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They saw refugees sleeping in tents. So they made them a home.

Thousands of refugees got stuck in Athens, but anarchists came to their rescue.

They saw refugees sleeping in tents. So they made them a home.

When Germany opened its borders to refugees during the summer of 2015, the flow of migrants moving through Athens turned to a flood.

Hundreds of thousands of people — mostly Syrians — passed through the city, usually leaving in a few days or weeks. Then, in March, the borders closed.

Now, around 10,000 people are stuck in Athens, unable to continue their journeys. Some live in hotels, but most have run out of money. They sleep in tents at the port, at an abandoned airport outside the city, or sometimes even on the street.


But in one of Athens’ bohemian neighborhoods, Exarchia, activists and artists have decided to help, using a resource they have plenty of: empty buildings.

“Squats” in Athens date back to the late '80s, when anarchists began setting up communal homes in abandoned buildings. They've since become something of a Greek tradition, accompanied by a community of people who know which buildings you can occupy without getting kicked out and how to set up electricity and plumbing.

Abeer, 40, arrived in Greece two months ago. Half of her family is in Leipzig, Germany. Here, she teaches refugee children English in a squat. Photo by Marcos Andronicou, used with permission.

Each squat is run by its own assembly, which usually makes decisions by consensus. They share a left-wing outlook and an anti-fascist attitude (something that means a lot in a country where a real fascist party, Golden Dawn, holds seats in parliament!)

In January 2016, when the borders began to close and more people were trapped, Athenians set up these squats to take in refugees.

The economic collapse of 2009 left more buildings available, so the first building to be occupied in 2016 was a former government building on Notara Street.

Activists cleaned up debris, fixed some plumbing, and welcomed the refugees most in need: families. The building now houses about 130 people, most of them women and children. In a classroom downstairs, children’s pictures show scenes of war and hopeful images of their future homes, and a big whiteboard shows a chart for the week’s chores. In a kitchen upstairs, a group of women are preparing food for the next meal while one floor up, men install another shower.

“Greeks have been refugees in many places,” said Phevos Simeonides, a young Athenian who’s involved with a bunch of different squats. “So even though there are some who are hostile to refugees, most have an instinct for solidarity with them.”

The founder of one squat feels this solidarity especially strongly: He’s Syrian himself.

Kastro Preta Dakduk, a painter, came to Greece 28 years ago from Syria. When the refugee crisis hit last summer, Kastro worked on the islands and in the port of Piraeus. At the makeshift camp at the port, he saw people with no money and no place to go, living in tents. Then he heard about an old school that had been abandoned for two years.

Children play in the formerly abandoned high school in central Athens, which has been transformed into a refugee hosting center by an autonomous group of volunteers and activists. Photo by Marcos Andronicou, used with permission.

“In Syria, where fights and war were happening, the schools were open for all the people to find a shelter,” he said.

So they chose this school to set up in. Squats are technically illegal — they usually haven’t done paperwork and don’t pay rent. But the Greek government generally leaves them alone because it’s so overwhelmed with refugees that they’re glad to have the help.

“We asked the municipal government about the school,” he said, “and they said no. We said, 'Thank you very much,' and the next day we came here.”

The four-story school was one of the biggest buildings in the city, and getting it ready for the refugees took a lot of hard work.

The water was on when they moved in, but the sewage line wasn’t connected, so for days they couldn’t use the showers or toilets and had to move porta-potties into the yard. But now the squat is working at full capacity, with 350 people living there, including 150 children.

One of the mottos of the squats is “self-organization,” which means that instead of taking orders from Greek organizers, residents do most of their own work.

This is important because it means that refugees get the chance to use their skills and training again.

Hamd, a 26-year-old from Damascus, has a degree in hotel management. As soon as he got to the school, he started working in the kitchen. At first, there was no working oven and few supplies, but piece by piece, he and Kastro got the equipment they needed.

Now the kitchen has six seatings a day, with a morning, afternoon, and night shift, and it goes through 22 kilograms of rice per meal, just for starters. When I was there, dinner was spicy chicken with rice and salad.

“Greeks have been refugees in many places.”

Hamd’s friend Hussein works in information technology in Syria, and at the school, he’s working to set up the Wi-Fi network. There’s even a security detail: three patrols per night with two people each to look out for smugglers or drug dealers.

The school building has come back to life – and it has turned back into a school, too.

Fatima, who was an Arabic teacher in Syria, teaches class every day from 5-7 p.m., and volunteers teach English classes as well. With little space inside, classes are often held in the courtyard, where students sit in neat rows, taking notes.

Abeer teaches Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi children. She has Palestinian heritage but was born and grew up in Damascus. Photo by Marcos Andronicou, used with permission.

Other times it looks like recess, with younger kids running around and older ones playing basketball or leaning up against the wall and talking.

It’s still far from perfect. It’s hot and crowded, and few of the refugees know when, or if, they can get to Western Europe. But for now, the school is a welcome refuge.

“In other camps, it’s very bad,” Hamd told me. “No electricity, nothing. In this place, we can feel safe.”

True

Some 75 years ago, in bombed-out Frankfurt, Germany, a little girl named Marlene Mahta received a sign of hope in the midst of squalor, homelessness and starvation. A CARE Package containing soap, milk powder, flour, blankets and other necessities provided a lifeline through the contributions of average American families. There were even luxuries like chocolate bars.

World War II may have ended, but its devastation lingered. Between 35 and 60 million people died. Whole cities had been destroyed, the countryside was charred and burned, and at least 60 million European civilians had been made homeless. Hunger remained an issue for many families for years to come. In the face of this devastation, 22 American organizations decided to come together and do something about it: creating CARE Packages for survivors.

