The Orange House in the heart of Athens is changing the negative image about refugees through the cultivation of social skills.
I am involved in refugee care as a volunteer since years because several of my friends are refugees. My partner, Hassan, comes from Syria and also had to cross the Aegean Sea. Last year, when I saw the gaps in the official structures for refugee relief, I decided to create the Orange House. Many non-Greek volunteers offered to give money if I decided to build something. At first, we only thought of one room, because we didn’t have a lot of cash. But then, we found this house that was not used for several months. In fact, it was an old electronics and computer shop. Slowly, I started asking for help and people got involved with all things related to opening a space that would offer human shelter. This was the beginning of the Orange House, which opened in May 2016.
The house has three floors, the upper one reserved for resident refugees who live inside it. They cook, clean and take care of the space by themselves. We rarely enter their space, unless some maintenance work is necessary. On the ground floor, there is a common space for everyone, which hosts several classes and sessions: from yoga to music, salsa dancing, and movie screenings. We use the half-basement, as a classroom for language classes, including Greek, English, Spanish, French and German on different levels. We also have a room in which we just meet to talk with each other and other spaces for storing clothes, glasses, food, educational material, bathing towels, etc. There is a kitchen and bathroom for people to walk in, a courtyard and a simple roof garden to grow vegetables in self-made contained made of old cargo palettes. The Orange House hosts a specialized 2-hour LGBT program for refugees every Monday, also visited by a guy from an Athens checkpoint to meet and offer help to the community.
Our house is open for visits by NGOs, artists, gardeners and everyone who wishes to offer creative inputs, such as salsa, music classes, or just brainstorm on what we can do better. It is hard to say how many people visit the common space. Some people come for a specific activity like a lesson in German or French. Some other women bring their kids for all day long. Volunteers can also attend classes and other activities, which are offered totally free. However, we are planning to be able to make some items to sell, such as cooked food or jewelry made by some of the residents. Our idea for the future of the house is that the refugees in collaboration with the wider community will be able to generate their own money through the skills they have and develop. For example, we have some women with a talent for cooking, hairdressing, and Arabic calligraphy. The idea is that one day all this will evolve to a social enterprise, where residents in the Orange House will be their own boss.
The operations of the house are managed by the community. For example, an Iranian woman is teaching someone else to do jewelry. Same goes with all housekeeping, like cooking and cleaning.
We now want to register as a legal entity, in order to be able to manage funds. At the moment, I am renting the house under my name, paying 1000 euro for a monthly rent, and another 1000 for utility bills. The volunteers of the Orange House usually bring some cash and then we ask it they can change that lamp, or cover some other cost. We always have one volunteer sleeping inside the house, and we have a schedule of who is coming and for what reason. There are no public authorities or institutions involved in the project. We are just like that. Mohammed, one of the board members, works as a doctor for Doctors of the World and brings useful information about persons that need shelter. Some other NGOs also visit us to see in there are any needs.
People usually appreciate what we do and the way we do it. When I tell them “look at me, I am Greek-French and I look like this”. Or when they see me together with my Syrian partner. I am Christian and he is Muslim, and some people think that this is something strange. But we know how to laugh about it, and tell them that these refugees are not terrorists or criminals, but humans like everyone else.
When we first entered the house in May 2016, the place was so dirty and so many things were in need of repair. I knew since the beginning that it will be a lot of work, that I will need to work two weeks full time to get everything going. But this was not true at all because it takes much more time than I initially thought. Together we are taking very good care of our space. No alcohol, smoking or drugs are allowed in the Orange House. We check who is coming in and the neighborhood feels reassured. When people see refugees doing a yoga or salsa class, they have a different image of them. Instead of seeing the of misery, like on the Lesbos island or other camps shown on TV, we show that we grow happiness and care for the community. When we started, we noticed that most people don’t know how to speak a language other than theirs. This is why we called the place “Orange House” because the word “orange” sounds similarly in Greek and Arabic. We also painted the house in orange color, so people coming for the first time can distinguish it easily. At the beginning, the biggest problem was bureaucracy. I didn’t know whom to address to get information on how to set up an organization. Someone suggested a lawyer, but I am still waiting for the paperwork since two months. We didn’t face any conflicts with the legal system because we are very careful of what we do inside the house. We brought engineers, social workers, and another expert to advise us and ensure that what we do is not something illegal.
When we were almost done with all the work, I posted a poster in Greek, explaining to neighbors that what they see is the preparation of a house and school for refugees. We made a house-warming party, and we invited everyone to join, see for themselves and ask questions. This is a process of building trust. At the end of the day, there was only one neighbor that came to ask. Most people simply don’t care, otherwise, we could have more reaction. The house currently hosts 15 residents. We can only accept up to 20 persons because we only have 3 bathrooms, which is the major limitation. We explain to everyone that they must contribute to housekeeping, participate in the training programs and that it is important that we share everything. We cannot be with someone that wants to be alone in the bedroom, for example. It is not possible for us. There are about 50 people that visit the Orange House to receive some sort of service. For example, a 16-year-old who is very lonely and comes just to speak with others. Many of our visitors are staying in squats, camps of other shelters where conditions are not very good, but they come to the house because they like the atmosphere. When a visitor comes we offer tea, we talk and listen, but also sing and dance. It is really like a house, not like a social service type of place.
Residency is only open to women and children, but male visitors are also welcome to join in the activities. Most of the male refugees arrived earlier, so the majority of the people arriving now in Greece are women and children. Quite often, we have women that have suffered some sort of abuse. We have listened to some very tough stories. Most of the volunteers are refugees themselves, or people coming from abroad and then going back home. Many people think volunteers need only shelter and food. But the reality asks for the development of real skills, to help them integrate into the society, but also have some fun. It is hard to find people that are not skilled to refugee care, but they have specific skills. What we need to have is a salsa or a hip hop teacher, or somebody that can help with the roof garden. For example, one of my friends is an electrician and is coming to do maintenance work in the building, for free.
Anyone entering the house as a resident has to commit to attending 5 classes per week. Therefore, there is at least one activity taking place in some of the spaces every day. Sometimes, we organize outdoor activities, like hiking excursions. Refugees that benefit from the training programs at the Orange House are progressing their social skills very fast in. When a mother with a 17-year-old son arrived in May they spoke Farsi. They are now speaking fluent English. This is because everybody is connected through some sort of social action. The transformations we observe, offer some very important lessons. One of them is about the importance of patience, even when you are passionate about something. Starting a community of care is like planting a tree, and needs time to develop. There are times that you see things going wrong and always question what doesn’t work. But, actually, it is important to not give up and say that you have to try again. That you will tease many people, but at the end, it will work out. Over time, I am learning how to be more grateful for every progress that is happening inside the house. Any positive impact is important.