Monday, February 08, 2016

Welcome to Denmark - Now hand over your cash!

Apparently, the Danish government is not at all happy with the international attention it has garnered in the wake of law that would allow the authorities to seize assets from those applying for asylum in order to pay for their stay, and this in one of the richest nations on Earth. The law also extends the the time period after which family members can join loved ones from one to three years. 

The Danish coalition government which includes the far right Venstre party has defended these measures saying that Danish citizens seeking help from the State are subject to the same regulations, however, as the more astute of you will have noticed, no Danes have been bombed out of their homes in Odense or have been forced to flee murderous death squads in Aarhus with just what they can carry.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Video:Tensions rise in the Eidomeni transit camp - northern Greece (footage taken on 3 February)

The major ferry strike which cut off the Greek islands from the mainland meant that when it ended  on the 31st January there was a sudden surge in the number of refugees heading from Athens to the Eidomeni transit camp on Greece's northern border with FYR Macedonia. The situation was further exacerbated by with the unwillingness of the FYR Macedonian government to open the border crossing at Eidomeni to more than a fraction of refugees. The result was an an explosive situation in the camp as thousands of tired, hungry people waited in limbo unsure of what they had to to face next.

On Wednesday 3 February riot police were deployed in an attempt to keep control of a steadily deteriorating situation as thousands sought to get their papers stamped by the Greek police, without which they would not be allowed to cross into FYR Macedonia.

With camps full to overflowing, many refugee families were forced to sleep out in the open in freezing temperatures for three nights and with little information about if or when they would be allowed to continue their journey.

Behind the decision on whether to open or close the border lie a multitude of political calculations in which smaller Balkan nations juggle the intense political pressure they are under from northern EU nations to stop the flow of refugees with the fear that they will become a dumping ground for people nations such as France, Germany and Denmark do not want to accept.

As the EU continues to prevaricate and avoids taking concrete decisions concerning the refugee crisis in Greece and the rest of the Balkans, it is the youngest and most vulnerable who continue to pay for their ineptitude and vacillation.

Refugee Solidarity Movement Thessaloniki and Eidomeni - What we do.

A surge in arrivals at the Eidomeni transit camp on Greece's northern border with Macedonia obliged the Greek police to open the main camps in order to deal with the increase in refugee numbers. However, the Macedonian border was often closed in late January for long stretches at a time and without warning leading to long delays. Even when it was open only a trickle of refugees were allowed to cross in order to continue their journey north.

Once again the Refugee Solidarity Movement of Thessaloniki and Eidomeni were there to hand out hot, sweet tea and help out wherever there is a need. Thankfully, we have built up good working relations with NGOs who operate there 24/7 and volunteers from our group often lend a hand when things are rushed and help is needed.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Can you Help? Demand the Greek government treats refugees more humanely

 Over 1,000,000 million refugees entered Europe in 2015, more than 800,000 chose the Western Balkan route which took them to an obscure railway crossing near the tiny village of Eidomeni on  Greece's northern border with FYR Macedonia.

After a journey from the port of Pireaus that can last up to 20 hours refugees are rushed by the Greek police to the border. Volunteer groups and NGOs at the camp are often given as little as 10 minutes to hand out food, clothing, medical aid and information before crossing over.

There is the constant fear that the government of FYR Macedonia will permanently close down the border with Greece and so leave people stranded. When the border is open or closed seems to be completely at the whim of the FYR Macedonia government  and there is little or no co-operation between the authorities on both sides of the frontier and so little idea when and for how long the crossing remain shut.

For their part the Greek police who control acccess to Eidomeni also refuse to share information with NGOs and volunteer groups over when and how many refugees will be arriving at the camp on any given day, despite the fact that they control the flow from start to finish on the Greek mainland. Indeed since December the attitude of the police has perceptibly hardened, ranging from sullen indifference to active hostility, sometimes kicking out organisations such Médecins Sans Frontières all together, with little or no notice.

