ANARCHISTS, EMPATHY, AND CHRISTIANS
In 2015 refugees gathered at Victoria Square, right next to Exarcheia, an Athens neighbourhood known for its anarchist residents. The anarchists were the first on the scene helping the refugees. Read how a small church in Exarcheia and their pastors Alex Pipilios and Tim Coomar, were inspired by their anarchist friends to make a difference.
Interview and photography by Talitha Brauer
Editing by Becca Ashton
TALITHA: When the crisis started in early 2015, the anarchists were the ones meeting the needs of the refugees in Athens. How did you guys get involved?
ALEX: We live in Exarchia, so we live in the neighborhood where most of these anarchist groups exist. They create a lot of things, they occupy buildings, they host families, they store things in the occupied buildings, and they were making calls out through the media and to the neighbors, about whatever refugees needed, and they kept gathering stuff and distributing things to them.
So we came in contact and we found ways that we could help other people, not as a church entity— but as individuals, somehow. We didn’t want to step into their work, in what they were doing, just only as volunteers and people to help. The main thing that was that we were supporting them.
When it was right at the beginning the whole Greek Evangelical society was trying somehow to give food, one meal per day, through one of the centers that the government had opened. The food that was supposed to come there was not coming every day because it was cooked by the army — and I don’t know what was going on — sometimes it was extremely awful food. Nobody could eat it, really. Our church had one day per week to cook about 250 portions. It was interesting because we didn’t cook them in a professional kitchen, but my wife, Tim’s wife, another guy from the church, and another lady of our church—each one of them did 25 portions in their house on a weekly basis.
TIM: Apart from the very fundamental initial response that we had - "we can’t ignore this thing, this need that has arrived in our doorstep", one of the challenges we as a church felt was, "How do we go about doing this?"
As a church we realized that the next step needs to be a combination of finding some mid to long-term solution for accommodation. Plus, the issue of immigration—how to connect them to the right things, or involve them in some kind of Greek community that would help them, both in a passive sense, in terms of language, but also in active ways that would help them to start connecting with Greek society and integrate.
ALEX: There are two stories that really convinced us to open up a center here:
First, I came in the square, and there were some people from an NGO who were trying to give some crayons and play with the kids from a family, and the women literally, as soon as they came there, handed over their kids and immediately laid down on the spot just to sleep on the ground. It was probably the first time after long days of traveling that they could leave their kids somewhere and take a nap.
The second story was very touching for me. I had a four-month-old baby at that time, my daughter, and I saw a father holding his daughter in his hands, and really throwing her up in the air and then catching her. I could see on her face that they have the same happiness that I have with my daughter, and that made me say to myself, you could easily be in his place. Easily you could be in his place. And the other side also—he’s already enjoying his life with his daughter.
TIM: As a church, we already have a community where a large number of our church members are already involved in the Faros centers—they’re either volunteering there or they’re working there, and so they’re living and breathing the lives of these refugees alongside them.
So for instance, just this last Sunday, without us organizing it, members from our church organized a surprise birthday party for one of the girls — she was 5 years old. They went, they got her a present, — and then we came down and they said to us, by the way, you guys as the church have bought her this present.
We have a family that was living in our church facility, and we found that just through the contact with the refugees, [our church members] were being sensitized to their needs and they were taking their own initiative.
So I think also we are addressing a much bigger need. There are 2,500 unaccompanied minors in Athens; we have 20 beds. Still we don’t cover the whole thing, but what’s going on already is important.
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