In a press conference organized by the Marianna V. Vardinoyannis Foundation on the 29th March 2016, speakers highlighted the global dimension of the ongoing European refugee crisis and how we must all learn to live with this new reality.

Speakers included UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Marianna V. Vardinoyannis, who spoke about the extension of the We Care-Refugee Child Medical Assistance Programme, the President of the European Coalition of Cities Against Racism (ECCAR) and Deputy Mayor of Bologna, Mr. Benedetto Zacchiroli, the UNESCO Programme Specialist in the Sector for Social and Human Sciences, Konstantinos Tsararas, and the Director of the Aghia Sophia Children’s Hospital, Manolis Papasavvas, whilst the short introductory speech was delivered by Dr. Thanasis Giannopoulos who is Professor of Surgery and Director of the Hellenic Centre for Disease and control prevention (HCDCP).

Ms. Vardinoyannis started her speech by expressing her delight that the Vardinoyannis Foundation was to join forces with UNESCO and the European Coalition to launch this initiative in Europe, as an extension to the We Care programme, aiming to provide support to city authorities as part of a wider effort to eradicated stereotype and prejudice. She pointed out that by strengthening the knowledge of local authority officials, obligations on human rights are fulfilled as well as the provision of services for the inclusion of refugees as prescribed by national and international legal frameworks. The initiative is to give special attention to refugees who are most vulnerable, such as mothers with children, young girls and people with disabilities. The aim being to promote cooperation between city authorities and relevant bodies, providing the tools to create a common reference point for respective operations. She announced that the collaboration was to be formalized on Monday 9th May, in a special event being held at the headquarters of UNESCO in Paris, in the presence of the UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, whom Ms. Vardinoyannis personally thanked for wholeheartedly embracing the initiative from the outset. Another meeting is to follow in November 2016, in Athens, which is to bring together experts from relevant fields, such as refugee law, human rights, development and action at the municipal level, and which is to involve local authority representatives who will present their problems and hence permit deeper reflection on the issue and the analysis of key questions. She promised that the outcomes of the programme are to be announced immediately after the meeting and an electronic guide of useful principles and tools to effectively combat the refugee crisis at local level will then be distributed to the member cities of the European Alliance.

UNESCO representative Konstantinos Tsararas then continued the speech, in which he expressed his great honour to be present as representative of UNESCO at the outset of such an important initiative which has been established in response to such a pressing European and global problem. He went on to thank Mrs Marianna Vardinoyannis and the Foundation for having launched the initiative which aims to improve the lives of refugees and immigrants across Europe through the Coalition of Cities and also to express the general gratitude of UNESCO to Mrs Vardinoyannis for the overall role that she has played in promoting the values and objectives of UNESCO since she was appointed Goodwill Ambassador in 1999. He made special mention of the fact that “being Greek myself I know how much her activities identify with those of UNESCO and how important her contributions are in so many different fields….” He emphasized that the initiative is committed to significantly improving the living standards of refugees and migrants and so addressing the issue of racism…. and is to be promoted by providing the suitable framework of cities and local authorities. Mr. Tararas continued by highlighting the urgent nature of the refugee crisis in Europe, and also the need to study the actions undertaken in each city and each country separately in order to record the “correct practices, as well as the mistakes that are likely to occur,” so that we as a society are able to follow specific ways to address the refugee issue in Europe. As Tararas explained, the crucial element in addressing the refugee crisis is combating racism.

