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.