Back in 1963, my father-in-law, Nikos Makrigiorgos, built a block of flats at Pipinou 78 in Athens. Artemis, a pediatrician and my mother-in-law, had her office on the 6th floor, along with the family home. At street level, they installed a hairdressing salon – a “Komotirio”.
Yiannis and Rania rented and ran the komotirio for almost 50 years. It was very pink. A modesty wall protected women from street eyes during the private business of having their hair washed. Yianni’s two teenage daughters maintained a statuesque, unfathomable presence, one on each side of the door. Nikos called them the Karyatides.
Sadly, the business closed, as did many in Athens, a few years ago.
In 2018, as a volunteer at Orange House – a shelter and community center for refugees and migrants run by the Za’atar NGO – I talked to Marina, Za’atar’s intrepid leader, about her dreams of a community-based enterprise.
“Starting with something like a hair-dressing salon, to help refugees who plan to live in Greece find work, train, and prosper,” she said.
As I strolled, literally, down Memory Lane – Pipinou Street – where my husband and I lived when first married over 30 years ago, my brain and my camera clicked. With my new-found techno-skills on WhatsApp, I fizzed a photo to Marina… ‘Hey…we own this closed-down komotirio….’
WhatsApp moments are dangerous. A few days later, I was relaxing on a family vacation, when the WhatsApp warning bell chimed. In flew a similar photo.
‘Hey Anne. Guess where I am?’ Love Marina.
“So,” I said to my hapless-husband-in-holiday mode. “Remember how fond your mother was of that salon…?”
A hundred and one (give or take) signatures, rubber stamps, transatlantic texts, lost keys, sawn off padlocks, found-too-late keys, electrical certificates, old bills, new contracts, tax forms, cousin-helpers and happy-funders later, a volunteer army moved in, along with a designer, boxes of floor tiles, and paint charts. The ashtrays and modesty wall moved out. Project Layali launched, the Salon has been redefined, and it’s no longer very pink.
We’re waiting for the power and the permit. Watch this space, the light will come.
This post was originally published on the author’s personal blog at https://randomtyke.blogspot.com/2018/05/opening-door.html
It’s 10am at Orange House in Athens, and we open up to the day’s first visitors, a family with two small boys. Here to use the hot shower which serves dozens of refugees every week, they prepare with patience in the living room – except for young Sami*, who, I learn too late, flings things about, and is not to be let loose with Lego. His parents tell their story in a single broken sentence. “We pick up our babies, and we run away from war.”
Another clang of the doorbell heralds bigger boys; young men, almost. Momentarily jaunty; briefly polite, they nod, then settle back to smartphones. Orange House offers free WiFi 10 hours a day, a clever way to tempt kids in and off the streets.
By mid morning, the door swings back and forth nonstop for students. Orange House has free classes daily in languages; guitar; yoga, dance. The youngest learners are 6 or 7, the oldest, 60 or 70; they speak Farsi, Arabic, Linguala; they’re Muslim, Christian, Hindi; some are illiterate, some have PhDs. They’re capable, they’re compromised. They move across our TV news in dusty pickup trucks and rubber dinghies, holding their children hard. They are the refugees.
Two small wet boys emerge, hair shining, from the shower. I switch Lego for a race car and instantly regret it, as Sami seizes on his new dream toy and won’t let go. I wonder if he’s traumatized or just a normal, tiresome 2 year old. As the family heads out, we resolve the issue, with a promise of the dream returned tomorrow, in words that no one really understands or much believes.We are the volunteers. Most of us are not here long, and none for long enough. We get to know them briefly and intensely – the Lego throwers; the villager who dries clothes in the oven; the Palestinian with a scholarship to Athens University. We engage over football and the weather; poetry and philosophy. We listen to tales of inhuman camps and missing family members. We clean, we teach, we pick up little plastic blocks. We direct people to doctors and link them with lawyers. We open the door.
Some say it’s a false dichotomy – whatever boat we came here on, we’re in together now – but we, the volunteers, can choose to leave. Most refugees don’t want to stay, but the world has closed its borders, so 60 thousand plus are stuck in Greece, and Greece is stuck with them. Greeks understand migration and unrest, and manage it, in general, with grace, but it’s a tough assignment for a bankrupt nation to take on.
By Anne Merewood.
Guitar lessons at the Orange House have proved a popular addition to the curriculum. In addition to weekly piano lessons, our guitar lessons are a great opportunity for our beneficiaries to pick up new skills other than a new language.