Then followed the speech by Mr. Benedetto Zacchiroli, who observed that refugees continue to view Europe as a dream and that we should all make an effort to ensure that they avoid hardship. Europe for them is an escape, a genesis. We, as citizens, are the ones who should be actively supporting the refugees, despite the problems. The aim is for them to become part of society, to become educated, to become integrated rather than becoming marginalized in ghettos around each city… If we stop to think for just a moment we will realize that these refugees from Syria, Afghanistan or Northern Africa can actually teach us an important lesson. Currently, youths in Greece, Italy and Spain are dreaming of leaving their homelands because of economic crisis, because there are no jobs, because there are problems. So, what lessons can be learnt from these refugees arriving in our countries? It shows that Europe remains a dream for them. For them Europe is a dream, a chance, an opportunity and it is our responsibility at all levels, whether national, local or global, whether in hospitals or institutions to believe in this dream. We need to have a dream and to help refugees live this dream. I believe that Ms. Vardinoyannis and her colleagues are fighting for this dream. We are able to host a set number of refugees and we need to decide what this number is. It is decided based on the rationale that this number will not change the life of cities. I do not agree. Our lives have already been changed. We cannot be removed from the economic crisis, from refugees, from terrorism … everything is interrelated. We cannot simply create ghettos outside our cities. Refugees are not a temporary emergency, they have become part of our world. It is a huge challenge dictated by the principles of philosophy and democracy, as any Greek well knows. Indeed, without Greece there can be no Europe, no language, and no thought. If we follow our fears, we create nightmares. Instead, we need to follow our dreams. The Coalition is important to show governments that we exist and that we can deal with this situation and that it is not actually an emergency. The Hungarian government decided to build a fence in order to prevent the passage of refugees. However, the mayor of one small town raised his voice and said ‘no’, we need to welcome them. UNESCO assigned me to visit this village, where I discovered that the mayor is of Roma origin. Only someone who belongs to a minority can understand the suffering of the refugees. It is important to be in Europe and for cities to support each other. He closed his speech by thanking UNESCO and everyone present for working together effectively on the issue.

Ms. Vardinoyannis then thanked Director General Irina Bokova for her cooperation, whilst pointing out that UNESCO is one of the greatest defenders of human rights with a leading international role in combating all forms of discrimination. She went on to outline the fact that UNESCO deems the role of cities to be decisive in promoting human rights and hence it established the International Coalition of Cities against Racism and Discrimination in 2004. This international alliance includes more than 500 cities around the world and its action plan consists of ten commitments covering the different functions of city authorities such as education, housing, employment and cultural activities. Also in operation is the European Coalition of Cities against Racism which has 126 member cities and has developed a strong network for the exchange of good practice at city level, including initiatives for immigrants and refugees.

The Director of the Aghia Sophia Children’s Hospital, Mr. Manolis Papasavvas, gave a brief overview of the first phase of the We Care programme in Greece which was actualized in collaboration with the Central Union of Municipalities of Greece (KEDE), Athens Medical Association and Apostoli-the Philanthropic Organisation of the Holy Archdiocese of Athens. He explained that dozens of refugees aged 1-16 years old had been examined and had received temporary health cards detailing their medical history, many young children had been vaccinated and those with health problems had been provided with the appropriate medical treatment. Furthermore, 2000 thousand Hepatitis A vaccinations had been provided to refugees by the Ministry of Health as well as personal hygiene items, clothing and food. Also, 90 refugee children requiring immediate medical attention had been admitted to Aghia Sophia Children’s Hospital.”

Finally, Ms. Vardinoyannis referred to the fact that as the situation in Europe and in particular Greece is constantly changing, the We Care programme is constantly evolving in order to also accommodate children who circumstances demand that they remain here for a period of time, not just those passing through. In this context the Marianna V. Vardinoyannis Foundation in collaboration with the Association of Friends of Children with Cancer (ELPIDA), intend to operate a Hospitality Centre for mothers and children and also unaccompanied children. This centre will be located in the region of Attica in facilities designated by the Ministry of the Interior and will have a maximum capacity of 250 individuals. This Centre will provide meals, under the guidance of experience dieticians, to meet the specific dietary needs of the children. There will be complete provision of clothing and toys. The medical care of children (medical examinations, preventive check-ups, vaccinations) will be undertaken by volunteer doctors and nurses from the Aghia Sophia Children’s Hospital and will include psychological support from psychiatrists and social workers for mothers and children in collaboration with the University Psychiatric Clinic of the Aghia Sophia Children’s Hospital. Schools of all levels will operate for the educational needs of the children and will be staffed by teachers, professors and translators. The Hospitality Centre will also organize entertainment events such as theatre and music performances. The objective is that this Centre becomes an exemplary model in terms of its operation and that it will be presented to UNESCO with the aim of it being introduced into other relevant programmes of the organization.