I find myself at a loss writing about the refugee crisis, which might be taking a backseat to the pandemic in the public eye at the moment, but is far from over. I know both of these emergencies are very difficult to deal with, but I feel that the authorities are not making a very good job of managing either. Everyone has become quite weary of the constant stream of bad news, so I was glad to come upon the work of a wonderful young woman whose dedication and positive attitude have resulted in the foundation of the HOME Project, a non-profit organization set up to address the needs of unaccompanied minors in Greece.
Sofia Kouvelaki is the CEO of the HOME Project, and she very kindly agreed to answer my questions:
Tell us a little about your story and your engagement with unaccompanied refugee children.
My engagement with lone refugee children began when I went to Lesvos for a documentary on unaccompanied children in detention for the Bodossaki Foundation just as the refugee crisis was beginning in November 2014. At the time, there were only a few, self-organized volunteers in addition to the coast guard who were helping people out of the water. The situation was unprecedented.
During this time at Lesvos, I was thinking about my path in life and the great inequalities this world contained. I witnessed first-hand a situation in which many of the children had been dressed by their parents as the opposite gender in order to protect them from various dangers during their journey. Having to negate one’s whole being in order to save one’s life was very shocking to me.
It was at this point when I began to recognize the need for a support channel to bring aid to the most vulnerable, especially children who were travelling alone and were exposed to all sorts of threats.
Could you give us some details on the issue of unaccompanied refugee children in Greece?
In Greece, there are more than 4,100 unaccompanied children, of whom more than 2,020 are outside a system of protection (according to the latest data of National Center of Social Solidarity). This means that at the moment there are children in the streets, in camps, and exposed to all kinds of exploitation such as abuse, violence, drugs, organ trafficking and more. If these children are not placed in a safe shelter, they cannot and will not receive any information on their rights or have access to any appropriate services. Furthermore, they are missing crucial aspects of their development as they grow; such as access to education, access to mental and physical health services, and social inclusion.
The HOME Project addresses this issue by receiving children from camps, police stations, and detention centers and welcoming them in the safety of our homes in Athens, where we provide a holistic network of child protection services through an individual development plan for each child that we care for. This plan addresses the general and particular needs of each child, including physical and mental health, educational, social, life skills, and legal support with the ultimate aim of social inclusion.
From a broader perspective, we would like to change the way people perceive the refugee crisis, especially regarding minors. Integrating these children and youths into society can only have a positive effect, as long as their marginalization is eliminated and replaced with social inclusion and equal access to opportunities.
So, what was the next step—and how was The HOME Project founded? What organizations do you have supporting you?
The HOME Project began as a targeted intervention of child protection for unaccompanied refugee children in Greece. It was founded in response to the call made by President Obama to the private sector to help in addressing the refugee crisis in 2016. Our partners are people and organizations who truly care about children and believe in our model of child protection.
We started with the opening of the first shelters in 2016. Soon after, the IKEA Foundation and the Shapiro Foundation supported us to scale up our operations, reaching 11 shelters. Recently, with the support of the Dutch Government we managed to open 3 more shelters in collaboration with a Dutch NGO Movement on the Ground.
Currently, we operate 14 shelters and we have offered child protection services to more than 570 children since 2016. One shelter is for young children, from 5 to 12 years old; three are for underage girls including underage mothers with their babies and nine are for teenage boys 13 to 17 years old. There is also one shelter for the children who turn 18 and are supported in their step toward autonomous life.
Equally important are several private partners and foundations that have supported smaller scale projects, especially during the lockdown in Athens. Due to these latest public health developments, other donors covered the emergency budget needed to cope with the challenges of Covid-19 pandemic.
What is the action plan for THP beyond the infrastructure?
The Home Project shelter model is based on three pillars:
1. Provision of holistic network of child protection covering food, shelter, material, medical provision, social, legal and mental health support with the ultimate goal of social inclusion.
2. Job creation. We have created 170 jobs for refugees as well as for Greeks. In order to integrate into any society, people need a HOME but they also need a job. Half of our shelter staff is comprised of refugees who become role models for the children, demonstrating a better future is achievable.
3. Adding value to the local economy. We create value for the local economy by renting unused buildings—victims of the financial crisis—and we empower the engagement of local communities via community building events. The development of healthy relationships in the shelter and with the local community, as well as enhancing participation and social inclusion, are equally important. Specifically, we actively seek to collaborate with the neighborhoods in which the shelters are located. For example, we supply our shelters with everything needed from local grocers, butchers, supermarkets, and pharmacies. Through this practice, we aim to create a support system around each home and fight xenophobia and stereotypes.
How are the HOMES organized?
At the core of our model is child protection. Our Child Protection Unit consists of professional social workers, psychologists, lawyers, psychiatrists, and an implementation model, which concludes in an Individual Development Plan for every child we care for. The Individual Development Plan represents a complete framework of child protection and is an ongoing process, aligned with the development of a child in five main areas: a) Mental Health, b) Education, c) Life Skills and Socialization, d) Social Support, e) Legal Support. The HOME Project recognizes and addresses the reality of the needs of each child, which go beyond just nourishment and housing.
