As dangerously cold weather grips Greece, the International Rescue Committee has been doing everything within our power to ensure that people staying in the refugee sites where we work are warm and safe. We are particularly concerned about children and the elderly, who are most at risk of hypothermia and worse if they don't have sufficient heat.
Over the past few days temperatures across the Greek mainland have plummeted to levels not seen in a decade. Many areas are blanketed with snow: More than a foot has fallen on the island of Lesbos in the Aegean, where recently-arrived refugees living in tents at the Moria reception center are especially vulnerable.
IRC teams spent the days ahead of the storm system battening down the hatches and preparing the refugee sites where we work for the unusually severe winter weather, providing 54 emergency heaters (with another 59 to follow this week) and working to prevent water outages caused by burst or frozen pipes. We delivered more than 300 thermal blankets, as well as gloves and warm socks, to refugees and also opened communal warming spaces in several locations across the country.
In Veria, Diavata and Alexandria, the three sites where we work in northern Greece, we opened our women’s safe spaces and children’s safe healing and learning spaces to everyone, so that refugees would not feel isolated during the storm. People were invited to come enjoy tea and hot chocolate, and spend time in the company of others, talking, knitting and playing games.
On Monday, at Veria, which is in the mountains north of Thessaloniki and received heavy snowfall, refugee women and girls joined IRC staff in one such safe space to watch a movie. “The space was full of chat and laughter,” said Eileen Brady of the IRC’s refugee protection team. “There was ‘heart warmth’ all around.”
At the Skaramagkas refugee site near Athens, the IRC’s child protection team hosted a puppet show for young refugees with one of our partner organizations. The children also had a chance to make puppets of their own.
In the meantime, IRC technicians remain on high alert, working to mitigate damage from frozen pipes, including providing 1,000 bottles of water to refugees in Diavata after an interruption in the water supply there. The IRC has also supplied 25 chemical toilets to Diavata as a stop-gap measure until temperatures return to more typical seasonal levels.
So far Kara Tepe, the refugee site where the IRC works on Lesbos, is holding up to the harsh winter weather, and people staying there are safe and warm. Kara Tepe shelters the most vulnerable refugees, including women traveling alone with children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. The IRC remains on standby to mitigate any interruption in water and electricity supplies there.
Temperatures are forecast to remain below freezing in northern Greece at least through the end of the week, while heavy rain and high winds are expected on Lesbos through Wednesday.
With support from the European Commission’s Humanitarian aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), the IRC provides environmental health services, emergency financial assistance, and protection and information services to refugees in eight sites across Greece.