Smart Aid Gathering #11 From Shelter to Home

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Effective models by citizen organisations

On the 7th of February, Campfire Innovation organised its 11th Smart Aid Gathering on the pressing issue of housing for refugees in Athens. A lively group of volunteers and aid workers filled the event room, eager to listen and share their concern about the upcoming evictions from UNHCR accommodation and camps.

Smart Aid Gatherings are vital for citizen-led initiatives to share their experiences, both failures and victories, to continue improving the impact we can have collectively.

This time we were asking, how can we provide dignified accommodation to refugees and asylum seekers?

Our featured panel speakers included The HOME Project, Melissa Network & Athens Housing Collective, who provided us with a variety of perspectives through their refugee housing projects in Athens.

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While each initiative presented works with different vulnerable groups, they were in agreement on 2 key principles of effective refugee housing: creating a welcoming environment with a sense of belonging and preparing for integration.

Creating a home

For many residents, this might be the first time they find themselves in a home environment after months or even years in displacement, camps, and temporary shelters.

Speakers highlighted the importance of creating a space different from the usual style of shelters.

  • Stop the space from becoming overcrowded by capping the number of residents

  • Define the residents’ profile (male, female, undocumented, children, LGBTQI+, special needs, etc.) and design a space and support program with their needs in mind

  • Define the selection procedure in advance

  • Choose single building or network of flats (the second more suited to adult residents).

  • Build a sense of community through group activities and shared decision making.

The Home Project specifically chose 11 residential 19th century buildings in central Athens with high ceilings and yards to house up to 15 minors. The careful selection of the space and its design had a positive influence on the mood of residents and their sense of home and safety.

Melissa Network hosts weekly meetings with staff and residents to make decisions on topics such as the weekly menu or group activities. They also recruited staff from pre-existing migrant communities, making it easier for residents and staff to connect.

Preparing for integration

All three speakers reiterated the importance of creating shelters that do not institutionalise their residents forever, but act as channels towards rebuilding a normal life.

  • A focus on the path to integration; this includes:

    • Access to education: formally, in schools and through additional or adult programs, available from other organisations or in-house (languages, computer skills etc.)

    • Employability preparation and apprenticeships

  • Creating intercultural communication between residents and the local community to familiarise refugees with Greek society

  • Referrals and support in accessing other services

  • Professional help with mental health: depression, self-harm and PTSD act as barriers to school attendance, job searches and overall well-being

  • Building a sense of responsibility: especially for children residents, through chores rotation and self-management

Open house events were mentioned as a good practice. Additionally, the Home Project detailed its partnership with ACS, a private school in Athens. They have established a scholarships program for residents, along with pairing ACS students with children from the shelter, through a “buddy system”, acting as a bridge between different cultures and creating acceptance on both sides.

Athens Housing Collective operates a two-step program. Residents (all LGBTQI+) are initially offered housing for 6 months where the focus is on mental health and creating a stable environment in a self-managed flat. After the initial 6 months, those that are constantly making progress can “graduate” to a flat, where the focus of the social workers is on employability training and finding a job.

At a time when many recognised refugees will find themselves transitioning from ESTIA and UNHCR services into a new normality, housing projects will increasingly become the cornerstone of integration. Without them, the effectiveness of any integration program will be compromised. In this context, it is encouraging to see independent and citizen projects leading by example in the creation of empowering and safe environments.