Syrian Refugee Crisis Meets Greek Debt Crisis
July 23, 2015
Syrian refugees have found Greece less than welcoming.
Fallout from Greece's international debt crisis is expected to further squeeze war-ravaged arrivals from Syria, but the refugees and an indigenous group serving them are rising to the challenge.
Banks reopened in Greece on Monday (July 20), after three weeks of shut-down to avert a crash while the government scrambled to obtain a bailout from international creditors. The first days of the shut-down, however, left the ministry to Syrian refugees, Bridges, with a cash shortage.
Bridges Directors Ilias and Voula Antouan considered skipping distribution of one Wednesday of groceries due to the crisis, Voula Antouan said. They explained the situation to their core group of Syrian refugees, seeing it also as an opportunity to inform them about European issues.
The directors were pleasantly surprised and encouraged when the Syrians they have worked so hard to serve offered to help them in return.
"They looked at us and said, 'I have got some money; I will lend it to you, and you give it back when this ends,'" Voula Antouan said. "We really have to admit that God has been our shield and protection, as we went through these capital controls as if they never existed. That Wednesday we were able to provide groceries for about 209 people."
Throughout June, the ministry provided 850 Syrians with groceries and clothes, she added.
Some 31,000 refugees, most of them from Syria, came to Greece in June. The capital controls that began June 29 included the closure of money transfer offices such as Western Union that refugees rely on.
Syrian refugees can still be seen living on the streets of Athens.
"The refugees are using mainly, if not exclusively, Western Union to transfer money," Antouan said. "By my point of view, this is partially good, as this way they were not able to transfer money to their smugglers."
After seeing their homes in Syria bombed and their relatives killed, refugees in Greece now struggle to afford housing and food. That task became tougher this week, as terms of Greece's bailout include a 23 percent tax, up from 13 percent, on many food and other items. In exchange for bridge loans to make payments on debt to the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, Greece agreed to the tax hikes as well as privatizations that are expected to drive other prices higher.
"More effects will be brought to the surface, as we shall have about a 10 percent increase on many of our groceries plus on many other services," Antouan said.
The ministry works with several social, medical and other agencies not only to meet basic needs of refugees but to advocate on their behalf. Though small, the group is one of the most effective groups ministering to refugees in Greece; the Antouans sometimes laugh when the larger agencies to which it refers refugees suggest they return to Bridges for help.
"When we send our people to other agencies to find help, they come back to us with a piece of paper and laughter as they show it to us, saying, 'They told me that if I want to get help I have to call Ilias, and they wrote his name and phone here,'" Antouan said.
Most of the refugees are passing through Greece en route to other destinations, so their priorities are food and shelter, as well as attaining legal status that will smooth their paths elsewhere. Bridges helps them with these needs, especially temporary housing, as it addresses their deepest spiritual needs. Refugees regularly put their trust in Jesus.
"During June we had the joy to lead many Syrians to Jesus and baptize four of them," Antouan said. "Out of those, three are already in other European countries building their new life."
At times the directors feel it is impossible to fully grasp the hardship the refugees face. Antouan said she and her husband asked the fourth person baptized, formerly Muslim, if he would share his faith with his wife, who is still in Syria. He replied, "If I do that by phone, there are two possibilities: My wife and children will be either kidnapped or murdered."
The new Christian has asked for prayer to get his wife and children out of Syria and bring them to Greece.
Hundreds of refugees are coming to the Greek islands every day. The ministry receives calls daily from people from Syria and elsewhere – Egypt, Turkey and Jordan, among others – looking for assistance in a country reeling from economic crisis that, even in the best of times, is ill-equipped to receive them. Shelters, medical services and jobs are in short supply.
Smugglers are getting rich from Syrians' despair, Antouan said. In spite of their hardship and vulnerability, those who arrive seek to give as much as they receive, she said.
"We have a 5-year-old boy who is here with his mother; the parents are divorced," she said. "He lost his voice when their house was bombed before they left Syria. He is under psychological tests. The mother has legalized herself in Greece and is helping us with groceries and clothing distribution, organizing our storage, and doing home visits, as she is still unemployed."
Whenever the ministry can afford it, it supports the mother financially, as she works with all her heart alongside the ministry team, she said.
Last month, at least 25 refugees benefitting from Bridges left for other European countries, but the number attending the ministry's worship meetings remains constant with the continual stream of newcomers. The directors strive to remain in contact with those who leave, and they have considered starting Bridges branches in the European countries in which the refugees are settling. Those departing regularly ask the Antouans when are they coming to countries such as Belgium, Germany or Sweden.
"We are blessed to hear their voices before they go, saying, 'You must help us to start the same there!'" Antouan said. "We are blessed to see how Jesus changes hearts and rebuilds broken lives so that then they become servants of others."