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Working with refugee children in Greece: how I almost lost faith in humanitarian aid

Frida's personal black and white photo, Padova, 2020. Photo taken by Navid Panahi.

I am Frida, I am 25 and I come from Greece: those are the first three things you have to know about me. I was raised in a small village next to the borders with Turkey and once I turned 18, I moved permanently to Athens to study International Relations.

As a bachelor’s student, I thought the direction I would follow afterwards as a professional would be diplomacy. Well, I was completely wrong about that. One day, in my third bachelor’s year, I walked into a classroom to attend my first Humanitarian Law lecture. The professor started explaining the humanitarian field, what it is and what it involves, the human rights paradigm, the hard work of NGOs and that was it. I felt like Harry Potter when he first touched the right wand: I finally knew where I belonged. On that day, the same professor presented to students the opportunity of volunteering with a well-known Greek NGO, working on migration and refugee issues.

I immediately seized the opportunity, and not more than a week later, I participated in the organization’s training for volunteer escorts of unaccompanied minors. For a year, I was to go on missions all over Greece to pick up and escort unaccompanied refugee children, from their temporary accommodation center to a permanent one or from their permanent center to the regional asylum service, where they could be interviewed to either gain international protection or renew it. All of the missions were paid by the budget of the organization and volunteers would receive 20 euros/per day as pocket money (for personal expenses like water and food). I had to organize all the logistics: schedule (and not miss) the flights; set up budget plans to cover the children's needs; collaborate with the interpreter and other actors on the field.

When I first started going on missions, I was very nervous and I had many thoughts and anxieties, including how not to irrationally react to racist behaviours that I came across, especially on public transportation. Additionally, it was crucial to me to find a balance with children: you need to be friendly and to make them feel comfortable but, at the same time, you don’t want them to feel attached to you because after all, you will have to leave them. Furthermore, you have to maintain a professional attitude, since you have to lead the mission and not vice versa. And finally, you need to be very careful with questions that might come up and avoid touching any sensitive string because those children have been through a lot of life experiences and emotions.

However difficult a new beginning may be, it will always get better, especially if you are committed.

After some intense months of work, my supervisors started assigning more important tasks and roles, and I was myself put in charge of missions since I spoke English and I was able to communicate with older kids. Who knew that all the knowledge and experience I gained from those missions would be shaken in a moment, where I felt helpless and blindfolded?

August 2016: my last mission. I travelled from Athens to the island of Kos. I would escort by myself a 17-year old boy to the island of Rhodos, where one of the regional asylum services was located, in order to renew his international protection document. After that, we would return to Kos. I remember checking the mission’s documents and I realized I had escorted him in the past to his permanent accommodation. I was so happy to see him again and full of questions about his life. We reached the asylum service and he was called in to sit for an interview. After it, he walked out and he trembled, he was pale white. “My stomach, my head, I feel dizzy”, he said before sitting on his legs, trying to vomit. I froze and I did not know what to do. Should I take him now to the hospital or should I wait to see if he gets better? What will happen with the ship we have to catch? I decided to bring him some water and food, and, after a while, he got a lot better, and I was relieved. But the adventure was not over yet.

We went to a restaurant, to eat and wait for the time to pass in order to embark on our ship. At some point, I went to the bathroom, and I told him we would be leaving soon. I left for one minute. One minute. And he was gone. I asked the manager of the restaurant who saw him standing up and leaving the table quietly. No running, no hurry. I started searching for him everywhere and I followed the protocol and the instructions of my supervisor: I went to the nearest police station and I declared him missing. I could not do anything else and I was feeling so guilty. The head of the accommodation center back on the island told me he had already contacted his friends there, he wanted to escape and he was already on a boat to Athens.

While on the plane back home, I was thinking a lot. I was blindfolded. I wanted to offer whatever I could, and he played it sick in order to accept the “help” of a smuggler. In that moment of mixed feelings, I deeply started wondering what if humanitarian aid was not sufficient to contrast smuggling and what more I could do. My faithful beliefs in humanitarian aid were shaken. With time, I got over it and I understood that the choice of that boy doesn’t mean that every child will make the same one in the future. Above all, I have learnt that we cannot change the world in a day, but we can at least start by making a decision and achieving small changes, every day, step by step. This episode could have destroyed my motivation to continue my studies, but instead, I chose to believe the implementation of human rights on a global scale is the solution. This experience and my instinct led me to apply for the HRG master and I was proved to be right since it is a high-qualitative programme that offers knowledge in a multicultural environment.

Written by Frida Pavlidou

Edited by Giulia Rosina

Per leggere in italiano, fai clic con il pulsante destro del mouse in un punto qualsiasi di questa schermata e seleziona "Traduci in italiano"


Frida Pavlidou is a 2nd year HRG student passionate about migration studies. Follow Frida’s story on Instagram @fridapavlidou, Facebook @Frida Pavlidou and Linkedin @Frida Pavlidou


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