I’ve dreamt of going to Greece since I was a little girl, so when I heard that I would be helping to lead a team of students to Greece for six weeks, I was ecstatic.
When I began planning our trip, I knew that Greece was experiencing some tough economic times and that there was a bit of trouble with some refugees, but I also knew Greece was the country of ancient ruins and beautiful islands. When our plane landed in Athens, I looked at the mountains and the sea and cried from sheer joy.
Over the next 6 weeks, I cried many times, but with a drastically different perspective. Over the next six weeks, I was introduced to the real Greece – a beautiful and deeply hurting nation of ancient ruins, beautiful islands, passionate people, delicious food, a booming trafficking trade, hundreds of thousands of homeless refugees, rampant drug abuse, and a culture of hopelessness.
I’d like to share that Greece with you – the Greece that tourists and media often miss. These six photos and their accompanying stories are all from my team’s six weeks in Athens, Thessaloniki, and Santorini, Greece.
We worked with a ministry that reaches out to women working in Metaxourgeio, the cheapest red light district in Athens. At first, we were only allowed to pray outside the brothels while more experienced team members went inside, but after two outreaches, I went into my first brothel.
Myself and the ministry’s outreach coordinator, Violet, went into the kitchen, where the girl and madam were waiting for customers. I introduced myself to the girl, who I’ll call Carlotta, and sat down next to her on the couch. She was from Romania. She asked me how old I was and if I had a boyfriend. She said she’d had a boyfriend when she first came to Greece 9 years ago, but then they’d broken up and she’d continued working. Then, the madam told her, in Greek, to tell Violet her news. “Say it in Greek,” she said, ” so I can understand.” Then, Carlotta told Violet that she wanted the ministry to help her find a job because she didn’t want to work in prostitution anymore. Violet told her they could absolutely help her find a job and that she should call the office in the morning to set up an appointment. The madam told Violet that she’d make Carlotta call if she didn’t do it herself. “She’s so smart,” the madam told Violet in Greek, “some girls get broken down, but she hasn’t. She doesn’t belong here.”
Meanwhile, I’m sitting on the couch praying because I’m American and only speak English. As the conversation is going on, I really feel God saying how smart Carlotta is. That she’s supposed to go to college and study science maybe. This isn’t what God has for her – there’s something so much greater. As soon as there’s a lull in the conversation, I tell Carlotta what Jesus is saying. We hear a customer come into the lounge, but the madam closes the door and says he can wait. That’s when Violet tells me that Carlotta’s been asking about getting another job. “Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it,” I told Carlotta. “You’re smart enough and strong enough to get out of this situation. You’re too smart to be here.”
This photo was taken at the site of an abandoned school located in the center of a Roma gypsy community. In these communities, addiction, physical and sexual abuse, rape, and child marriage are commonplace. Children are raised with little involvement from parents and many begin working at a young age. Our team worked with an organization that runs a school for the Roma children, who are seldom enrolled in school. After the house where their school was run was robbed by the local community, the organization decided to petition the local government for the right to build a school for the Roma children on the site of an abandoned school, which has been used as a dump by the local community for years. The new school will offer classes in core subjects as well as art, music, and practical skills, a basketball court, and a school garden. This project, if successful, will completely transform the local community by transforming the lives of its children.
Once a week in Athens, we worked with a ministry that reaches out to drug addicts in Areos Park. Most of the addicts there are addicted to a drug called Stasi, which is made from battery acid and kills within 6 months.
I had many amazing conversations with people there, but I particularly remember a man named Jeff. He was stoned out of his mind, but as I spoke with him, I was impressed by how intelligent he was. He had been raised Greek Orthodox and could quote the Bible better than I can. He kept saying he’d tried to believe in God, but God hated him. He tried to find God, but God ran away from him, so now he was done trying. He said he hated himself – he couldn’t even look at himself in the mirror without wanting to die.
We talked a lot about different Bible stories and some of the questions he had about Christianity, but he didn’t seem to be listening until I told him that God forgave him for what he’d done to his father. That was when he told me his father had left him when he was small and his mother had gone to Canada when he was ten and never came back. I told him God was sorry for what his parents had done to him and that God wanted to be his father. I told him God loves him so desperately much. He looked me straight in the eyes when I said that and I knew he hadn’t been told he was loved in many years.
In Thessaloniki, we worked with an organization that runs programs for trafficked children. The majority of these children are trafficked to perform or beg on the streets by their parents, who live off their earnings. Many as young as nine, these children don’t attend school and often end up trafficking their own children. The organization we worked with runs a mobile school which helps to teach these kids basic reading, writing, and arithmetic during their work breaks.
We did a lot of work with refugees in Athens, serving meals in churches and parks, and spending time with the families living on the streets. We’d heard about several Olympic stadiums that had been converted into camps, but they were too far outside the city and you had to have special clearance in order to enter.
One day, we got a random call from an organization that was going to one of the camps and a few of us decided to join. We rode a bus for about an hour across the city and arrived at the camp. We walked through the gates and nodded at the guards before being taken into the camp’s main office, where we were introduced to the mayor of the precinct, who invited us to come back anytime.
We went into the open courtyard and rolled out long sheets of brown paper. Children and adults gathered around, painting pictures of trees, birds, and the Afghan flag. One young boy drew a picture of people without heads. “Dead,” he said, “all dead.” We played tag and duck, duck, goose, and I drove two little boys to hysterics as I mimicked their Dari.
We returned to that camp many times throughout our stay in Athens, running more programs for the kids, serving breakfast, and sorting through the mounds of supplies that were piled up in the office. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans, Syrians, Pakistanis, Iraqis, and Iranians cycle through Athens every day – some stay for a night and some for years.