“If you’d told me ten years ago this would be my life today, I’d have never believed you, never”
This is Effie.
10 years ago she ran a thriving tourist restaurant and petting farm in Greece.
Her restaurant regularly catered for school trips, wedding parties and tourists from all over the world, travelling to hike the incredible Mount Olympia. Effie, her husband, their children, partners and grandchildren ran and lived on the property.
In 2009 the restaurant started to experience financial difficulties, and the situation for the family took a different turn. Most of Effie’s children were forced to leave the family business, there was no money to keep them on and with little other prospects they relocated to other parts of Europe in hope of employment.
The one remaining son who stayed, struggled to provide for his family, his wife was then offered a job in Germany. They now try to live between the two countries.
Effie and her husband fought to keep their restaurant…their world, from being reclaimed by the banks.. but with the struggling economy it was a losing battle.
Earlier this year, in March, Effie’s husband heard the government were looking for business owners to offer their space to house refugees throughout Greece. Effie and her husband decided they would offer the space they had in the hope it would be a solution for not just those stranded at the border but also themselves.
The government offered to pay. Effie admits, at first, the decision was purely a financial one, a last ditch attempt to keep a roof over her family’s head. Many people in the tiny rural village warned them off, worried about the rumours surrounding the refugees, they repeatedly told the couple that allowing refugees onto their property would mean violence, uncertainty and danger.
When I spoke to Effie last week she explained “people in the village said, it would be all men, that people were dangerous” shaking her head she went on to say, “that’s all they show on the news”.
“When the buses arrived, when we saw the children coming off the buses, freezing cold, not one possession of their own” Effie paused, “even the men from our village were sobbing. Men I’ve never seen cry, crying.
We had no idea there would be so many children”.
That was May 2016 and since then Effie’s home has become a community of up to 400 refugees and up to 20 local people at any one time. In spite of language barriers, cultural differences, different religions and skin colours, life has developed within the ‘camp’.
There is a school, a free shop, men fish daily and share their catch with everyone. As you arrive, children exclaim Arabic, English and Greek welcomes. Effie provides as much as she can, distributing donations dropped off by volunteers to those who need them and ensures everyone is considered.
Effie is the epitome of a Greek grandma, you can not sit with her for any less than 15 minutes, and when you do, you are continuously plied with coffee and her famous bean soup. She talks away in a comforting Greek and although so much is lost in translation, you can feel her despair at wanting a better life for everybody under her roof.
Most of the 400 refugees who arrived in May have now been housed in hotels or apartments. 40 people remain living at Effie’s. Effie’s husband has converted the restaurant into private rooms allowing each family, couple or single person their privacy and ensuring people stay warm during the bitter Greek winter.
Last week the phone line and Wi-Fi was disconnected.
Since refugees arrived in May, Effie and her husband have not received a penny, dime or cent of the promised money from the government.
The couple have continued to care for the refugees living with them at their own expense, adding to their crippling debt, hoping, in vain, that the government will eventually pay up what they are owed.
I sat as Effie explained that every time she rings to ask where their money is, the person on the end of the phone hangs-up, and now they no longer have money to pay the phone bills in order to ring.
My heart broke at the thought of Effie’s struggles alongside the crippling sadness of those she was trying to care for.
Effie is one of thousands of local Greek people working to support refugees and their communities in Greece.
Our amazing friends at RefuAid work in local communties to support not just newly-arrived refugees, but struggling local services and host community members.
We have wroked together with RefuAid to reconnect the phone lines and Wi-Fi, not just for Effie and her family, but also to ensure the 40 refugees living at Effie’s can talk to their families and loved ones.
Go and check out our amazing friends at www.refuaid.org