To make an already difficult situation worst, the police forbid access to the hot food, doctors, heated tents and other faciities that have been built recently at Eidomeni. Instead refugees are forced to wait endless hours at a road side petrol station/cafe 20km from the site whilst temperatures at night often drop to -15c. Here refugees are obliged to buy food and water whilst just a ten minute ride away volunteers wait to hand out such items at no cost.

Last week over 3,000 people, including many families with very young children were forced to endure extreme cold overnight while the camp remained half empty.

We are calling upon media outlets to highlight this scandalous abuse of refugees by the Greek authorities. The more international pressure is brought upon the SYRIZA government and prime minister, Alexis Tsipras the more likely refugees will receive more humane treatment on the Greek leg of their trek to safety.

Refugee Solidarity Movement Thessaloniki-Eidomeni

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Video: Winter at Eidomeni - Refugees wait to cross the Greece - FYR Macedonia border

Over one million refugees entered Europe in 2015, the vast majority chose the Western Balkan route which leads from the Turkish coast via the Greek islands to Eidomeni, a tiny village on the Greek - FYR Macedonian border. Over 800,000 people have passed through this unofficial crossing point which is little more than a collection of tents armed guards and barbed wire before going on North to their final destination in nations such as Germany, Austria and Sweden.

Since May the Refugee Solidarity Movement Thessaloniki has been offering help to those making the trek north first in the city of Thessaloniki and then from September we have been going to Eidomeni where we serve hot tea and help out the other groups providing food, clothing and information to refugees arriving there.

Video: Refugees crossing the frontier: Eidomeni on the Greek - FYR Macedonian border

Eidomeni, located in northern Greece is a major transit point for refugees trying to reach northern Europe after arriving on the Greek island from Turkey.

Despite temperatures that can fall as low as -16c the Greek police has been refusing to allow those arriving to use the facilities at the camp, which were erected at great expense by international NGOs. Instead of being able to stay in heated tents with time to get hot food, clothing and medical attention people are often kept by the Greek police  for anything up to 20 hours in coaches that have brought them from Athens at a local roadside petrol station - restaurant. This has proved a major source of income for the service station which, otherwise would be quiet at this time of year.

NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and local volunteer groups have repeatedly implored the Greek authorities to change their policy yet to no avail. Instead refugees are rushed through the Eidomeni border crossing in a matter of minutes giving aid groups little time to provide them with food and other forms of aid.

For more on the situation in Eidomeni check out the Refugee Solidarity Movement of Thessaloniki and Eidomeni Facebook.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The story so far - Feeding refugees in Thessaloniki, Greece

Syrian refugees stranded at Thessaloniki, northern Greece

Today, I'm taking a day off, this will the second day off I've had in the last five weeks. What was once a small, part-time effort to feed refugees here in Thessaloniki has mushroomed into a seven days a week effort (see our Facebook page) that hands out cooked meals and other much needed items to anywhere between 30 and 100 refugees a day passing through the city on their way north. Even now I'm amazed by how quickly and how successfully this has taken off.

Five weeks ago it became clear that the number of refugees in need of help was far beyond the means of me and my friends and so I sent out a call for help via Twitter. the idea was that like-minded people would get together and see if we could organise ourselves and expand the help we could provide. That has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams and instead of just a couple of people handing of cooked beans in a park I'm proud to be part of a group that is able to help and information to hundreds every week.

After the first meet up, a number of volunteers are came forwards and quickly we formed ourselves into a much more effective group. I'm not sure if it was luck or good timing but along with the first wave of people to join us were those who possessed an immense range of vital skills as well as a genuine appetite for hard work. Amir, has proven to be a huge asset as he himself is from Afghanistan and not only helps with translation and cultural advice, but also other insights into what it means to be a refugee. That combined with the fact that he is an able manager meant that he kept us going off the rails, especially, in the beginning when we had the tendency to run around like headless chickens.

The same goes for Maria, a German exchange student who as well as bringing much needed structure to our group, has also been its calm centre when things threatened to grow too chaotic. That combined with her gift for languages, social media skills and ability to forge links with other, similar groups has been invaluable.

