Sara Beheshte prepared her morning coffee and sat at her desk. While looking through her notes she receives the first call of the day. At the other end of the phone line was an asylum-seeker who arrived on Samos four months ago and had recently been transferred to Athens: the 46-year-old mother of two wanted to know how her children could enrol in school. Sara provided the woman with all the necessary information, and they also discussed the challenges and the problems she faces trying to adapt to life in the Greek capital.
The 25-year-old Afghan refugee, born and raised in Iran and living in Greece since September 2018, assists other Dari or Farsi speaking refugees and asylum-seekers as part of her work in the “Refugee Community Psychosocial Support” programme of the mental health agency EPAPSY, which is implemented with the support of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and co-financed by the European Union since November 2019.
Just like other EPAPSY staff working on psychosocial support, who are all refugees and asylum-seekers, Sara has received special training. All members of the team are supervised and guided by qualified psychologists and social workers.
In addition to providing psychosocial support, the team helps asylum seekers and refugees solve various problems they face, such as obtaining information about the health system, available social services, Greek language courses they can attend, how to obtain a national social security number (AMKA) and many other issues.
“I know what it is like to feel alone and helpless in an unknown country. Even the simplest things may seem overwhelming. Many asylum-seekers call us because they need to talk to someone who speaks their language”, says Sara. “Talking helps them overcome loneliness”.
The staff providing psychosocial support carry out home visits as well as individual and group sessions in EPAPSY’s premises. However, due to the pandemic, the services are currently offered remotely.
A helpline providing immediate psychosocial assistance and information on how asylum seekers may more easily access programmes and services has been operating in Arabic, French and Farsi since May 2020.
For the past year, the multi-lingual helpline has been an important source of information for asylum seekers and refugees who are unfamiliar with the internet and do not speak Greek.
Many are challenged when required to complete online applications, submit documents electronically or to contact relevant authorities. The staff providing psychosocial support explain step-by-step what asylum seekers and refugees need to do to for their applications with the Greek Asylum Service to advance and how to access other services at banks, hospitals, the tax office, public schools and other agencies.
“In a face-to-face meeting, people speak more openly, it is easier to gain their trust. In a telephone conversation, it is important to give time to your interlocutor,” says Mohammad Alasli, a 31-year-old refugee from Syria and member of EPAPSY’s community psychosocial workforce. “I remember a woman from Iraq. She hesitated, she was afraid and kept asking me about the hospitals in Athens. We talked for a long time and she finally told me that she had been sexually abused.”
Alasli referred the woman to the competent services and provided detailed information to EPAPSY’s psychologists and social workers. Following the advice she received from Mohammad and others at EPAPSY, the Iraqi refugee received medical care and psychological support.
In addition to emotional support, EPAPSY’s community psychosocial workers assess the severity of psychological problems refugees and asylum-seekers face. Some may need a psychologist’s help or specific medication, while others experience stress or depression due to the pandemic and the restrictive measures. The team also works to empower persons with specific needs and recommends practical ways persons with disabilities may overcome issues they face.
“At first I was not sure I could help those in need. I was trained and gained confidence little by little. It is important for refugees to know that on the other end of the line there is a friend with helpful information, someone who will listen to them carefully and try to guide them” says Mohammad Alasli.
Following consistent study and hard work, Mohammad feels he can manage difficult cases without himself becoming traumatised. For the first six months after joining EPAPSY he was burdened by the stories shared by refugees and asylum-seekers. While his shift may have ended at 7 pm, he carried the stories home after work. After all, Mohammad himself had gone through many difficulties before arriving in Athens.
Mohammad had left Syria because of the war, as he did not want to fight and decided to flee in order to save his life. Now, he has gained significant experience and wants to continue working in the field of psychosocial support, but his long-term goal is to study web design and become a web developer.
Sara Beheshte feels that Greece is the homeland she was looking for. After three years she has learned Greek and works in a job she loves. Her three children are also learning Greek and have made many new friends. Sara and her husband have decided to stay in Greece and build their future in Athens.
“I am a refugee and I know the many difficulties one has to face. I am glad that I can be useful, I can help asylum-seekers understand the rules and procedures that apply in Greece”, Sara recalls. “I have often been moved by the stories I have heard. But there have also been voices full of passion and determination. People who, despite the problems, do not give up and fight for the best. This job soothes my soul and gives me strength to keep going.”