The staff in the shelters attend weekly supervision by external mental health professionals and receive monthly training from our Child Protection Unit in child protection protocols, in order to be prepared to take on the responsibility of replicating the parental environment as well as providing a system of social welfare and support that is nonexistent for these children in society.
You insist a lot on education as well?
Education is vital to the development of children, and all children under our care attend school. In addition to public schools, we have partnerships with two of the biggest private schools in Athens.
43 children have received full time scholarships at ACS Athens with the support of Shapiro Foundation and over 210 children have participated in the innovative, educational “Youth to Youth” Program in collaboration with ACS Athens and supported by IKEA Foundation; Similarly, more than 70 children participated in the innovative program “School Project” in collaboration with Athens College. As part of these programs every Saturday, by physical presence and/or online children of The HOME Project “buddy up” with students from these schools and are taught Greek, English, art, math, music, and sports. This initiative aims to create a space of interaction where youths from the school have the opportunity to socialize with refugee children as a way to fight xenophobia, break stereotypes, and bring the two communities closer.
I heard you’ve had a big success story regarding educational achievements?
We have one case of a young adult who had been accepted to Science Po in Paris. Though he was initially denied asylum and wasn’t able to travel, we began a large public campaign to push the authorities to review his application. His asylum request was subsequently granted by the minister himself along with the asylum of two other children under our care. He is now living in Paris and receiving an exceptional education. We are very proud of his success.
How do children arrive at The HOME Project and how long do the children stay with you?
The children we accommodate are being referred to The HOME Project from all sites, camps, detention centers and homelessness, through national authorities. The authority of the referrals recently moved to the office of the Special Secretary for the Protection for unaccompanied Minors at the Ministry of Migration and Asylum with a Ministerial decision from the National Center of Social Solidarity (EKKA). The Public Prosecutor for Minors in Athens remains the legal guardian of all minors referred to our shelters.
The length of the stay for each child depends on the individual case. We have children who with our support apply for asylum and stay until their adulthood, while we have cases able to reunite with their families in other EU countries and who stay with us until our legal team completes their process.
Do the children eventually reunite with their families? How does this process work?
Since the beginning we have already managed to help 130 children reunite with their families. However, this process can take more than a year, as we need to prove they are indeed part of the same family. This length of time can take an immense toll on the children. In one case, a girl under our care suffered from eating disorders for a year because she couldn’t join her mother in Germany. After receiving multiple unlawful rejections, the decision was challenged at a court in Germany and she finally received a positive answer. Though this process is often arduous, family reunification is a necessity for each child if possible.
Are there children who arrive in Greece without having other family members with whom they can be reunited? What happens to these children in the future?
There are children who do not have families to reunite with. These children have left their homes for various reasons such as war, persecution, or poverty. Other times they have been separated during the journey or the parents have passed away.
With our support these children apply for asylum in Greece and stay in our shelter until they reach 18. However, no child leaves the shelter until they are ready for the next step. Some of the children who remain under our care after their 18th birthday stay in the 18+ shelter; others move into their own apartment and find their own job with the help of The HOME Project. Many go into technical fields; becoming plumbers, electricians, tailors, and chefs.
During the last four years, 45 of our children have been integrated into the labor market with permanent or seasonal jobs after turning 18 years old. Additionally, several of the children formerly under our care are hired as cooks, cleaners, and caretakers in the shelters upon reaching adulthood. Having been given these jobs in the shelters, the new staff members serve as role models for the children they are caring for. In this sense, they instill hope in the minds of the children.
How has THP dealt with issues presented by the pandemic?
The pandemic has made operations more difficult. The complications mostly stem from the lockdown: employees cannot move efficiently from shelter to shelter. Asylum service offices have suspended operations and affect our lawyers who are working on important issues regarding the children. Moreover, we hired more staff to temporarily take the place of those who have a higher health risk and to ensure that the needs of all children were being met.
Despite the recent COVID-19 pandemic, we have successfully managed to support the community building aspect of our model through projects such as the WWF Shelter-Greening project, which included the offering of plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables to the neighboring local community as well as a mask creation project in which the children of The Home Project in collaboration with WWF Hellas and WaterMasks designed and produced protective masks for the homeless people of Shedia Street Paper. The project aimed to raise children’s awareness on environmental and social issues, while giving them the opportunity to give back to the community and express their solidarity amidst these challenging times.
Recently, during the holiday season, children created greeting cards which they shared in the neighborhoods and send by post to our friends and supporters in order to thank them. In this way they can learn universal human values that will accompany them throughout their lives.
In terms of the risk directly posed by COVID-19, testing is the most effective way in which we can combat the virus. There has only been one positive, asymptomatic case in the shelters from a child who got it at school, and the entire shelter underwent a 2-week isolation period. While no more cases were recorded anywhere in The HOME Project network, the pandemic has taken an emotional and financial toll.
What can people do to help?
People can help in three ways
• Financial support: The HOME Project welcomes donations from individuals or organizations – either single gifts or regular contributions.
• Time: Join our team as a volunteer
• Resources: All forms of support (e.g. materials, food, clothing, services, internships, job opportunities, etc.) can make a big difference in our work
People could also spread the word about our work towards the most vulnerable children and help us raise awareness on our initiatives. Europe of 2021 has to ensure that no child can be allowed to remain invisible or alone.