Giannis is a 70 year old Greek pensioner who catches two buses just to get to the centre of the city to help us. His passion and knowledge of the local political landscape proved vital in establishing links with and getting help from Thessaloniki city council. Thanks to his and other people's intervention the city has provided toilet facilities to refugees and 50 portions of cooked food a day along with a van and driver to assist us.

Another source of assistance has been our collaboration with the Oikopolis social centre who on hearing of our work opened their kitchen facilities to us. This along with the network of connections that have at their disposal has transformed our efforts. In addition to material help they have been able to put us in contact with other groups doing similar work in the city.

After the initial wave of people joining us with have also been lucky enough to attract other volunteers who make all this possible and often are lugging things in 35C summer heat. Literally, without them none of this would be possible. They are an international bunch and on any given day there may be anywhere between four and eight different nationalities taking part.

The ever tireless Gorka, a Spanish exchange student, Marina , from the Ukraine, also on an Erasmus program, Nikoleta, a first year psychology student who is a also a dab hand at DIY and organising people, Safar, our second Farsi speaker who is always willing to do whatever is needed, also willing to make sure the job gets done., Jason and Marcus, our Irish friends who have really been great in providing help, the wonderful people from Anatolia College who have regularly brought much needed sanitary items and clothing,... This list goes on and I know I have left out people who should be mentioned, but don't worry, over the next few days I'll be filling in the missing names.

To say the last few weeks have been transformative is an understatement, the fact that we not only got this feeding program up and running but in the midst of a crisis here in Greece is a testament to the strength of people's willingness to help.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

But Yes or No to what? Greece decides on Sunday.

Greeks lining up at ATM - Thessaloniki

On Sundays Greeks go to the polls to vote. They will be asked to vote Yes or No. But Yes or No to what? The question seems to produce an endless array of answers, which have left Greeks arguing passionately for the past week, both on social media and in real life.For the economically minded supporters of the Yes side, it is a vote to stay in the Eurozone, to retain a stable currency and avoid the risks of introducing a new, untried currency which may or may not be worthless. It's a Yes to open banks, pensions being paid on time and a step away from the financial abyss. For conservatives it's a Yes to membership of the European Union and a step away from what they see as rabid, socialist madness.

In the No camp, a No is a refusal to accept an creditor imposed austerity plan which has crushed the Greek economy and even on its own terms is a failure. For the more nationalistically minded its is a vote for independence, a chance to show foreigners that Greeks will not and cannot take any more crap from either Washington, Brussels or Berlin.

In the maelstrom of debate, the usual lines that divide the Greek Left and Right have been blurred, muddled and sometimes utterly forgotten. Nor, as it is sometimes portrayed as a fight between haves and have nots. Whilst those in the Yes camp are amply represented in the country's oligarch controlled media, the poll number are not restricted to just those who've weathered six years of austerity with their wealth intact. Pensioners fearful of their future, owners of businesses both large and small as well as those fearful of the consequences of a Grexit have swelled the Yes vote.

On the other hand the No vote included those with little to lose from maintaining the status quo, such as the unemployed and young voters who see that more of the same in a nation with record high unemployment is not an option. Also there are those who  are sick of Greece's continual humiliation at the hands of the EU, ECB and IMF and wish to show these institutions that enough is enough, no matter what the cost. The fact that political Ancien Regime, discredited by corruption and ineptitude has thrown its weight behind the Yes vote is just further proof that a No vote is justified.

What will happen on Sunday, I do not know. If you'd asked me a week ago I would have said that the Yes vote will win comfortably, but given the fact that EU leadership smugly seems to betting on this combined with a week long fear campaign on TV makes me think that perhaps that things will turn out differently. The same political forces that tried so hard to crush Syriza in the January elections are once again openly playing their hand, and there's a chance they'll fail now as they failed then.

Once again the crude political intervention of the ECB which stopped lending to Greek banks via ELA so starving them of liquidity along with the arrogance of various German politicians simply fuel the No vote  just as the intervention of English politicians in the Scottish independence referendum aided the rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party.

Whilst people are angry they cannot take out money from their saving accounts and fearful for their future, there is a growing sense that they will not bow down and take anymore. Whether their vote is based on carefully calibrated deliberation or knee jerk nationalism, the result will be the same in the polling booths on Sunday.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Take the Starbucks challenge! Can you feed 30 refugees for less than price of a coffee?

