Former children’s home opens doors to refugee families in western Greece

Almost 90 refugees on Friday moved into a renovated former home for children in the western Greece town of Ioannina after being transported from the islands of Lesvos, Chios and Samos.

Minister for Migration Policy Ioannis Mouzalas and UNHCR’s Representative in Greece Philippe Leclerc presided over an opening ceremony organized by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which renovated the accommodation facility, Agia Eleni, with funding from the European Commission (EC).

Today’s launch came exactly 70 years after the first buildings were constructed as “children’s villages” to provide shelter for young victims of the civil war.

Children made up about half of the first group to move in, which also included people with specific needs. In the coming days, more refugees will be moved to Agia Eleni and its collection of 20 spacious stone buildings, 13 of which house apartments that will provide shelter to just over 500 people. There are also four communal buildings in the facility’s garden-like setting. The site has a new sewage network, accessibility ramps and is surrounded by fencing.

Agia Eleni includes living, dining and sleeping areas as well as areas for indoor and outdoor recreational activities, children spaces and water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure. Families can prepare meals and have access to nearby shops, where they will be able to buy provisions with cash cards issued by UNHCR under a scheme funded by the EC. A full range of basic services will be provided by the NGO INTERSOS and other partners.

Opening the event, Minister Mouzalas expressed great satisfaction with the renovation of the facility and the opening of its doors to people fleeing war and persecution. “With the accommodation of people in apartments and facilities, like the one in Agia Eleni, we offer dignity to refugees but also to ourselves”, he said.

Alternate Minister for Labour, Social Security and Social Solidarity Theano Fotiou praised the good cooperation among all actors involved. “A model facility was created at Agia Eleni, a place where history of social support meets with the history of modern Greek architecture”, she added.

UNHCR’s Leclerc noted: “I am proud of this facility which will once again be at the disposal of the local community and provide peaceful conditions to refugees until their next step. This is a very important initiative, as well as very much a team effort with invaluable contributions from the central government, local authorities and partner organization INTERSOS”.

Zitsa’s Mayor Michalis Pliakos, Ioannina’s Mayor, Thomas Begkas and Vice Regional Governor of Epirus Panagiota Mitrokosta highlighted the positive engagement of the local authorities and host communities in the reception of asylum seekers in Western Greece.

From Brussels, EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides marked the occasion by saying: “We are working hard with our humanitarian partners and in coordination with the Greek government to improve the living conditions of refugee families in Greece. It is very rewarding to see that our joint efforts are bringing tangible results. Furthermore, by giving new life to this important architectural complex, we are also contributing to the local culture”.

After its early years, Agia Eleni was later redeveloped and opened in 1962 as a home for orphans and abandoned children, until being closed in 2006. In May 2016, the Ministry of National Defence and the Ministry of Labour authorized UNHCR to renovate the buildings and reopen as an accommodation facility for asylum seekers.

Those attending today’s ceremony included locals who grew up in Agia Eleni and recounted their memories of the landmark development. Former residents also contributed photographs of the site for an exhibition at the opening. A Syrian refugee, Jumaa, thanked the Greek people for opening their arms and hearts and promised the former residents to take care of the place and make it a living home again.

Agia Eleni is located in Ioannina’s Zitsa municipality, a short bus ride into the city. The main construction and rehabilitation works were concluded by UNHCR. Additional work was carried out in the surrounding area to make Agia Eleni safe and accessible to all.

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