There’s a place near the heart of Athens, Greece that feels a bit like home to those who have none. The small, dingy alleyway off of Sophocleous street in the run-down district of Omonia may seem like the last place to find the warmth of hospitality. Yet tucked into the corner of that alley is a gate, where a small crowd of people gathers most weekdays just before noon. They come as strangers, walking foreign streets in a foreign land to reach that gate. But behind it is a room where the soft glow of home welcomes all. It is not foreigners who fill the chairs or aliens who are served a hot meal. In that place, they are friends, brothers and sisters, human beings with precious dignity.
A home for the homeless: that is what the Athens Refugee Center strives to be for just a few of the half million refugees that flood the streets of the city. Each year, roughly 150,000 undocumented immigrants enter the country seeking a home in Europe, only to find a broken system that offers no care and little chance of documentation. Some flee oppression in their homelands, like Iran, Afghanistan, and Somalia, while others simply long for greater opportunity. Yet, nearly all find themselves trapped within the borders of a country in crisis and ensnared by an inequitable and bloated system.
These are the overlooked and the oppressed that fall between the cracks in Athens and their plight is the reason that the Athens Refugee Center (ARC) exists. The ARC is run by Helping Hands, a Greek Christian ministry that works with the U.S.-based organization International Teams (ITeams) to care for the sojourners of Athens. For over a decade, the ARC has spread its arms wide by providing refugees with hot meals, showers, clothing, English classes, Bible studies, and a children’s ministry on designated afternoons throughout the week.
Tuesday afternoons are among the busiest for the ARC as families with children fill the main room, eagerly awaiting a fresh cooked meal of chicken or pasta, bread, salad and fruit. During the meal, the chatter of Farsi, English, and Greek from over 140 voices melds together to create a kind of diverse harmony that rings of community, something these families dearly long for. As lunch draws to a close, the men and women pull their chairs toward the center of the room to listen to a Bible lesson in Farsi as the children scatter from the tables and run down the hallway for a Bible lesson and craft of their own. After the close of the lesson, hot tea is brought out along with favorite Middle Eastern board games like backgammon and chess for further time of fellowship. On afternoons like these, few leave without a smile on their face.
Abulfas* is just one of those who has found a smile and a piece of home at the ARC. The bright-eyed 12-year-old spent most of his life in Afghanistan, but recently his family began down the long and dangerous refugee highway through Turkey and into Greece. Now his family stands fractured, with his mother and sister having made it to Paris with a smuggler, while he, his father, and brother remain caught in Athens. An all too familiar story for so many refugee families.
The staff at Helping Hands began to invest in Abulfas the first day he arrived at the ARC and cheerfully lingered after the lesson to help clean up the children’s room. Every week thereafter, Abulfas arrived in the alley outside of the ARC on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, waiting patiently to see if there might be enough room for him and his infectious smile. During the Bible lessons, Abulfas would ask question after question, curious about this person named Jesus. But one day, Abulfas did not ask any questions. He simply volunteered to pray. And for the first time, he closed his prayer with the name of Jesus Christ. Abulfas continues to come to the ARC each week, but now, he also brings his little brother. Athens may not be a home for Abulfas, but perhaps the Lord has used the open arms of the ARC to point his heart toward its ultimate home in Christ.
Abulfas is just one among countless others that have been touched by the work of Helping Hands and ITeams in Athens over the years. And from that dingy alleyway off of Sophocleous street, they will continue to faithfully serve those who long for a home. But the ministry road ahead is filled with challenges as Greece struggles through this difficult financial climate. Even in this time, Helping Hands and ITeams aim to expand the ARC’s ministry to meet the growing needs of refugees who find themselves on Athens’ harsh streets. However, realizing that dream will require very real prayer, financial, and personal support for the future and the team continues to pray for those needs as they strive to serve the needs of others.
Because right now there is a place near the heart of Athens, Greece that feels just a bit like home to those who have none. And those at Helping Hands and ITeams wouldn’t have it any other way.
Get to know the ministry better by seeing the faces and places in Portraits: Athens Refugee Center (ARC)
*For security reasons, this name has been changed