Refugee kid in the park. Taking a break before moving north.

Modern life is tougher than ever and full of a seemingly endless list of First World Dilemmas; domestic or imported beer, Chinese or Italian, Starbucks mocha double latte with added cream or feeding 30 hungry refugees. So here is the smart guide to having it all, a clear conscience and a decent meal for hungry kids camped out in your local park and all for less than cost of a coffee that has more calories than visible stars in the sky.

For this you will need a few things organised in advanced, other than the ability to give a damn about fellow human beings not mentioned in the gossip columns.

1kg of dried white beans (approximately 1.19e from Lidl)
1kg rice (1.20e) from Lidl)
3 cans of tomatoes (3x0.37e) from... guess where)
1 cartoon of concentrated tomato juice or small tin of tomato paste (0.40e)
4 large onions (0.60e)
8 cloves of garlic 0.20e
1 chilli pepper or a few pinches of chilli powder (0.10e)
1 large zucchini/courgette (0.25e)
loads of green peppers (optional)
1 cup of olive oil (0.40e)
1/2 cup of cooking oil (0.15e)
salt/pepper/oregano/bay leaves/sugar.

Total cost is less than 6 euros. That's not a bad deal on 25-30 portions.

Alas, nothing is ever as simple as it appears in the ads on TV so will need to prepare a few things in advance, so in keeping with that thought you will need to soak the beans overnight (add a tablespoon of baking soda to the water). You could just buy beans in a can but then cost increases even more exponentially than Greece's debt repayments.

Basically, you are making two one pot dishes so will need...... wait for it..... two pots. The one dish is the traditional Greek bean soup known as fasolada, the source material nationwide for endless fart jokes since the time of Plato. The other is a fusion/hybrid/bastardised rice dish designed to provide carbs as cheaply whilst still being edible.

Fasolada recipe

1 Wash the beans well and then add enough water and level tablespoon of salt to cover them, just
    like you would cook rice.

2 Boil till they're kind of soft, which may be between 1-2 hours depending on whether the 
   beans are big or small. (you may need to add more water)

3 In your other pot add 1/2 cup of olive oil (doesn't need to be fancy extra-virgin stuff).

4 Gently fry 3 thickly sliced onions till they are translucent.

5 Add half the chilli pepper/powder and 6 cloves of garlic chopped/crushed/grated/ atomised

6 Cook for few minutes more then add 3 cans of tomato and 1/4 of the tomato paste/concentrated 
   juice, along with a tablespoon of sugar, teaspoon of salt, handful of oregano and 4-6 bay leaves

7 Cook gently for another 10-15 mins.

8 Put aside till beans are cooked or at least not rock hard.

9 If you can put the tomato mix in the blender and give it a whizz, Makes for better presentation and 
   easier to serve.

10 Add the tomato mix to the beans and cook on a medium/low heat for another 20-30 minutes.

11 Add the remaining 1/2 cup of olive oil along with more salt/pepper to taste.

How do I know it's ready? Well, the beans shouldn't break a tooth and the sauce should be fairly thick, but that's a matter of personal preference.

Refugee rice 

I call it that as I had to think of something quickly this morning when I went to the park and saw that my fasolada dish was nowhere near enough to go around.

1 Slice thickly 1/2 onion and whatever softish vegetable (eg. courgette/zucchini, peppers) are 
   cheapest or in your fridge and gently fry them in 1/2 cup of cooking oil.

2 After onions have gone translucent, add the remaining chilli pepper/powder and  2-3 cloves of 
   garlic chopped/crushed/vapourised. Cook for a few minutes.

3 Add 1kg of rice (your choice) and gently fry for a few minutes.

4 Add tablespoon of salt and sugar along with 2 two and a half times much water as rice.

5 Bring to the boil and after turning it down to a milder setting add the remainder of the tomato 

6 Cover and leave for 10-15 minutes.

Now you have a recipe that can feed approximately 25-30 people and all for less than the cost of a coffee that frankly, tastes crap.