Spring is in the air and 30-year-old Haysam is in high spirits as he strolls through the streets of Livadia, a small town nestled under the snow-capped mountains of central Greece. He has good reason to be; after more than three years of uncertainty in Turkey and Greece, the refugee is living in a flat as he waits to join his family in Belgium*.
To cap it all, his young wife Nazli, aged 21, will become a mother later this year. “She got pregnant in Livadia – I am very proud of that,” he confides. It’s the talk of the midsize town, where the affable Kurdish-Syrian from Aleppo has made many friends since being transferred here earlier this year from the crowded Cherso site in the north.
“After nine months, UNHCR called and said we have found a place for you in Livadia,” explains Haysam, who had in 2013 flown to Istanbul with his family after the war came to their district.
He explains that the first floor flat, which is provided by UNHCR under an ambitious accommodation and cash assistance programme funded by the European Commission, is equipped with all he and Nazli could need, including furniture, appliances and kitchen goods.
They were also given clothing and help with the groceries as well as access to a wide range of social services. A far cry from Aleppo, where “there were bombs everywhere and…I stayed at home without food, electricity, water. I was forced to go,” he says.
Haysam and Nazli were overwhelmed by the welcome they received by the people of Livadia, whom he said were there for them, despite their own economic problems. “They don’t look at us like refugees. They deal with us like other Greeks,” says Haysam. “I made many friends.”
Livadia’s decision to accommodate asylum seekers, alongside other municipalities, was spearheaded by Giota Poulou, its visionary mayor. The pugnacious pragmatist consulted with all sectors of society, including the church and political opponents, to build consensus in the town and obtain agreement.
The town has agreed to provide some 420 accommodation places for refugees and asylum seekers in 70 apartments. The result is a win-win situation with the town making moral and economic gains, the asylum seekers living in a real home rather than a crowded site and UNHCR supporting the government of Greece in finding a solution to a challenging problem.
Livadia is an example that has persuaded other mid-size towns to follow suit. UNHCR, which works closely with the Greek Ministry for Migration Policy, has so far formed partnerships with the municipalities of Athens, Thessaloniki, Heraklion, Larissa, Chania, Trikala, Karditsa, Rethymnon, Livadia, Nea Filadelfeia – Nea Chalkidona and Agios Nikolaos.
This was achieved through a complex and difficult operation that also provided a whole basket of services and protection beyond simple provision of a safe and clean place to live. The Greek government would like to see the programme continue and expand through this year as efforts to move people out of the camps continue.
This accommodation programme is part of larger efforts aimed at ensuring that a sustainable and adequate reception system is put in place by the Greek government. This requires the provision of more accommodation opportunities in urban areas such as the one made available to Hysam and Nazli, improving reception conditions on the islands and on the mainland, the provision of greater security in all sites, and ensuring that all unsuitable sites are quickly closed.
* At the publication date of this story, Hysam and Nazli had already moved to Belgium.