Georgia Kaltsidou is IsraAID’s Integration Officer in the Sindos suburb of Thessaloniki, where our Community Center provides job training, psychosocial support, and educational opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers.
We understood the hidden burden of the pandemic, the way the lockdown levied a much heavier toll than we could have imagined on the refugee community
On March 6, the first COVID-19 restrictions were imposed in Greece — including permits to move around, hygiene measures, social distancing, and, of course, a lockdown of most businesses. After only two months at home, on May 4, the Greek government began to lift restrictions. On the surface, the situation in Greece appears better than in many other countries.
Greece, however, is also home to more than 100,000 refugees and asylum seekers, who are working to integrate into society. The lockdown period has made integration more difficult.
Every week during lockdown, the rest of IsraAID’s Sindos Community Center staff and I made regular calls to check-in with community members, to see how they were doing, talk about the situation, and generally have a chat. Through these calls and meetings, we understood the hidden burden of the pandemic, the way the lockdown levied a much heavier toll than we could have imagined on the refugee community, and the challenges they still face even as we emerge on the other side.
Any Job Opportunity Available
It is not easy for anyone in Greece to find a job in the current economic climate, but it’s even more difficult for refugees
If you ask Mamadou about his dreams for the future, he will definitely tell you that he wants to stay in Greece and build a new life here. After six months of studying, he can communicate in Greek and is getting ready to take the Greek diploma examination. Mamadou lives in a hotel in the suburbs of Thessaloniki in a housing scheme funded by the UNHCR, where there is no public transportation, so he walks over an hour each day to attend the Sindos Community Center or the educational facility where he’s also studying Computer Science.
As his integration officer, we’ve worked together on writing his CV. He asked me to write in bold, at the top, “any job opportunity available.” He walks around and distributes copies of his CV each day and is an active participant in our professional development workshops to improve his cultural skills toward making a lasting impression.
Mamadou is trying as hard as he can to find a job. But it is not easy. It is not easy for anyone in Greece to find a job in the current economic climate, but it’s even more difficult for refugees who may lack the certifications and proof of their education back in their country of origin. During the lockdown, lots of people lost their jobs. Mamadou sees that even though he has been searching for a job for more than a year, it will likely take much longer now.
For four months, every landlord said no. None of them gave her a reason
For those who have already been recognized and granted refugee status, a process that can take years, their state-supported accommodations expire. Whether you’re placed in an apartment in Athens, a hotel in a village, or a tent in one of the island camps, you have one month after your approval to find a job, sign a rental contract, and make sure that you continue making ends meet.
“We are not interested in giving the apartment to you”
Zeinab is a single mother who has been in Greece for three years, having given birth to her baby in the Moriah Refugee Camp on Lesbos. She already speaks fluent English and she is learning Greek as well. Zeinab already has a job, she is one of my successful cases. Because her baby is too young for the public education system, she brings her along to work every day. Luckily her employer is okay with it. I’m so proud of Zeinab and her successes.
The next step in her integration process was finding an apartment. Starting in October last year, Zeinab diligently called six landlords each evening after work. For four months, every landlord said no. None of them gave her a reason, even though every one of them says that the apartment is still available. “We are not interested in giving the apartment to you,” they would say.
When the lockdown came, and the need to find a suitable apartment became even greater, she decided to use a real estate company, which meant incurring extra costs. Despite the limited mobility, the need to compensate for bureaucratic barriers, and calculate unexpected expenses, she finally found a house for her and her daughter.
One day, she went to work, but was told she could no longer work because her status had expired.
Adele has had a job for the last six months, and was waiting for her appointment with asylum services, to extend her temporary eligibility to continue working before she has full recognized refugee status. Her appointment was cancelled during the lockdown — but her job was considered essential work. One day, she went to work, but was told she could no longer work because her status had expired.
She called everyone she could think of but could not get a clear answer. Not only is she now out of a job, but with asylum services extremely backlogged, she’s been put in the back of the line and will have to wait months for her extension. In the meantime, she is “invisible” in the labor market, unable to prove that she is in Greece legally.
Anyone with any appointment at asylum services during the lockdown lost their slot and they now have to wait for a new one.
Mustafa, 11, been consistently attending the local elementary school in Sindos for the last two years. But Mustafa’s family lives in an apartment that doesn’t have internet, which meant that he couldn’t participate in the E-Learning that the rest of his classmates did during the lockdown.
Now, with an even bigger academic gap between Mustafa and his classmates, Mustafa has to play catch up for the missed months of schoolwork. The experience has impacted his sense of confidence and security, with his routine disrupted and relationships with teachers and friends challenged.
Stability is seemingly unachievable
These real-life examples show how the integration process can be traumatic. Stability is seemingly unachievable, amid the complexity of the situation and the unpredictability of the pandemic. Still, Mustafa, Zeinab, Mamadou, and Adele work hard to be flexible, to bolster their resilience, and to be problem solvers.
Integration can mean many things, but we understand it as achieving social and economic inclusion, as well as active participation in all dimensions of life in Greece. It is contingent not only on a person’s desire, but is also a direct result of the national, international, and regional policies — or seemingly random circumstance, such as a pandemic — that can either facilitate the process or, as we have seen during COVID-19, put up even more barriers.
But people, just like trees and flowers, can blossom in the harshest of surroundings. My work with refugees reminds me of this every day.