“You know, this place right here could be absolutely anywhere in the world,” Andrew said to me as we wound our way through the streets of Omonia, a district near the heart of Athens. I looked up from the cracked sidewalk underfoot as he said it and realized he was right. The scene before us was completely foreign, yet somehow very familiar. These were the streets of urban ghettos around the world, filled with litter, running children, and vendors selling everything from raw meat to jewelry. The cacophony of languages that met our ears was a mix of Arabic, Greek, and Farsi and I began to wonder what kind of strange melting pot we had stepped into. Greece suddenly began to feel far away as we wandered through fragments of far-flung worlds that seemed to squat uncomfortably on those foreign streets.
This is the Greece that Andrew and I were introduced to on our first day: a city and a people in search of identity. In recent years, Greece has been flooded by hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking the alluring promises of opportunity and refuge from oppression that Europe seems to offer. It is estimated that 100,000-150,000 undocumented refugees, usually from the Middle East and south Asia, enter Greece each year, often by paying smugglers to transport them across the Turkish border. Despite the country’s dramatic economic woes these past two years, Greece has actually seen a sharp increase in illegal immigration, putting extra weight on a nation already in crisis.
Greece is Europe’s eastern gateway. Yet instead of blissful freedom, most migrants find the dark reality of harsh conditions, ethnic conflict, and bitter resentment when they cross the threshold. While hundreds of thousands of immigrants enter the country each year, Greece has only about 50,000 pending asylum cases, suggesting that most refugees have learned to avoid the country’s backlogged and inefficient system. However, these days, Greece can barely support the weight of her own people, much less provide housing, food, and jobs for the refugees that flood these shores. The result is a swelling population of migrants who find themselves undocumented, homeless, and trapped in a city where there are few options for a better life.
It takes only a day in the refugee districts of Omonia or Akhernon to see the true extent of the identity crisis that is gripping Athens. Refugees, caught in limbo, struggle to make a life for themselves in this foreign city, unsure of whether to put down their roots or continue the struggle down a dangerous refugee road. They are wanderers, looking for something familiar and somewhere to call home. Ironically, the people of Athens seem little more settled over the matter. Most nights you can find socialist gatherings in Victoria Park near the center of the city, wearing all black and sporting the white anarchy symbol on their shirts and banners as they rally for greater freedoms for immigrants. Yet, just a few miles to the south, Neo-Nazis have brutally forced all immigrants away from the areas surrounding Attica Park and frequently beat and rob any stray Afghan or Iranian that happens to pass through.
These are the challenges that make life a daily struggle for refugees in this city. Which is exactly why the Athens Refugee Center exists.
The ARC, as it is most commonly called, is a small ministry center in Omonia, run by the Greek organization Helping Hands, in conjunction with International Teams. The facility is made up of just a few white-walled rooms, a kitchen, and two bathrooms. But it becomes something altogether different once those rooms are filled with 140 Afghan refugees, chatting together over a home cooked meal, sipping tea, and playing games. Four days out of each week, the ARC’s doors are thrown open wide to families and individuals to enjoy meals, tea, English classes, showers, and Bible teaching.
Somehow, during those hours, four walls become a piece of home to the homeless and a refuge for those who crave a place to belong.
Andrew and I spent most of our days this last week serving with the staff at the ARC: helping prepare meals, talking with the refugees in our stilted snatches of Farsi, playing with the kids, and helping to clean up at the end of each day. Cleaning the bathrooms has become my assignment. And it is one that I am grateful for, because that is how I met Ramim.
“Ryan, you help me,” Ramim said to me at the end of our first day, wearing a toothy grin and holding two buckets, a sponge, and a toilet brush. Ramim is a 22-year-old refugee from Iran who has become a regular at the ARC and is now essentially part of the staff. I couldn’t quite tell if it was a request or a command because of his slightly stilted English, but ‘no’ didn’t seem to be an option, so I took one of the buckets and heaved a sigh. As we scrubbed the squatty-potties together, Ramim suddenly stopped at one point and looked me directly in the eye. “You know why I love cleaning the bathrooms?” he asked. “I have absolutely no clue, Ramim,” I said as dirty water splashed up on my shorts for the third time. “I love cleaning the bathrooms because it reminds me how great God is and who I am,” Ramim said, still smiling. After that, I couldn’t help but smile too.
At this point in our lives, I think Andrew and I feel a special connection to those without a home. We don’t have the scars and stories of pain that bring most of the refugees to the ARC, but in our own way, we are beginning to understand what it means to live as travelers. To find home in a place we don’t belong. We may not be able to give these refugees a home right now, but I pray that they find and cling to the One who crafted their name and story before the world began, the One who has made an eternal home for them.
I think we are all refugees of sorts on this road called life. Ramim reminded me of that as we cleaned the toilets last Saturday. And as we scrubbed that day, I thought about how no one is truly home just yet, and while we walk this long road ahead, we keep our eyes fixed on Christ in whose presence we will one day belong for all eternity.
I long for that day. But for now, we are cleaning bathrooms in Athens.