refugee camps—the Hub has sewn the seeds for acceptance, learning, and exchange. The Hub’s volunteers are primarily ordinary citizens, but they are dedicated to making this crisis a little bit better and a little less lonely for anyone who walks through the Hub’s doors. Echo focuses on the here and now and, in a crisis, that means everything.