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Greece. Dozens of children are among the refugees living in shipping containers in an old field hockey stadium outside Athens. The government is making room to house many more.

Lives suspended in shipping containers

Rasoi is only 35 years old, but he’s spent more than half his life running away.

It began 18 years ago when, just after his 17th birthday, he escaped Malistan, the Afghan village where he was born, for fear of the Taliban. He fled to Tehran, Iran, where for years he lived by his wits: as a cleaner, a bricklayer, taking on odd jobs to survive. It wasn’t stable, and it wasn’t safe.

“With the Iranians there was not a good feeling,” he says. It was a life of hardship. His marriage and the birth of his two children made him happy — but made things more difficult, too. The lack of a steady job and the difficulty of sending his kids to school led them to leave Iran for Europe.

They traveled through Turkey and made their way to Athens before running out of money. Rasoi and his family are now living at the Elliniko Olympic Hockey Center, an old field hockey stadium on the outskirts of Athens. It was abandoned until the government turned it into a reception center for refugees.

The indoor spaces sleep 500 people, and another 400 can live outside thanks to two UNHCR tents. Shipping containers arranged on the field itself can house 700. In recent days, when a farmers’ strike blocked the streets of the city, preventing busloads of refugees from reaching the Macedonian border, the Olympic center found room another 1,300.

Lately, in the recent winter days of relative calm, there were only about 90 people in the stadium. Most of them were Moroccans, Somalis, Pakistanis and Tunisians, nationalities to whom Macedonia has closed its border because the government considers them economic migrants.

“Ours is an open center,” explains Kristina, a young Immigration Ministry employee who runs the center. “People can go freely. In addition to a place to sleep, here they receive basic care, hygiene products, clothes and a doctor present 24 hours a day. Anything that may be useful for them to continue their journey.”

On the first floor, there’s an area equipped for children. The walls are covered with drawings by the young refugees. For many of them, it’s their first oasis of peace and security after weeks on the run. In pastel colors, their hopeful voices break through the turmoil. One child, who did not sign his name, drew a horse with bird wings in flight. “Very nice,” he wrote in English. “I am Asal, I come from Iran,” another wrote above a house with a chimney, red curtains in the windows and a green door.

Alisha, who arrived from Pakistan on Dec. 30, has drawn a beautiful yellow bird with a crown on its head and a dedication: “To Nelly.” Doves are everywhere. But there’s also a picture of a house that seems to teeter dangerously under the astonished gaze of a child.

Their lives are suspended, but they want to start walking again. In a way, 21-day-old Maria was born walking. Her mother, Rim, from Syria, set off on foot after crossing the Aegean Sea on a barge, then rushed to a hospital to give birth. Now mother and daughter are at Elliniko stadium, waiting to move onward.

This is the second reception center the Greeks have opened in Athens, and it’s mainly for families and people who need special attention, such as disabled people and single women. There are no curtains. The field itself is populated with containers in which can live up to eight people. There is a surgeon, a dentist and a number of officers who provide legal assistance. The Greek Navy provides three hot meals per day.

The government has decided to pour more resources into Athens because of the closure of the Macedonian border. The containers will be replaced with tents that can accommodate 1,000 more refugees. This work should be completed by the end of the month. At Elliniko, there’s no time to lose.

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