"What affected me… was hearing that these were gifts from average American people," remembers Mahta, who, in those desperate days, found herself picking through garbage cans to find leftover field rations and MREs to eat. Inspired by the unexpected kindness, Mahta eventually learned English and emigrated to the U.S.

"I wanted to be like those wonderful, generous people," she says.

The postwar Marshall Plan era was a time of "great moral clarity," says Michelle Nunn, CEO of CARE, the global anti-poverty organization that emerged from those simple beginnings. "The CARE Package itself – in its simplicity and directness – continues to guide CARE's operational faith in the enduring power of local leadership – of simply giving people the opportunity to support their families and then their communities."

Each CARE Package contained rations that had once been reserved for soldiers, but were now being redirected to civilians who had suffered as a result of the conflict. The packages cost $10 to send, and they were guaranteed to arrive at their destination within four months.

Thousands of Americans, including President Harry S. Truman, got involved, and on May 11, 1946, the first 15,000 packages were sent to Le Havre in France, a port badly battered during the war.

Thousands of additional CARE Packages soon followed. At first packages were sent to specific recipients, but over time donations came in for anyone in need. When war rations ran out American companies began donating food. Later, carpentry tools, blankets, clothes, books, school supplies, and medicine were included.

Before long, the CARE Packages were going to other communities in need around the world, including Asia and Latin America. Ultimately, CARE delivered packages to 100 million families around the world.

The original CARE Packages were phased out in the late 1960s, though they were revived when specific needs arose, such as when former Soviet Union republics needed relief, or after the Bosnian War. Meanwhile, CARE transformed. Now, instead of physical boxes, it invests in programs for sustainable change, such as setting up nutrition centers, Village Savings and Loan Associations, educational programs, agroforestry initiatives, and much more.

But, with a pandemic ravaging populations around the world, CARE is bringing back its original CARE packages to support the critical basic needs of our global neighbors. And for the first time, they're also delivering CARE packages here at home in the United States to communities in need.

Community leaders like Janice Dixon are on the front lines of that effort. Dixon, president and CEO of Community Outreach in Action in Jonesboro, Ga., now sends up to 80 CARE packages each week to those in need due to COVID-19. Food pantries have been available, she notes, but they've been difficult to access for those without cars, and public transportation is spotty in suburban Atlanta.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook," says Dixon. For example, one of those calls was from a senior diabetic, she remembers, who faced an impossible choice, but was able to purchase medicine because food was being provided by CARE.

Today, CARE is sending new packages with financial support and messages of hope to frontline medical workers, caregivers, essential workers, and individuals in need in more than 60 countries, including the U.S. Anyone can now go to carepackage.org to send targeted help around the world. Packages focus on helping vaccines reach people more quickly, tackling food insecurity, educational disparities, global poverty, and domestic violence, as well as providing hygiene kits to those in need.

From the very beginning, CARE received the support of presidents, with Hollywood luminaries like Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman also adding their voices. At An Evening With CARE, happening this Tuesday, May 11, notable names will turn out again as the organization celebrates the 75th Anniversary of the CARE Package and the exciting, meaningful work that lies ahead. The event will be hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and attended by former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, as well as Angela Merkel, Iman, Jewel, Michelle Williams, Katherine McPhee-Foster, Betty Who and others. Please RSVP now for this can't-miss opportunity.

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Seeing someone who has a long record of sobriety—especially after a very public struggle—can be motivating and inspiring for others in different stages of their recovery journey. That's part of why actor Rob Lowe's announcement that he's reached 31 years sober is definitely something to celebrate.

"Today I have 31 years drug and alcohol free," Lowe wrote on Twitter. "I want to give thanks to everyone walking this path with me, and welcome anyone thinking about joining us; the free and the happy. And a big hug to my family for putting up with me!! Xoxo"

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Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash
True

The global eradication of smallpox in 1980 is one of international public health's greatest successes. But in 1966, seven years after the World Health Organization announced a plan to rid the world of the disease, smallpox was still widespread. The culprits? A lack of funds, personnel and vaccine supply.

Meanwhile, outbreaks across South America, Africa, and Asia continued, as the highly contagious virus continued to kill three out of every 10 people who caught it, while leaving many survivors disfigured. It took a renewed commitment of resources from wealthy nations to fulfill the promise made in 1959.

Forty-one years later, although we face a different virus, the potential for vast destruction is just as great, and the challenges of funding, personnel and supply are still with us, along with last-mile distribution. Today, while 30% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, with numbers rising every day, there is an overwhelming gap between wealthy countries and the rest of the world. It's becoming evident that the impact on the countries getting left behind will eventually boomerang back to affect us all.

Photo by ismail mohamed - SoviLe on Unsplash

The international nonprofit CARE recently released a policy paper that lays out the case for U.S. investment in a worldwide vaccination campaign. Founded 75 years ago, CARE works in over 100 countries and reaches more than 90 million people around the world through multiple humanitarian aid programs. Of note is the organization's worldwide reputation for its unshakeable commitment to the dignity of people; they're known for working hand-in-hand with communities and hold themselves to a high standard of accountability.

"As we enter into our second year of living with COVID-19, it has become painfully clear that the safety of any person depends on the global community's ability to protect every person," says Michelle Nunn, CARE USA's president and CEO. "While wealthy nations have begun inoculating their populations, new devastatingly lethal variants of the virus continue to emerge in countries like India, South Africa and Brazil. If vaccinations don't effectively reach lower-income countries now, the long-term impact of COVID-19 will be catastrophic."

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