“Between Fylis and Smyrnis”

In November I spent a few days in Athens and was able to get to know the life and mission of our sisters there a little more.

Since May 9 our sisters have been working among the refugees there and a great deal has been done in these seven months. From the beginning the community was conceived as a “Community in Movement”, accordingly then, there is much movement. Three sisters began there and just before Sr. Rastislava returned to her home province, Sr. Preethi joined them. Right now, therefore, there are again three sisters: Sr. Ada (from Austria), Sr. Clara (from Spain/Indonesia) and Sr. Preethi (from India North East).

Although the city district where our sisters live and work is not far from the centre of Athens, it is in a poorer part of the metropolis. Shabby houses, some standing empty, are a characteristic aspect of the streets. In some streets you find shops and restaurants one next to the other run by migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan Bangladesh, etc., and there is hardly a word of Greek to be heard. They are full of life and colour until late in the evening.

The sisters live “in the Fylis”, as they almost lovingly call their street which is right next door to the red-light district. Their apartment is on the second floor of a house rented by the JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service); it is right under the flat roof where the laundry is hung out. Below the sisters are the offices of the JRS; two refugee families also live there. In the basement there is a fairly large kitchen that is used by the refugees. Every afternoon there is “tea time” there which is meant to encourage encounters between the refugees and the people of the local neighbourhood.

Around 5 – 7 minutes’ walk away “in the Smyrnis” is the house of the Jesuits (with parish church next door), with the actual migrants’ home, the Shelter, run by the Jesuits; this is the main place for the activities of the three SSpS. The entire second floor of the large building is for the refugees. Sr. Clara and Sr. Preethi are de facto responsible for the daily life of the migrant families. Together with a few full-time co-workers and some, mainly young, volunteers from France and Portugal, they take care of the needs and wishes of the people. Around 40 to 50 refugees are housed on the second floor. 1 or 2 small rooms along the lengthy corridor have been made available for each family. Between the rooms there is a kitchen in which each family can prepare their meals and that has consequently become the main social meeting point. According to need the kitchen expands by means of small gas cookers onto the adjoining balcony.

Sr. Ada is in her element as nurse and midwife. She has a quite well stocked medicine cabinet, a massage device and all kinds of homemade natural remedies. With her decades long experience in different countries and cultures, she knows how to see body and soul as a unit, without forgetting faith when she is taking care of the sick and wounded. Improvisation and flexibility are often much in demand. Whether someone has caught the ‘flu’ or is suffering from the aftereffects of torture or war, whether she has to treat a highly pregnant woman or a frightened old lady, Sr. Ada knows how to improvise and she usually finds the right means at least to bring relief.

A significant, if not the most essential, assistance of the sisters is to be close to the migrants, to give them a feeling of safety and security through their very presence. It means so much for the people when someone cares about their situation and is ready to listen to the dire experiences and stories of their flight – and the sisters hear a great many of those. A particularly invaluable fact is that Sr. Preethi with her multi-cultural experience in her Indian homeland also knows quite a number of languages. She is able to converse with many of the refugee families in their mother tongues! Then Sr. Clara has a great ability to deal with the innumerable and in many cases still very small children. Her musical talents are attractive and bring a joyful mood. It is a fact that often the children brighten the atmosphere in the entire refugee area with their lively nature, their curiosity and their seemingly inexhaustible energy.

The children are mainly looked after by the volunteers; those are mainly young adults from France and Portugal who are working with the JRS for a time. They plan the children’s free time or take care of the infants while the schoolchildren go to the nearby public schools. Apart from that, various programs are offered in the Shelter for the adults, such as classes in English and Greek, special courses for women, and others.

In the afternoons the schoolchildren can make use of the “Arrupe Centre” which is next to the church. Learning supervision and tuition are provided there for refugee and migrant children together with children from Greek families.

In the Shelter the JRS generally only take in families, women with children or single women coming from the Middle East, that is from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The goal of almost all the refugees is to reach a country of western Europe where many of them already have relatives. That goal gives them such a strong motivation that they literally accept anything and everything to make a better life possible for themselves and their children in safety and freedom.

The JRS Shelter is only one of many places in Athens in which refugees live. In one of the suburbs there is a container village where up to 3000 refugees are living. To work there, however, is very difficult due to the conditions for access and mainly because it would exceed the time available to our sisters.

A large number of refugees live dispersed throughout the city, finding accommodation with friends or in deserted buildings. In addition there are an estimated 1000 (?) illegal refugees, mainly men, who have nowhere to stay. You see them in parks and public squares. In the Shelter in Smyrnis the migrants, including some from outside the house, take advantage of various counselling services and the clothing store.

Back “in the Fylis”. There is a knock at the door of the sisters’ apartment. A co-worker of the JRS Team comes in with a personal concern for which she asks the sisters for support and prayer. Such conversations usually take place around the sisters’ kitchen table. After a few consoling words from Sr. Ada, the woman disappears into the little chapel to be alone with God. This chapel is open to all and especially the co-workers and volunteers like to come there. Every Friday they meet to celebrate the Eucharist there and become aware of how they are uniting their service with the service of Jesus, gain strength from his words and share the Bread of Life with one another. After the Eucharist they are all invited for a simple noon meal prepared by the sisters.

