Building Hope and Home in Athens – Synyparxis, Against All Odds

May 9, 2023
By Aude Sathoud

In less than three years the Ecumenical Refugee Programme, Synyparxis, has launched no less than six shelters for unaccompanied minors in Greece. One hundred and fifty employees work 24/7 to ensure the needs of the children. Aude Sathoud went to visit the centre and discovered the atmosphere of a huge family. But also children with complex needs and a staff exposed to physical exhaustion and psychological distress: “I have learnt that I have to step out of the children’s shoes when I leave the office.”

Walking through Athens to Exarcheia, on a sunny morning, felt like going home, already. It is the neighbourhood where I spent my first nights in Athens, some few years ago, which streets’ shops and graffiti, signs and ruins I always make sure to go back to and have learnt to know by heart, with time. Which urban bursts and rhythm I follow as an old friend, feel within, somewhere between my heart, bone and flesh.

I had never passed by those streets, though, nor pushed the door of that old building. I had never heard of nor met Synyparxis’ work and team and – yet. Getting there was like coming home, again. There were the coffee and biscuits on the table, for sure – but it was more than that. Something that I would locate between all of their eyes and smiles – which, throughout the conversation, would more often than not, turn, into a contagious laughter. Something in the air, on the walls – pictures of collective excursions, adventures, celebrations ; drawings of children. Shared dreams and memories. Discovering Synyparxis felt like entering a huge family.

Improving the situation for migrants
Founded as a non-profit organization of the Church of Greece in 2012, Synyparxis-Ecumenical Refugee Program had been operating as an internal project since 1978, first aimed at assisting returning Greek migrants from Western Europe.

Ten years later, it started expanding its mission to include foreign immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. Now an autonomous organization ran under the supervision of Reverend Archimandrite Panteleimon Papasynefakis, General Director, and Despoina Georgiadou, Director of the Programme, with whom I got the chance to sit down for a great discussion, Synyparxis “aims at contributing to the improvement of the situation of migrants, refugee and asylum-seekers in Greece through legal and psycho-social support services, research, advocacy and collaboration with immigrant communities, information and awareness activities ; it also aims at informing the Church of Greece on critical issues relating to migration and integration of migrants in Greece.”

Running 6 child protection shelters
Synyparxis has built a strong expertise on legal support regarding both asylum and family reunification procedures and human rights’ defense and protection throughout the years. 2020 marked the opening of a new chapter of the organization’s history, which has been undertaking child protection services through the launching and running of no less than six shelters for unaccompanied minors in three years. Five in the Attiki region, one in Thessalonique, they enable to accommodate some two hundred kids, supported by a total of one hundred and fifty employees working 24/7 to insure their hosting and educative, legal and psychological care.

An ambitious project ran with limited funding, Synyparxis Ecumenical Refugee Programme can rely on some long-term partnerships with international organizations and states such as Switzerland, funding summer camps and specialized psychological support for both kids and employees, or the Netherlands, which aid allows for the hiring of nurses and pediatricians.

“When darkness appears more alluring, our mission is to show the light.”

“Those children have complex needs”, Despoina explains. “We do not consider them as clients of some hostel services we would be providing. We try to offer them a holistic support to accompany them towards autonomy and adulthood. The period between 18 and 24 years old is a key one”, she adds, deploring the lack of programs for young adults – an issue they have been working on and hope to soon have the means to address.

Despoina insists on the urgency of some structural and long-term plan for inclusion and integration of asylum-seekers and refugees into the Greek society:

“They are not newcomers anymore. It’s been seven years [since the so-called 2015 “refugee crisis” in Europe”] but they are still treated as such.”

Risk of exploitation
That discourse strongly echoes with Anna Stamou’s, whom I had talked with a few days earlier. In such a situation, with no perspective, a number of young adults, left to themselves, have no other solution than to turn to informal or illegal means of survival, which often, in their precarious situation, rhymes with exploitation.

“When darkness appears more alluring”, Father Pantelemeion calmly states, “our mission is to show the light.”

Aude Sathoud together with Father Pantelemeion and Despoina.

That is where the Christian foundation of their project makes the difference, Despoina nods:

“This is not something you do for the money – which is a constant struggle. That is nothing but the practice of Christianity.”

“The Greek Church may be perceived as conservative on a number of questions”, Father Pantelemeion admits, “but, on that particular one, it actually is way ahead. The service dedicated to welcoming asylum-seekers and refugees was developed within its hard core, the Holy Synod, as early as the 1980s.”

Indeed the role of the church
To him, it indeed is the role of the Church to open safe places of encounter and peaceful coexistence – with no aim to turn others into whom they are not or do not want to be. “I won’t try to change you, don’t try to change me”, Despoina summarizes, who, against the pervasive myth of the European fortress, according to which newcomers from the African or Asian continents would “change our culture, beliefs”, recalls that, “throughout history, Europe has proven that it can welcome”.

One world, many stories

That open-mindedness, reflexivity and humility is no empty speech, I was impressed to realize, as I got the chance to come visit one of the programme’s Athenian shelters a few days later.

A newly renovated building in a multicultural and warm neighborhood of Athens, it is neat and quiet on that Monday morning – “most of the kids are at school, some others are still sleeping”, Despoina informs me as we enter the vast dining room.

