RENATE Core Group at the Vlatadon Monastery, 14th Century Christian monument in the Upper Town, Thessaloniki, Greece, where St. Paul preached to the Thessalonians.
In light of the increasing numbers of migrants trafficked through new migratory corridors along the Aegian sea, RENATE Core Group members visited Greece in early February 2018, to meet with local NGOs.
The first meeting took place on 10 February, when Imelda Poole, IBVM and Adina Balan, cj, met with Dina Petrou, Director of Shelter for trafficked girls in Athens. Over lunch they learned about the history of the shelter for trafficked girls which is run by the evangelical church. Dina spoke of their visit to Lesbos the previous week. There they encountered 30 African girls huddled in a small camp, all of whom had been raped during their terrible sea journey from north Africa. All were pregnant. Several hundred others had died at sea. The girls were deeply traumatised and had no papers. It was a truly terrible situation. The African girls spoke about the fact that the boats should have held only 50 people but instead, held double this number. The smugglers who owned the boats, abandoned all the people at sea and the refugees then had to struggle to get the boat going and to steer it into the island of Lesbos.
What is not widely known is that the authorities on Lesbos have taken these boats and the abandoned belongings of those lost at sea to a high mountain away from sight, where a mound of these precious belongings is growing and will be buried by the authorities so as to be out of sight. They saw pictures of these abandoned boats and belongings piled up on the mountain away from sight, which is so very distressing to consider.
Some of the stories of rescued girls were equally distressing. In particular, the story of a child multiply abused and abandoned by both family and the authorities. The impact is such that this girl is traumatised and damaged for life, no longer capable of accessing all the normal life lines offered to rehabilitate and restore a person.
Later in the morning, Argyris Petrou, Dina’s husband, joined them. He is the director of the Bible College and is also involved with this project by taking on the onus of fund-raising. They all shared different experiences of the work, the good news and the challenges. It was a happy time together.
After lunch they visited the house where the girls were living with their babies. They met one of the girls with her beautiful little boy who was not yet one year old. The house was bright and modern and offered very comfortable accommodation for the girls. Each had their own room and at night, a house mother stays in another part of the building. It was all very secure with a good system of care and rehabilitation programmes.
Having spent some time there, they were then taken to another region of Athens where they visited the central office and training rooms with crêche facilities. This was again a modern, bright and airy building where great care had been taken to ensure it was a place of welcome. They discussed all the programmes used including the 12 step AA Programme and the Servant Leadership Programme originating in Canada. After continued lengthy sharing and debate on various issues, they were taken for a small bite to eat near the Bible college and so to bed after an inspirational and thought provoking day.
Day 2 Athens
After a good breakfast at the Bible college Adina and Imelda were met by Argyris and his sister Magda who drove them into Athens pointing out all the major tourist attractions on the way such as the Acropolis and Olympia, Marathon and Amphitheatre. All very impressive. Argyris dropped them off at the Catholic Cathedral named after St Denis, where they participated in a solemn High Mass sung by an amazingly wonderful choir, and led by a priest who had an equally wonderful voice, complementing the choir with his singing throughout the Mass.
After a light lunch they walked and metroed across Athens to perhaps the poorest quarters of Athens, called Victoria, where the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) are located, comprising a community of five plus a few JRS volunteers, the majority of whom come mainly from France. The Victoria region of Athens houses the majority of the refugee population.
60 refugees live in this vast JRS centre. The refugees come mainly from the Middle East, Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey. The conversation was focused on our mutual cooperation. JRS in Athens was very keen to be part of RENATE. We shared contact details and hope this conversation will be followed up with more meetings.
Soon Adina and Imelda were heading for the airport where their plane left at 10.10pm for Thessaloniki where we linked in with the rest of the Core Group.
The core group had an excellent first day, beginning with a visit with the Mother Teresa sisters who work with many refugee girls staying in their home. The rest of the day was spent at a refugee day-centre run by Caritas. There were many, many refugees coming and going, looking for advice and taking part in the trainings offered.
We spent an hour listening to two of the staff tell of the work and the challenges in running this centre. They admitted that although there is a huge lack of resources, the housing situation is mainly under control in Thessaloniki so unlike the situation on the islands. We were then invited to meet the director of Caritas, a Lazarite Priest from Poland. He was with his assistant and fellow priest from Cameroon.
As a result of this meeting , we scheduled an additional in the Parish, after Mass on Friday evening, 16 February, to discuss RENATE and to look at the way forward in the work against human trafficking in this region. Up until now, although there is an awareness of the Human Trafficking difficulties, there is really no work being done to address this issue in the area.
Sadly and regrettably, the trafficked are all too easily hidden in the growing and continuing refugee crisis.
The next day, Tuesday, 13 February, the core group had a meeting regarding the implementation of some aspects of the strategic plan. On Wednesday, February 14th, the core group went into retreat for 3 days,. This was directed by Fr Paul Pace SJ, from Malta. As a team, we explored the manner in which our spirituality has been impacted by the years of working in the field of human trafficking.
This has been a wonderful experience of prayer and rich sharing.
We are grateful.
Imelda and the RENATE Core Group.