International Volunteer Day 2017: Volunteering with RLS-Athens
Sonia Curtis began legal studies at Oxford University, before suspending them in the spring of 2016 to do voluntary work. She spent four months coordinating the Ashram Kitchen in the Calais 'Jungle' refugee camp in France, and then seven months in Athens, Greece, at the Khora Community Centre, eventually working as Legal Support Coordinator for the Refugee Legal Support - Athens project.
The Refugee Legal Support - Athens clinic opened on 10 April, 2017. At the clinic qualified immigration and asylum lawyers work with Athens-based coordinators to provide essential support to asylum seekers and refugees. The clinic focuses primarily on putting together Dublin III family reunification applications and on preparing people for their asylum interviews, providing invaluable assistance to vulnerable clients in presenting and substantiating their claims.
From May until the beginning of September 2017, I acted as the Legal Support Coordinator. In this role I carried primary responsibility for the day-to-day running of the clinic and the organisation of the weekly schedule. I worked closely with the executive committee on strategic issues, and assisted the incoming volunteer lawyers in familiarising themselves with the ongoing cases.
The difficulties facing many asylum seekers and refugees in Athens are considerable. In addition to the many logistical hardships they face, they also find themselves in the middle of a confusing and drawn-out asylum process. The other organisations in Athens providing legal support are overwhelmed with the number of people seeking to access counsel. As a result, they have introduced vulnerability criteria, and give out appointments on that basis. Many asylum seekers do not have access to consistent legal support. RLS-Athens is a direct response to this problem. The clinic is open five days a week, and appointments are usually made for within the week.
In keeping with the project’s aim to assist and empower the community in which it has been set up, most of the paid interpreters are members of the refugee community. Interpreters also participate in professional training and gain valuable work experience. Also of significance is that the project has aligned itself with the active grassroots movement in Athens, and works closely with volunteers of the Khora Community Centre, whose knowledge of the situation on the ground partners effectively with the legal expertise the volunteer lawyers bring.
On a personal note, my time with RLS-Athens was an extremely clarifying experience for me. The unique insight I was offered into immigration and asylum law and the community surrounding it have motivated me to return to my legal studies, which I had suspended before coming to Athens, with a view of qualifying in order to practice in this area.
The project is highly professional and well-organised, without being overly bureaucratic. It combines the powerful solidarity of the grassroots movement with the legal expertise and experience of the lawyers who make up the executive committee and staff the clinic. I have no hesitation in saying that it is making a remarkable difference to the lives of the many people it supports.
Interested in volunteering with us? We'd like to hear from you! Find out more about volunteering opportunities with Refugee Legal Support.