Greece: Providing a safe haven for unaccompanied girls and boys

Mohammad Vahedi understands the challenges that unaccompanied refugee children face all too well. Mohammad, psychologist and responsible for the SOS Children’s Villages shelter for unaccompanied boys in Athens, came from Iran to Greece as an unaccompanied minor 20 years ago. At the time, there were no receptions centres to support him.

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-specialised lawyers. These include 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 minors are currently living in Greece. Temporary homes to accommodate and protect these children 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 shelter, 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.

“SOS Greece is highly organised, we provide a lot of services and we have all the pedagogical basis and thought behind [our work]”, said Mohammad, who has worked with minors in Greece for the last ten years.

Building relationships with unaccompanied minors 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 explains.

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 organises 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, Lina explains.

“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 programmes, focused chiefly on sciences and English lessons, giving less emphasis to Greek-focused human sciences and language classes.

More about our work in Greece

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. Total residential capacity is currently 92.

Learn more about our work in Greece

More stories about our work for refugee children and families