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A Call Center Run by Refugees Fills a Void in Greece

Refugees arriving in Greece have found themselves forced to organize in order to survive.

Refugees at a camp in Greece. (Photo: Refugee Solidarity Movement Thessaloniki-Eidomeni / Facebook)

Refugees arriving in Greece have found themselves forced to organize in order to survive. One of the most basic needs, after feeding oneself, is to be able to communicate — to be able to ask for help, to go to the doctor, to get a lawyer, to know your rights, to get out of the refugee camp and to work in a new country. These tasks can be extremely difficult for refugees in Greece, the majority of whom only speak Arabic.

Ramez Shame, who is a refugee from Egypt, speaks both Arabic and English, which is a second language for many in Greece. As soon as he realized how his language skills could help others, he went to work. After taking stock of the needs of refugees, Shame and three others started a cooperative hotline in Thessaloniki to act as a bridge for refugees, called the Refugees to Refugees (R2R) Solidarity Call Center.

“When they go to the hospital, sometimes the doctors refuse to check them in because they can’t communicate,” he said, stressing that the dire economic situation in the country adds another layer to refugees’ problems. “Because of the economic crisis in Greece, it’s very difficult even for Greek people to get medical attention. So you can imagine what happens to the immigrants or refugees who need medical attention. It’s also difficult for them to get legal advice.”

Shame was touched by what was happening with refugees and started the call center because he believes that Arabic speakers are especially equipped to help, not just because of their shared language but because they share hardships. “If you experience hunger, you know what it feels like for others to be hungry. When someone takes away your rights, you feel the injustices faced by others,” he said. “We can understand what they are going through, we can communicate and give them advice.”

A Fair Refugee Cooperative

The Refugees to Refugees Solidarity Call Center is a part of FairCoop, a global network of cooperatives that has organized itself online — outside the limits and controls of nation states — and has chapters or “nodes” around the world. One of the minds behind FairCoop is Enric Durán. He has been an activist for 17 years, and is now living in exile from Spain for expropriating more than $650,000 from Spanish banks to protest the perversion of the banking culture. Durán believes that in order to create change, protest does not go far enough — alternatives must be created. FairCoop is one of the many projects he has supported in order to create the possibility of a new economy.

Durán argues that the global economic system always prevents political change, and that we must gradually move away from the banking system that we have, which is rooted in capitalism. FairCoop tries to facilitate the transition to a new world by working to reduce economic and social inequality, he said, while at the same time building up global capital that would be accessible to all of humanity.

He explained that FairCoop understands that a transition towards a just monetary system is needed, and so the cooperatives use FairCoin as a cryptocurrency to carry out their acts of redistribution of resources and to build a new global economic system.

Through FairCoop, banking resources can be accessed without a bank account. One of the key concepts within the overall FairCoop ecosystem are its local nodes, like the refugee call center. “Local nodes acts as decentralized local assemblies of FairCoop, a meeting point between the global projects of FairCoop and the various projects developed locally — creating links, synergies, knowledge development and growth of the entire ecosystem we are creating together,” Duran said. “Autonomously, they welcome people to FairCoop, and serve as an exchange point of Faircoin.”

In its current phase, explained Durán, FairCoop is ready to give a boost to the local nodes because they believe it is vital not only to their development, but it encourages the creation of more nodes worldwide.

As part of this campaign they want to contribute necessary funds to the nodes to help establish them as stable local cooperatives where participants determine their own priorities based on local circumstances and are able to carry out tasks that would not be easily achievable without funding. They also want to enable nodes to build their own cooperative projects or collaborate with local collectives to empower people on the local and global levels.

And it was through the Thessaloniki FairCoop node that the Refugees to Refugees Solidarity Call Center was born.

Improving Communication To Be More Free

Since the end of September, cooperative members have been working together to get this cooperative project off the ground. The call center posts information in several different languages about transportation, getting settled and attaining residency in Greece — all by and for refugees.

The team is made up of three people aside from Shame: Jalal, who speaks French and Arabic; Avin, who speaks English, Arabic, Kurdish and some Turkish; and Yaya from Gambia, who speaks English.

Together, they started to build the call center’s website, uploading information there, and helping immigrants and refugees to know their rights — not only in Greece but also throughout Europe.

“We often have five calls per day, and sometimes refugees who you know call your phone instead of the call center line,” Shame explained. “And most of the time refugees who have access to the Internet are able to get useful information on the website to answer their questions.”

Sometimes the call center assists volunteers who come to Greece to help, but don’t have all of the tools to do so.

“For example, an Italian volunteer in a refugee camp called saying the refugee he wanted to help did not speak English and that he did not speak Arabic,” Shame explained. “He said ‘I want him to explain to me what he is feeling in his mouth, because I want to get him to a clinic for dental care.’ I asked him to put me on speakerphone, and I started to translate between them. It was like I was there in the camp, but I was here in the office. And that night, he asked me to come to the clinic to help translate for his dental work, and so I went and we got it taken care of.”

The call center’s biggest struggle at the moment is with raising enough funding to support their work. “Every step we take in this project requires money,” he said. “We need to pay for this phone line every month or it will be shut down. Every refugee working here takes a small salary just to stay alive. To keep this project working, we really need donations.”

In addition to financial support, the call center is looking for people with other skills to support their project. “We sometimes need technical help or assistance or communication with a volunteer who is fluent in something else,” Shame said. “There are some people from Spain who come here to work with people in the camp. Sometimes they have food but don’t know where they should drop food off, where it is most needed. So they ask us because we have a network and we can guide them to where to give food donations.”

While this cooperative has just launched, they want to strengthen communication and cooperation between people who are isolated outside of cities and provide them with information about how to mobilize and find a new path.

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