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Settled Migrants In Greece Reach Out To Help Newcomers


This summer, tens of thousands of refugees and migrants have been trying to reach wealthy northern Europe. Now Joanna Kakissis brings us this story from Athens about what happens when they get stuck along the way.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: So these are the sandwiches that you're going to distribute tomorrow morning for breakfast?


KAKISSIS: And how many are you going to make, Maria?

OHILEBO: We're going to make about 170-200.

KAKISSIS: Maria Ohilebo always sets aside a few hours every day to make breakfast for refugees and migrants. Ohilebo is 48, tall and regal, a mother of two in stylish glasses. She came to Greece as a migrant herself more than 20 years ago from her native Nigeria, and she found work as a chef.

OHILEBO: I know that I tried so hard to get to where I am now. The first job I got as a chef, I was not really being accepted. They're like no, no, no, no, no, we don't want you to prepare the sweets. Why? Because she's a black. A black person cannot make my sweets.

KAKISSIS: She now bakes Greek sweets at a high-end dessert shop, and she's an activist who helped found Melissa, a network of migrant women in Greece. Melissa means honey in Greek. The Greek state is broke and cannot help refugees, and Melissa is one of the volunteer groups stepping in. Melissa activist Deborah Carlos-Valencia is from the Philippines. She says the group shows Greeks that migrants have a lot to give.

DEBORAH CARLOS-VALENCIA: It's contrary to the idea that we are the problem, but we still, you know, have the capacity to be able to respond to people who are more in need - urgent need - than us.

KAKISSIS: Some of the neediest are Afghans. Hundreds had to camp out at a city park for weeks. They're waiting for temporary transit papers that have been delayed because Greece is prioritizing Syrian refugees. The Melissa activists distribute breakfasts of sandwiches and fresh fruit to a crowd of Afghan women and children, but they run out of food in just a few minutes. Ohilebo has to turn many mothers away.

>>OHILEBO It's so depressing each time that you come here. Every day, we hope that the situation improves, and as you can see, it's not improving.

KAKISSIS: But at least one Afghan mother, Sakina, appreciates the help.

SAKINA: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "Everyone told us to go to this park when we came to Greece," she says. "They'll take care of you there."

OHILEBO: (Singing in foreign language).

KAKISSIS: Ohilebo bounces back a few days later. She hums and sings as she and other Melissa members prepare more food. The government has now moved the Afghans to temporary housing, but more refugees arrive in central Athens every day. Greeks often ask Ohilebo why she and the other activists spend their own very modest salaries on others during this time of economic crisis.

OHILEBO: Yeah, the time is so bad, but it is when the time is so bad and you can give from what you have that is when you actually give.

KAKISSIS: For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.