Journalist: Apostolos Staikos
Operator/Editor: Simon Chabas
“War is unbearable. I took my child and we left Kiev. A friend of mine told me about METAdrasi’s dormitory. In Greece I have no relatives, no one to help me. I don’t know what I would have done if this shelter didn’t exist.”
Evgeniya Prishuta is one of 45 Ukrainian women who are accommodated in the dormitory, located in the centre of Athens. Her son is just five years old. As the fierce fighting continues, the 41-year-old woman decided to leave her homeland. But she didn’t know where to go and who could help her. A friend told her about a place that welcomes and supports refugees from the Ukraine: this woman had come to Greece in the spring of 2022 and had been accommodated in the dormitory.
Without a second thought, Evgeniya decided to embark on the long journey to the Greek capital. Her husband stayed in Kiev. She and her son arrived in the middle of last October and went straight to the dormitory. The METAdrasi team were waiting for them, welcomed them and helped them adjust to their new, temporary home.
The beginning was difficult. Far from home, without a job and without speaking the language, mother and son found it hard to accept that they would be living with dozens of other women and children. But the METAdrasi team stood by their side and together, they faced the challenges of everyday life.
Furthermore, they helped them to solve all the procedural issues. This is the case with all the women accommodated in the dormitory. The team takes care of, among other things, the issuance of VAT and social security papers, and a card for unlimited travel on public transport. They help with the opening of bank accounts and with the registration of children in school. Furthermore, they sort out everything related to health issues, such as a doctor’s appointment or an examination.
Evgeniya Prishuta says, “Apart from shelter and food, which I don’t underestimate at all, it’s important to know that there are people who care about you. They basically took me by the hand. They showed me how to get around the city, accompanied me to public services and helped me get all the necessary documents. If I didn’t have this support, I think I would have felt completely lost.”
Six months later, five-year-old Artion is in kindergarten and learning Greek. He has made new friends and next September he will be in the first grade of primary school. In Kiev his mother taught yoga. She speaks English and wants to work. With METAdrasi’s help she is trying to find a job so that soon she can rent a small apartment.
But the story of the dormitory does not begin with the outbreak of war. The structure was created to accommodate homeless children in Athens and opened its doors in April 2021. Within a year, it hosted 195 homeless children from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries.
“Starting in 2015, we saw that there was a large number of unaccompanied and homeless children. For several years we accompanied children to police stations: there were no places in shelters, so they were living on the street. For METAdrasi this was unacceptable and cruel. We really wanted to set up a shelter. In 2019 we won the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Humanitarian Prize. With the money that accompanies the award and the significant support of the Municipality of Athens, we were able to create a warm space and house the children who were living on the streets,” says the founder and president of the organisation, Lora Pappa.
The reduction of refugee flows and the relocation programs for unaccompanied minors to other countries had led to a reduction in the number of homeless children. Therefore, METAdrasi was able to offer shelter and protection to Ukrainian women and their children. The response was great, since thousands of women had left the country without having any relatives in Greece. From March 2022 until April 2023, more than 150 Ukrainian women were accommodated in the dormitory, while a refugee from Somalia also lives with them.
Every day, the Municipality of Athens and the organisation efood provide dozens of food rations, while the Municipality also takes care of the cleanliness of the place. Furthermore, Greek and English classes are held in the dormitory. Many women also attend the Greek lessons held at METAdrasi’s headquarters, as well as lessons given by members of the Ukrainian community.
Larisa Yemelyanenko is one of the most diligent students. She never misses class, studies for many hours and tries to speak Greek as much as possible. She comes from Donetsk. She studied law and economics and worked as a lawyer for a decade. In recent years she has been living in Kiev. She has been hosted in the dormitory since March 2023. The 58-year-old Ukrainian woman knows that she needs to learn the language to get a job and feels grateful for what she found in Greece.
“My family home was completely destroyed. I no longer have a home in my homeland. Here I found a warm welcome and I can hope for better days. I have a bed, good food and new friends. METAdrasi’s people are doing everything in their power to help us.”
As the first Ukrainians were arriving in Greece, METAdrasi found that there was a big gap in information for the refugees. Most of them did not know which door to knock on and who could help them. Thus, in May 2022, with the support of UNHCR, the special helpline 690 809 1400 (also via Telegram/Viber/Wha/tsApp) was launched. The line operates on a 24-hour basis, and interested parties receive information in Greek, English, Ukrainian and Russian. Furthermore, they can submit queries by filling in the relevant online form on METAdrasi’s website.
On the other end of the telephone line are the people of the organisation working in the dormitory. So far, they have helped more than 1,200 Ukrainians. They offer similar support to the women staying in the dormitory. Many of the guests feel stress, anxiety, fear for the future, but also for their family members who stayed at home. METAdrasi’s people listen to their pain and keep them company, but there is also psychological support from a professional. Sadly, there are also cases where the workers are unable to respond to the requests they receive.
“The most difficult time is when you have to say no to a person who asks for help. We cannot accommodate families, only women and children up to 14 years old. We can’t have men and women together. But we are doing our best to find other places, other structures that can accept these people. We don’t leave them to their fate”, says Eleni Monastirioti, who manages the dormitory.
At the end of April 2023, the structure completed two years of operation. The organisation’s next plans include preparing and furnishing the second floor of the building in order to increase the number of beds from 54 to 80. This goal will be achieved with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Athens.
Although due to the war it has accommodated a different refugee group, METAdrasi’s goal is to offer shelter and protection to homeless children again—since, despite the significant decrease of the past years, in recent months there has again been an increase of homeless children on the streets of the capital.
But for this to happen, the war must end. Only then will the refugees return home. The women understand that they may stay in Greece for a long time, so they are looking for work and trying to learn the language. METAdrasi has decided that it will stand by their side for as long as they need.
“My son used to hear the sirens and start crying. We ran to hide in the basements, but how can a child live like that? Here he plays and laughs, has new friends and is safe. In the midst of war and destruction, I am grateful for this shelter,” says Ukrainian refugee Evgeniya Prishuta.