Mohammad Vahedi, a psychologist who manages the SOS Children’s Villages shelter for unaccompanied boys in Athens, came from Iran to Greece as an unaccompanied minor himself 20 years ago. At the time, there were no shelters to support him.
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Today this personal experience helps him relate to the difficulties these children face daily, while for the children at the shelter, he represents a role model who is able to understand their problems.
Mohammed runs one of four SOS Children’s Villages centres for unaccompanied refugee children in Greece, which provide full-time social workers, psychologists, cultural mediators and asylum-specialized lawyers. Of these centres is one of the country’s few centres for unaccompanied girls who have made their way to Europe alone.
Providing quality care
An estimated 2,000 unaccompanied and separated children are currently living in Greece. Shelters to accommodate and protect these minors do not correspond to the sheer need. For many, this means they are left behind in camps, on the street – or at worst, subject to systematic detention or exploitation.
By providing shelters, quality care and educational support, SOS Children’s Villages Greece has been at the forefront of restoring normality and stability into these children’s lives.
Building relationships with unaccompanied children is, for Mohammad, the essence of SOS Greece’s work. “These children have to see that there are people who they can build up real and honest relationships with”, he explained.
Facing ongoing challenges
Nonetheless, the children face uncertainty and lengthy legal processes of family reunification, leading some of them to seek out to human traffickers to reunite with their families earlier.
“They are young, so sometimes they don’t understand the dangers involved”, said Lina Tsiambazi, an SOS Children’s Villages social worker who helped established the girls centre. Convincing these children to stay patient and continue pursuing the legal processes of family reunification has been priority for SOS staff.
“It can take a long time to build their trust”, said Lina. “However we try our best to ensure they trust our judgment and do not reach out to traffickers.”
To address the danger of turning to human traffickers, Mohammad organizes weekly one-on-one sessions explaining the great risks involved, and encourages the children to speak openly about any their concerns and troubles.
Integration into the local school system has likewise been a fundamental challenge for some of the children. Often, children are demotivated to attend Greek schools, as they are hoping to move on to other countries in Europe.
“We have addressed this issue with the schools, to ensure classes are provided which are tailored in a way that is more valuable for refugees”, said Lina. Newly designed programs, focus primarily on sciences and English lessons, giving less emphasis to Greek-focused human sciences and language classes.
SOS Children’s Villages provides psychological and emotional care, social services, language classes, food and hygiene kits, as well as sports and recreational activities at refugee centres on Lesbos island, in Athens and in the Thessaloniki area, helping more than 76,000 children and adults over the past year. Since May 2016, SOS Greece has provided nearly 200 unaccompanied children with housing, care and legal assistance at three centres for boys and one for girls.