The forgotten ones in a worldwide refugee crisis
By MAJOR SANDRA PAWAR
One hot and humid Tuesday evening in Athens, Greece, I found myself at a cafe in Omonia Square for almost two hours.
Sitting outside drinking my Diet Coke, I was enveloped in cigarette smoke from other cafe diners. The smell of smoke bothered me, but I found myself transfixed, unable to move. I was both fascinated and horrified by what I was seeing happen around me.
I was sitting in one of the busiest squares in Athens, just yards from Omonia station, and many people were passing by me: tourists getting off the open-top tour buses, business people rushing home from work, and shoppers heading to the stores. It all looked very normal, but as the sun began to set, something was happening that was disturbing and unsettling.
Among the people coming and going, I saw many young teenagers wandering the area, yet they never seemed to go anywhere as the Greek locals did. Instead, I saw them waiting around corners, sitting on ledges, and circling the same area again and again.
They had no joy in their eyes, they were not laughing, and they seemed only focused on one thing: getting the attention of the older men wandering around the square. Now and then, I saw them approach these older men or the older men approach them. These encounters did not resemble familiarity or friendship; they looked like business transactions.
During those two hours, I must have seen at least four older men take off with younger boys. At one stage, I saw an older man standing among five young teenage boys, and he stayed with them for at least 30 minutes. I could not hear his conversation with them, but I saw his interactions and how he touched these boys. He was touching their faces, chests, and buttocks, making gestures about shaving, walking with them to places around the square, introducing them to other men and handing them money.
This man eventually came over to a young man near me who said “no” and shook his head. The older man persisted and started to get angry. He spoke very sternly to the young man and finally coerced the teenager to go with him.
Another young man, so thin his collar bones protruded, wandered past the cafe at least five times. The last time he walked past, some expensively dressed older men had just arrived. They asked him to sit with them. They fed him and then left, taking him with them.
This evening spent at a cafe in Omonia Square broke my heart and spurred me to research the plight of unaccompanied minors, first within Greece and then globally.
Unaccompanied minors are often the forgotten ones in the refugee crisis, slipping through support mechanisms and getting erased by overwhelming and impersonal statistics. My experience in Omonia Square haunts me to this day and is a constant reminder that these young people, these children, are more than just a statistic; they are very real people with very real stories, experiencing real heartbreak.
That day in Omonia Square, I went to bed with a heavy heart, broken by all I had witnessed. I knew without any doubt that God was inviting me to care about his children, especially those refugees and asylum seekers.
He reminded me that night that those young boys in Omonia Square matter to him, and they need to matter to me too. You might not have unaccompanied minors from Syria, Iran or Pakistan in your community, but you have children, teenagers and young adults who are just waiting for you to care for them, to advocate for them.
Ask God to show you them this week and ask God for opportunities to bring hope into their lives. If you ask him, I know he will do it.
Major Sandra Pawar is an Australian Salvation Army officer serving in the USA