17-year-old Serahman* now has a place to call home

Serahman at the balcony of his apartment in Athens, which he shares with three more unaccompanied children. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

Seventeen-year-old Serahman* from Afghanistan wakes up in his own bed every morning, makes breakfast, spends time studying and looks forward, like every teenager, to seeing his friends again at school and re-starting football practice. His daily routine has changed since the COVID-19 outbreak in Greece, but he remains an optimist.

“These days I don’t go outside, except for visits to the market to buy food. Me and my roommates are always very careful about not getting sick. The school is still closed, but fortunately I can attend my classes online until we return,” he says.

Serahman, now a student of the Vocational Senior High School, became a refugee at a very young age and has been on the go since then. “I finally feel like a normal person,” he says, from his apartment where he has been staying since April 2019 with his cat and three other unaccompanied children– asylum seekers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Iran, under the Semi-Independent Living (SIL) programme for unaccompanied children in Athens. The programme is implemented by Greek NGO PRAKSIS in cooperation with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and is co-funded by the European Union.

The SIL programme can accommodate minors aged 16 and over who are asylum-seekers or recognized refugees and are mature enough to be self-reliant and take on responsibilities.  The teenagers are supported daily by a social worker and a caretaker. Together with a teacher, two interpreters and a lawyer, they support each apartment’s group. At the same time, the apartment building is guarded by a security guard during the afternoon and evening.

The programme’s goal is to support and empower the children’s transition to adulthood, building their self-esteem, and promoting their social inclusion and their gradual advancement to stand on their own two feet.

“Since 2017, UNHCR, in collaboration with the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, the Ministry of Labour, the National Centre for Social Solidarity and many child protection actors have been able to introduce this model of alternative care for older unaccompanied children in Greece. The model was first piloted in 2018 and currently it is scaling up to increase the number of places for many of the thousands of unaccompanied children currently in Greece” says Dora Tsovili, from UNHCR Greece.

“After six months of living in the apartments, children are de-institutionalized. They go to school, they do their homework just like their classmates do, they become self-reliant and learn to cater for themselves in a safe and normal context,” says Panagiota Sifniou, programme coordinator from PRAKSIS.

Serahman belongs to a generation of Afghan children who have experienced nothing but war. He was born in 2003 in Baghlan.

“I don’t remember going to school regularly.  My family had to hide from the Taliban.  But I couldn’t just stand doing nothing. I told my mom and dad that I had to leave. They didn’t want to, but I convinced them.”

Serahman left his home being a child, losing any type of contact with his family. Days and years passed, he had to endure hardship, but he never stopped dreaming.

“I wanted to go to Europe, become a pilot, and fly to countries where there is peace,” he says.

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“I don't remember going to school regularly. My family had to hide from the Taliban.” Serahman enjoys reading a book in his room, in the apartment he now stays in Athens. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

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17-year-old Serahman prepares his lunch every day in the kitchen of his apartment. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

“When you are away from your country, you miss your home, it’s painful. But having experienced war and having tried to escape bombs thousands of times, going back was not an option for me,” he says.

Serahman crossed from Iran to Turkey and then from Istanbul to Alexandroupolis, walking for “one day and one night.” He then rode a bus to Thessaloniki and from there to Athens, where he was identified by the authorities as an unaccompanied child – he was 15 at the time. Serahman was initially accommodated for several months in a shelter for unaccompanied children in Athens and later he was moved to a SIL apartment run by PRAKSIS.

“Αfter a long time, I finally managed to talk to my parents and tell them that I am fine,” he says.

“I love living in a house. I have my own bed, friends and roommates to share the chores, going to the supermarket, cooking, but also house cleaning,” says Serahman. “These days I miss playing football in the open but I can sometimes go downstairs, in our garden, and play with my roommates. I am very careful and apply all the protection measures. I hope this situation is over very soon and everybody is well” he adds.

“He is a very cooperative, extrovert child and a very good student. In the house, he tries to regain the childhood he lost, and he dreams of his future,” says Popi Sarri, “support group” coordinator from PRAKSIS.

Today, more than 5,000 asylum-seeking children are in Greece without their parents. Only one in five live in appropriate shelter, while almost 1,000 children are homeless or live in informal accommodation, like squats. UNHCR provides places in semi-independent living apartments for 44 unaccompanied children.

*Name changed for protection reasons