Fighting hunger with solidarity

As employment dwindles and mass evictions loom, Keira Dignan and Frans Jansson speak to the grassroots food collective feeding Athens’ increasingly precarious population.

Credit: Nuno Cassola
Credit: Nuno Cassola

When the Greek government announced a strict lockdown on 23 March, Rebecca Wolfe was running the  ‘ECHO’ mobile library, a bookmobile set up as a lending service and educational space in 11 refugee camps.

‘I remember the moment it hit,’ she explains. ‘I’d just finished a long day with the library in the camps of Lavrio when one of the residents said “we are not sure what will happen with this corona thing: maybe next week it’s better if you don’t come.” The next day, the government announced that all education facilities had to close.’

After two weeks of not knowing what to do Wolfe and her team found a different use for the bookmobile, joining other grassroots groups who had been addressing a need for food. ‘I heard about the work of Khora and the Athens Food Collective. When everyone else was shutting down, they were in fact increasing their activity. They didn’t have enough cars so the ECHO mobile library became the ECHO mobile-food-truck. We took out some of the books and instead filled our shelves with aluminium takeaway boxes.’

Thousands of people arrive hoping for safety, security and shelter only to be met by indifference, political point-scoring, racism, insecurity and hunger

Food insecurity has been a serious problem for many of Athens’ 80,000 refugees for some time. Income options are limited by a high unemployment rate, language barriers and discrimination – 30,000 people rely the UNHCR’s social payment ‘cash-card’ scheme, itself inadequate by the UN’s own admission. Persons are no longer eligible for cashcard support six months after receiving their refugee status. 

Meagre payments and a reliance on the informal sector has meant Covid-19 lockdown measures have intensified this insecurity. ‘Even if you have a [UNHCR] cash-card you will struggle. We were getting a lot of people saying I don’t have a cash card, I can’t leave the house and I have no way of buying food. People were saying they hadn’t eaten for days,’ Wolfe tells us. 

Ahmad Abu Shaeb came from Syria to Greece three years ago and has been volunteering as a chef with Khora for most of that time. Before the pandemic hit the group was providing 600 meals each day in a community space. 

When we meet him he is tired after a long day in the kitchen. His eyes are struggling to stay open.

‘I started working at 7.00 am and only had three hours sleep. Sorry – it is hard to stay focused,’ he says.

He remembers what it was like when the pandemic changed everything. Team spirit ran high throughout the collective effort to keep Khora producing food. ‘When you cannot do anything for yourself, you have to do something for others. There’s no thinking; you just go ahead and do it.’

First, they closed the Khora cafe and, after a brief stint trialling a take-away service, set up an extensive text-requested delivery service in co-operation with the Syrian-Greek Youth Forum who also opened up a second kitchen. A short while later Magic Kitchen in the Exarchia district of Athens also joined the effort adding another 200 meals a day to the capacity.  In evenings and weekends the Khora kitchen has seen further use by Greek grassroots groups Steps and Mano Aperta. Together, they have been able to deliver thousands of meals each week as the Athens Food Collective. 

‘We decided to have only seven people in the kitchen and it’s really not enough for cooking so much food. We work very hard,’ says Ahmad.

He tells us that other safety measures include rigorous hand washing, a ban on touching your phone and strict usage of face masks and gloves. 

This response contrasts to that of larger organizations which all shut down or drastically cut back during the two months of social distancing. Khora found that demand for meals rose by 500 per cent within the first month.

When asked if grassroots organizations were better equipped to respond, Rebecca Wolfe answers fast. ‘Definitely. Khora makes decisions by consensus, and many in the group are directly affected by the same things that make people come to us for food. They knew that people still needed food: so there was no question about it.’

Many of the delivery recipients observed Ramadan fasting during lockdown. To accommodate for this, the collective started delivering later in the day, so that the food would still be fresh at sunset for fast-breaking, vital in the 40-degree heat. 

Abu Shaeb tells us it was also difficult for those who were working in the kitchen and fasting at the same time. ‘It gets so hot. One day I had to ask a friend to pour a bottle of water over my head because I was really cooking you know.’

But it was also joyful, he tells us. The collective ‘get a lot of happy messages, and when we get a nice message on the Khora phone we often read it out to everyone in the kitchen.’

‘Huge thanks to khora we got ours today god bless you for all the help you give us ❤,’one reads. 

Well done Khora. what you did is never done before words not enough to describe our appreciation god bless you,’ another reads.

But Wolfe stresses that supplies are being stretched to the limit. ‘Yesterday, someone passed my phone number on to a friend, who passed it into a friend who, well, you get the idea. They had no idea who I was, just that somehow I was connected to food provision in Athens. Within the space of 45 minutes I had 20 families messaging me desperate for groceries and meals to be delivered to them,’ she says. 

It has become apparent that UNHCR has been giving out Khora phone numbers in response to people’s requests for food. ‘The long-term cost for these small grassroots groups is too high and surely other services should be covering basic food needs now? 

The Athens Food Collective has been fundraising to try and cover these extra costs, but it’s still some £57,000 ($72,000) short.

Perhaps the hardest part for people like Wolfe and Abu Shaeb is that, as they wrap up this goliath operation, the situation for their communities is deteriorating.

Eleven-thousand refugees are now being evicted from their homes. The wait to register for a cash-card has been extended by six months. There are no jobs. 

It is driving us all insane. I guess I should be used to it by now, but it still does not sit right that thousands of people arrive hoping for safety, security and shelter only to be met by indifference, political pointscoring, racism, insecurity and hunger,’ says Wolfe.

The Athens Food Collective is currently fundraising for the costs of their COVID-19 response.

Keira Dignan is a librarian at the ECHO Mobile Library in Athens. Frans Jansson is a freelance journalist and a volunteer with solidarity groups in Athens.