Welcoming refugees can revitalize communities

The massive influx of refugees who reached Greece’s shores in 2015 came at a time when the country was reeling from fiscal problems.

To Nadina Christopoulou, founder of the Melissa Network for Migrant Women in Athens, that just made the reaction from Greek people all the more surprising. There was “an explosion of humanity, empathy and compassion” from young and old, all eager to help, says Christopoulou.

She and numerous network members recently joined American diplomat Erin Barclay and Eskinder Negash, former head of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, in a 90-minute webchat focused on welcoming refugees.

The Melissa network — the name means “honeybee” in Greek — provides meals and prepares gift backpacks for refugee children and extensive help for their mothers. Among its members are many immigrants who moved to Greece years ago from different parts of the world and have thrived in their new homeland. For newly arrived refugees, the network provides counseling, language classes, social activities and other support. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the network’s Athens office in December 2015 and lauded what it does to welcome refugee women and help them move on with their lives.

Waiting to move on

Nearly 60,000 refugees remain stranded in Greece. They are among 21 million refugees and 48 million other displaced people in the world today, the United Nations says.

Large boat surrounded by people at night (© AP Images)
A ferry with 2,500 Syrian refugees arrived at Athens’ port of Piraeus from the island of Lesvos in 2015. (© AP Images)

Worldwide, 80 percent of refugees have found haven in countries that face their own economic challenges.

Negash says that “it’s not the size of your economy that matters. It’s the size of your heart.”

Speaking from the U.S. Consulate General in Belfast, Northern Ireland, he said countries need to not only admit more refugees but “give them the freedom to be part of a society … and recognize them as an asset, not a burden.”

Negash held out the U.S. resettlement system as a model. Since 1975, the U.S. has taken in 3.2 million refugees escaping wars and persecution, including 85,000 this year. For a time, they receive assistance to pay rent and buy food, but more valuable than that “is their freedom to choose where to live, to open a business, to pursue education,” he said.

Graph on number of refugees in U.S. working vs. U.S.-born (State Dept.)
(State Dept.)

A recent analysis by a Washington think tank, the Center for American Progress, found that in the U.S. refugees have contributed “to the American economy, bringing vitality to areas with declining populations … and expanding the labor force as they seek and find work.”

Likewise, refugees who arrive in Greece seek opportunities in Europe.

Khadija Karaz, 35, an English teacher from Lattakia, Syria, has lived in a container turned into a makeshift dwelling in Greece’s main refugee camp since arriving with daughter Yasmin last winter. Karaz, an eager participant in Melissa Network activities, hopes for a real home and a better future for her daughter. Despite her qualifications as a language teacher, she says she doesn’t know what language to teach the 8-year-old.

On September 20, President Obama co-hosted a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in New York to strengthen the resolve of countries to help people like Karaz. Among the goals established: getting 1 million more refugee children into schools and securing legal rights for 1 million refugees to work.