© Sarah Booker (RLS Executive Committee member)
To mark the day and provide you with an insight into our work, our volunteer lawyers, Wendy, Catriona, Sophie and Diana, have provided us with a memory from their time at Khora community centre in Athens:
Nothing could have prepared me for the stories of the people I met at the Khora Legal Centre in Athens. Stories of separated families, survivors of war and torture and unaccompanied children. People trapped by the bureaucracy of the administrative and legal procedures. A sense of frustration and desperation.
One client was separated from his ex-wife and his 5 children, all of whom were in Germany. He wanted to be reunited with his children, but he did not meet the legal requirements. The children were living apart and it was unclear as to whether their welfare was being safeguarded. This father was effectively stuck in Greece unless Germany agreed to transfer him. Another client had been tortured in Syria, and there was harrowing medical evidence of this. He was in fear for his life, and was waiting for his asylum interview in Greece.
I wanted to use my short time volunteering to help these people navigate their way through bureaucracy. I wanted to make a difference. I therefore found myself frustrated at times with the slowness and inefficiency of the legal processes.
Listening to, and advising clients sensitively and being mindful of their past trauma was important in and of itself. It meant that their rights were being respected and they could speak to a lawyer in confidence. There was someone in a professional capacity whom they could trust. And in a world of chaos and confusion, I was hopefully able to bring some clarity and reassurance by giving realistic and practical advice. I found that empowering and equipping people with knowledge of their rights was the best way to counter-balance the sense of being in ‘limbo’ with no certainty for the future or what it might bring.
RLS-Athens operates from Khora community centre a bright light multi purpose community centre for refugees in Exarchia District. Every Friday volunteers from RLS-Athens accompany asylum seekers to Katehaki the Greek Asylum Service (GAS).Migrants sleep overnight on the street outside its steel gates to be at the front of the queue of hundreds of the hungry weary and angry: most don't get in so I was up at 6 am to make sure I did.
My 2 clients from Pakistan and Senegal fought our way through but both were unsuccessful in getting ID cards as the GAS interpreters were on strike having not been paid since November. I was then directed to a cubicle and a tent before arriving at the Dublin Office with my list of 12 queries. 2 refusals 8 reconsiderations and 2 acceptances later I staggered out. Returning to Khora's cafe for a warm healthy meal with people from across the world reassured me that we can still care about each other and alleviate human misery.
The EU has failed to provide Greece with enough money to process the thousands of migrants on its shores but NGOs like RLS-Athens offer a beacon of hope to hundreds. We have some successes some failures but we must keep trying.
RLS-Athens, working with Greek lawyers, has enabled many refugees and migrants to receive high quality legal advice and assistance. I am pleased to have been able to participate as a volunteer and to have helped move people's cases forward. I think in particular of an especially vulnerable Syrian woman who was with family members, whose voice had not been heard and to whom I was able to listen properly and give appropriate advice thanks to the project. Her situation was a difficult one and without the support of good lawyers it was likely she would find herself left alone in Greece whilst relatives joined family elsewhere.
I volunteered with the ILPA project in Athens in early May 2017. After a steep learning curve in Greek asylum procedures, I spent my time advising clients at the Khora legal advice clinic while also giving a training session to the clinic’s longer-term volunteers.
I met individuals and families from Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Despite the limited time, it was possible to offer assistance with basic advice, preparing witness statements and advising on documentation for asylum and family reunion claims. As an example, one family came to the clinic late on Friday afternoon - their asylum interview was scheduled for the following Monday but, despite having waited for this date for many months, the family had never spoken to a lawyer and were living in extremely difficult circumstances in a camp outside Athens. The family had three young children and the mother, who suffered from severe mental health issues, was due to give birth imminently. They had family members in Germany with whom they wanted to reunite. I was able to spend several hours at the clinic with the father on Saturday afternoon, with the invaluable assistance of a local interpreter, to help give outline advice on his asylum claim and request for a Dublin III transfer, prepare a witness statement and advise on the documents he needed to demonstrate the family relationships and issues surrounding his wife’s health. The clinic is following up to provide further assistance in preparing documents to assist the family’s Dublin III claim.
The Khora community centre is an impressive feat - a safe space offering a variety of invaluable services to Athens' refugee population, from food and dental services, to language lessons and the legal clinic.