Recently, our guitar teacher built a website so that his students are able to practice outside of class with greater ease! The website features chords, songs, and a brief overview of what is offered at the Orange House.
Check out our new guitar lesson website here!
A French poet recently joined us at the Orange House. He writes under the pen name Pream.
For our French readers, take a look at his poem about the Orange House below!
Douce extase qui habille ma nouvelle enfance
De jeux aussi vieux que la poussière,
D’éclats de rires et d’éclats d’éclairs
Que les regards amusés se lancent.
Le monde réunit en une poignée de cœurs,
Triomphent un moment de leurs peines et leurs peurs,
Chantent, dansent avec la même douceur
Que l’abeille papillonne de fleurs en fleurs.
Les mélodies s’enchaînent et les pas se libèrent,
De la main au bassin la volupté ondule
Et la tendresse de lèvres en lèvres libellule,
Pour déposer en chaque prunelle un grain de lumière.
Grain qui fleurit et illumine
Les ombres que laissent les larmes tombées,
Les visages qui s’ouvrent à cette innocente gaieté,
Cette fièvre humaine qui dans toutes âmes se devine.
L’aurore amoureuse et délicate soulève nos cœurs
D’une furieuse ivresse et embrase d’une même lueur
La plus pure des beautés, par la plus tendre des faveurs,
Celle d’être libre l’espace de quelques heures.
Great news – Orange House is now greener than ever, and with constant hot water! In March 2018, we installed solar panels on the roof. This means big savings on the cost of electricity; constant hot water, and a more eco-friendly energy system.
Free hot showers are one of the most popular services Orange House offers – close to 500 people shower here every month, many of them from camps and squats which don’t offer hot water. Before the solar panels, residents could only shower in the evenings, and other visitors, at specified times of day. Also, everyone had to wait 15 minutes between showers, for the water to heat up! Now hot water is available all day long, so visitors can shower from 10am to 8:30pm, and residents, from 9am to 11pm. Orange House continues to provide shampoo and soap as needed, thanks to donations from the Lush Retail, a cosmetics store in the UK. Even the volunteers will benefit – they’ll no longer have to run up and down the stairs all day to turn the boiler on and off!
Za’atar’s Founder Marina Liakis said, “We saw how important showers were, when we were fixing the kitchen in the winter, because even when we were doing work in the basement, people were still coming every day to shower or to do their beards or hair. We are always looking for ways to improve OH services, and to be eco-friendly!” OH also held seminars for the residents about saving resources like water and electricity, and on recycling.
The solar panels were installed thanks to a generous donation from Humanity Now.
Za’atar plans to use finances saved on electricity bills to cover the cost of maintenance and improvements to Orange House, as updates and repairs are always needed. In addition, fundraising is ongoing to fix up the basement, improve the shower, build changing rooms, make the courtyard serviceable, and create a new classroom.
I could only volunteer at the Orange House for two weeks, but in that short amount of time I worked with an amazing range of people. Much of the work was supported by residents and visitors, which made every task go faster. Many of the refugee visitors were excited to practice English, which gave me an opportunity to connect with them. Volunteers were encouraged to innovate in order to maximize our contributions to the OH. That encouragement led to some exciting projects! The scheduling was also flexible enough to allow my girlfriend and I to work similar hours.
The nature of volunteering at the Orange House meant that my days included many different tasks that contributed to the larger mission: writing math tests for eager children, sharing stories about my life with interested adults, helping install a washing machine, and sorting puzzle pieces. While volunteering, I felt that each task was appreciated and supported by residents and visitors alike. Even though I was there for only a short time, I saw the power of the Orange House. Children opened up in the safe environment, adults found resources they never knew existed, and a strong community thrived in the heart of Athens.
Despite only being my third volunteer experience, my time at the Orange House was, without doubt, one of the most wonderful and enriching experiences I’ve ever had.
The Orange House is special, because it does not only help with a refugee’s basic needs such as food or housing, but it also provides a space where people can develop their human, social and cultural dimensions.
Day after day, dozens of people arrive in the house for classes, workshops or just relaxing and socializing. As a volunteer, it is so special to get to know so many people with different backgrounds and stories. Working in close proximity with these special people gives you the opportunity to get involved with the culture, thoughts and feelings of the residents and visitors. It also helps you to develop a special sensitivity and empathy towards others.
One of the major advantages of the Orange House is the small size of the organization. It allows you to get to know every member of the community and to have a real perception of the day to day operations of the organization and its residents. I really appreciate the opportunity Marina and Hassan gave me to work at the Orange House and the excellent job they are doing on preserving the dignity and humanity of all refugees.