My experience of our SSpS mission in Athens is expressed by the Prophet Jeremiah when he says: “The Lord declares: I have plans to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer 29:11, from the Letter to the Exiles).

Our three sisters are precisely that: a sign of hope among the refugees with whom they walk for part of their journey. No more but also no less.

Sr. Hemma Jaschke, SSpS – Provincial Leader – Austria/Romania

Some reflections of Sr. Preethi Silva on her mission in Athens

“The term ‘person’ has been coined to signify that a person cannot be wholly contained within the concept ‘individual member of the species’, but that there is something more to him or her, a particular richness and perfection in the manner of his or her being, which can only be brought out by the use of the word ‘person’.”  —St. John Paul II

As I arrived here in Greece four months ago I was incapable to erase the pain and wipe the tears from the face of women, adult, children… I questioned myself what would be their tears? What are they crying for? Is their tears only the pain of losing their belonging….? Hmm….for me it was only a pain as I arrived… I never gave a deep thought what more these tears would mean. It was on one sunny day, a refugee from Syria took me to deeper in her tears. Tears for loosing loved ones, tears for losing their wealth, land, building, future, even leaving the land they loved the most and above all tears for loosing human dignity. Dignity for human life… Tears of frustration, tears of anger, tears of revenge, tears of question marks regarding the future… Why this to us? Was her question to me…I could not answer to her question because it’s easy to answer the question but difficult to experience such turmoil in life as she faced.

I saw a video where the masked men laugh at a woman who holds her lifeless baby close to her heart and sobs bitterly. The other refugee friend of mine said that the masked men were raping a young pregnant woman in front of the others. Is this human dignity? A girl from Afghan told me she was forced to sleep with a man to save her family from killings. Where is the value for human life today? There are more stories to be shared but will these stories bring change in my attitude to respect human life?

What are their mistake? Their ignorance or their innocence?  Today the world is pregnant with selfishness that its goal is to crave for human body and blood for entertainment, for credibility of strength. For now, let us simply observe that the assault on human dignity is one of the prime goals of the visitation of fear, a service to the domination of the mind and the triumph of power.

Although the refugee crisis is one no longer mentioned in the media, the problems concerning those attempting to reach Europe’s shores in order to regain some sense of safety are far from over. According to the UNHCR’s data, this year alone 160,879 people have arrived to Europe through the sea, and it is estimated that at least 3049 have died or disappeared along the journey {data.unhcr.org, 28th November}.  On their exodus, they experience lots of inhuman acts such as rapes, molestation, harassment, kidnapping and human trafficking. Most of the single women mostly from Africa are pregnant without knowing who is the father of the child they carry. Over the last three months families with small children, pregnant women and victims of torture make up the majority of the new arrivals on the Greek islands. These men, women and children arriving in a vulnerable conditions, but their troubles do not cease upon their arrival in Europe. Instead of being welcomed they are forced to stay on the islands that are overcrowded. The camp in Lesbos, currently hosting over 6000 refugees when its infrastructure is made only for 2000 people. The condition of these people is horrible and they are forced to endure inhumane, unnecessary and completely unacceptable. Beside from these problems, the winter is in. people have hardly to cover their bodies and protect themselves from the bites of the cold. In order to lessen their problems, the JRS {Jesuit refugee service} Athens, Greece has send winter shoes, blankets, clothes including the most urgent thing “ under wears “for people.

Life is precious for each one of us. I value my life, my freedom to speak, my freedom to move without fear, my freedom to live happily, my freedom to enjoy all the rights without disturbing the other. This life I prefer for all of us. This is the cry of every person and specially of the refugees who voice out to treat them as human and not an animal with dignity and respect.

December 2017

 

ARE REFUGEE THREAT / INSTRUMENT TO PEACE?

The ideas of peace-building consist of a wide range of activities focusing among others on the social conditions that foster violent conflict—capacity building, reconciliation and societal transformation. In the context of refugees, who has lost health and wealth  faced fear, stress and turmoil, today long to establish PEACE. From their sharing of life, I have picked up their thrust for harmony and peace. They prefer colour white than colour red because colour white symbolizes PEACE. According to them they are ready to work for peace and harmony and can go to any extend to establish peace.

I feel I am privileged to participate in this mission of refugees in Greece specially those whom I serve here in JRS { Jesuit refugee service} Athens. In my constant conversation and interaction with them I have the opportunity to speak about peace of Christ. Jesus’ peace was peace of harmony, understanding, brotherhood and non-violent. The scriptures of different religion ultimately teach about the importance of establishing peace in order to live a harmonious life.  Therefore my constant effort is to help the refugees to make an important contribution to peace-building by accepting peace agreements; then to participate in peace-building elections, and join hands with persons who are on the track of peace ` building.

Today, however, there is a growing trend in which refugees are able to influence conflict and peace outcomes. Contemporary changes, not the least advances in communications technology, are giving refugees more prominent roles. Individual refugee have played important roles as participants in peace-building commissions and other forms of peace-building activities.  So , the refugee is not a threat to peace but an instrument to peace. There need to have an understanding of mind and heart to support them.

Therefore it is good to keep in mind the words of Martin Luthar King Jr, “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” 

December 2017