AN ADVOCATE FOR UNACCOMPANIED MINORS
Patricia Kirk is a worker at Faros, a Christian NGO in Athens dedicated to helping unaccompanied minors get off the street and set them on a path to reach their potential, against the pull of their desperate circumstances.
Reporting and photography by Talitha Brauer
Editing by Becca Ashton
"My first meeting with the refugees was in 2011, when I did a field study on those kids, trying to understand their vulnerabilities in Athens, Turkey, and in Italy as well. Here in Athens, I was documenting children's stories and I was also trying to grasp and hear how they were doing their lives, to get another understanding. In this context here it really surprised me that—at that time at least—they seemed very invisible. The authorities were not so much focused on it six years ago, and I guess that created more vulnerabilities for the kids in a different way as there were not many services providing help, and there was not so much understanding of who they were and what their needs were.
There’s been an expansion of unaccompanied minors in Greece. There has been quite a large number of them, especially as we see from the waiting list for shelter space, that there are more on the list now than before. But I think that due to the large number, and also due to the difficult circumstances in which unaccompanied minors are in when they’re in Greece, when they’re in transit, there are really few possibilities for long-term solutions. No matter how you try to help them, one of the main vulnerabilities is that they are stressed about their lives.
We’ve experienced a high number of unaccompanied minors here in Faros through the day center or elsewhere. They have been exposed to sexual abuse, and to different people trying to take advantage of the refugees’ vulnerabilities. This migrant chaos has created a really chaotic situation that makes it easier for things like that to happen and to occur without being noticed, so that’s why we found that trying to be a day center, a drop-in center, and meet them in their need, and gain trust in these things is still a very relevant approach.
It's important that they not feel that there's a checklist I have to fill out in order for me to understand what’s going on in their lives. This feeling that I’m here for you, let me know how you’re doing—this is exactly what we feel is highly needed to find the gaps that are there.
QUICKENING THE PACE OF MEETING NEEDS
We were the only specific place for unaccompanied minors two years ago, but now there are more services providing this. What we felt before when we only had the day center was that when we found another unaccompanied minor, that the time frame from until he could get into a shelter and get some proper help, was maybe three months.
During the time when he wanted help was the same time he was exposed to sexual abuse, and we had no accommodation to put him in. This was the gap that we wanted to fill, to be a safe place where they could ease in from one day to the next, and be accommodated.
Meanwhile we were trying to find out what was their story, what was their circumstances? And is the next step to get them to a long-term shelter, or what is the prospect of family reunification, and can they stay here?
We try to develop a holistic approach where we are trying to understand what’s going on in their life, both in the past and how they are doing right now, and how we can try to help them in the future. For every minor here there’s an appointed mentor that is following the minor on his whole stay here, and ensuring that there is a plan made for him while he is here, but also that he is assigned to a social worker who is trying to work together on a long-term plan for him. The child or the youth often cannot explain or express these things, but if we are together with a boy on a daily basis in their every-day life, hopefully we can identify and understand what is going on.
We are approved by the government to identify ourselves to unaccompanied minors on the street and can ourselves inform the public prosecutor as a mechanism that is spreading and locating the unaccompanied minors into shelters. We inform them and say we have these unaccompanied minors, we make a screening and we identify their vulnerabilities, and we ask them 'can you stay at our shelter?' and then they every time say 'Yes, that we can stay at your shelter.' That makes it possible to take immediate action instead of just being a note on a table, you know, among 2,000 others, and then somehow disappearing in the system. It makes it possible for us to act immediately.
FIGHTING SEXUAL ABUSE
We are working with “life skills” education, trying to help the minors cope with life as it is, and equip them and give them so many skills themselves to deal with the circumstances—about how to navigate and to make the right choices.
This is where we really need to train the boys as they have not been exposed to these things before, and they are here alone, and they are very depressed, and they are in a very difficult situation mentally, so this is often where they are losing their value in themselves, and their hope, and then they are exposed to these things.
We find it’s true that by making them feel that they are valued, and getting them the feeling that they are something of worth, alongside equipping them and giving them skills in dealing with these things, hopefully we can help them make different choices.
Sexual exploitation of the unaccompanied minors is a big and a very difficult issue. I mean, you can just go to some squares or parks at night and you will see men on the search for young boys—so this is openly happening. I get so angry that they would really ruin the life of a boy who is in the worst state of his life, and has lost everything—and these men were taking advantage of that situation! This makes me so upset. As much as we can help the minors to get involved with the daily activities, get them a program of interests in something else, getting value in themselves again, then hopefully that will also change how they view themselves and how they value themselves.
WHAT GAPS DO YOU SEE?
One of the gaps is to be able to provide a long-term solution in Greece, working on the integration, and helping them in making a living, finding internships, which we are working on now.
We also see a need in general for more shelter space, for permanent shelter space alongside emergency needs.
In terms of here at Faros, we have developed a mentorship program. We really feel that this is where we follow up with the children and we can be there as much as possible, be their replacement, not their parent, but be the replacement of the parents.
Another area we continue to develop is psycho-social support. This work is mentally extremely challenging. It is extremely heavy, we encourage the staff to take individual debriefings because it’s just heavy stories to carry along. We are collaborating with a NGO thatprovides external supervision for us, and we also have an internal counselor that provides individual and group sessions and supervision to staff. We do this in order for people not to burn and to ensure their well-being."
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