From the head-office to the classroom
There, the whole team is standing. The care-takers, social worker, educator, psychologist, lawyer and coordinator all are happy to receive me and get to share about their daily work with the thirty-eight Afghani boys and teens they support. That sincere generosity and openness is palpable from the programme’s head office to the shelters’ classrooms and collective spaces, which walls are decorated with pictures, posters, art pieces, class projects and inspiring quotes : “Making mistakes is part of the process” ; “Don’t forget to smile” I read as we go down the stairs.

My favorite ? A poster stuck on the psychologist’ office door, drawing of some children and animals flying in an air balloon in the shape of the earth, with the caption : “One world, many stories.” That could well represent the Noah’s Ark atmosphere one can feel around Synyparxis’ family, and what the shelter’s educative team lives by every day.

“We learn together”, the educator and psychologist tell me as we sit down for some time in the office they share, along with the lawyer and team coordinator. Unfamiliar with work with people on the move when he joined, the young psychologist explains to me how he has observed, listened and learnt to adapt his methods and practice to the children’s needs, culture and personalities.

“Each case is very unique, although they share some cultural background and traumatic experiences – they all experience and express it in their own way, which we have to get to know and work with. I quickly understood that I was going to be unsettled by a number of the children’s behaviors and reactions. I have gotten used to it and what was once puzzling has become familiar.” That reflexivity and constant improvement of one’s practice is shared by the educator who, when faced with a unprecedented situation in her first job with people on the move, took on the initiative to get a proper training to better address their specific needs – a professional duty and source of personal growth, to her.

Try to make connections between past and future
“We act as some kind of a bridge, in their journey. Greece rarely is a country they want to stay in, which makes our work complex and fragile, but, in this, we try to make the connections between their past life in Asia and future in Europe, learning from their culture and story and sharing with them some of the codes and ways of life they will be encountering here.” All this, in a perspective of “coexistence rather than assimilation”, Despoina adds, for whom it is so important for the children whom they support, who were forced to flee their home in very violent conditions, to keep in touch with their roots.

That is the reason why they now “are planning on creating classes for them to not only learn Greek but their own language, which they have not had the occasion to study or were stopped in their education, as well as some dances, activities and practices of their culture and regions of origin.”

Synyparxis’ team indeed is well aware that education takes on many forms depending on socio-cultural contexts and that taking unaccompanied minors to school is not sufficient.

“Some have never been to school, or never to a school as we understand it in Greece. That is where we are needed as well, to teach them the codes and explain the meaning of the space that the classroom is, of what happens there.”

Our job is to make them stronger.

In the reflection on such complex questions, the team works under the supervision of a scientific coordinator, with whom meetings on collective projects and individual cases are regularly organized.

In addition to those and staff meetings, community meetings take place as well, which, gathering the staff and children, allow for collective discussions on the daily life of the shelter, potential issues to be solved, activities and wishes. Integrating the boys in the organization of the programme dedicated to their support is essential for the team. “We are there to give them the tools to manage for themselves when that free period is over, Despoina tells me. Our job is to make them stronger.”

“Their smiles are my salery”
And this works, I understand and witness during my visits and numerous rich conversations. Against all odds, in a more and more hostile political context, both in Greece and in Europe in general, rendering the financial balance and sustainability of such support programmes all the more precarious, Synyparxis’ team keeps on working, with courage, determination – and love.

“Their smiles are my salary”, Father Pantelemeion whispers humbly, while searching his phone’s photograph album to show me some of the pictures they took from a day spent at a nearby amusement park in the weekend. “That’s why he is tired today”, Despoina laughes, adding that, running the organization voluntarily, Father Pantelemeion does not count his hours and is responsible for a total of three hundred and fifty people, unaccompanied minors and employees – with some real impact on his mental and physical health. “Earlier last year, due to yet another bureaucratic malfunctioning, employees were not paid for several months in a row.

Still, they kept on coming every day – you cannot postpone meals nor broken shoes. When this was finally solved, Father Pantelemeion ended up at the hospital !” That is a reality not to be forgotten, in the friendly atmosphere of the organization. Working tirelessly in precarious conditions, supporting people having lived through situations of extreme violence, who still are in very complex situations once in Europe, practitioners supporting people on the move are themselves exposed to physical exhaustion, psychological distress and second-degree trauma, more often than not resulting in burn-out and long-term health issues.

Their own self-care practices
In such a context, the warmth and care Synyparxis’ team members share and have for one another is no luxury, but the very condition of possibility of carrying on their mission. They are lucky to be supported by a psychologist supervisor as well, who organizes weekly team sessions and offers additional individual and collective support. They each develop their own self-care practices too, making sure to keep some professional distance to their work and disconnect once home. “It is hard, it is very hard, the team coordinator confesses, and it was a struggle at first, but I have learnt that I have to step out of the children’s shoes when I leave the office, to go back to my life.”

Yet, some images and stories cannot be forgotten, which they will carry with them for long. After a brief moment of silence, the psychologist recalls.
“Last week, we received two new children at the shelter. As one of them was emptying his bag, he took out his life jacket. That is in those very moments that we are reminded of what this is all about.”


The Ecumenical Refugee Programme Synyparxis is a non-profit organization of the Church of Greece with over 40 years of activity in the field of providing support services to Greek immigrant returnees, refugees and asylum seekers.
The mission as described in its Statutes is to:

– defend/support justice, dignity and rights as regards migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and Greek repatriates,
– monitor, study and evaluate all aspects of immigration so as to prepare and implement projects in order to address the needs of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers,
– cultivate and promote a mutual intercultural understanding, as well as acceptance and respect of diversity through informative and sensitization activities.