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With NGOs, Starting Small Can Make a Big Difference

The award-winning Lora Pappa, who quit the UNHCR to found her own upstart charity Metadrasi, talks about the vital importance of providing good interpreters and the art of the possible.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Lora Pappa receives the 2015 North-South prize from the European Council in a ceremony in Lisbon, Portugal. The award recognized her work as president of the Greek NGO, Metadrasi, which works with refugees and migrants.Luís D'almeida Amaral

Lora Pappa had grown tired of having the same conversation over and over. Working as a consultant in Greece for the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, she was meant to pull together the diverse threads of different agencies working across international borders. What she continually found were gaps in the provision of even the most basic care and services for refugees.

“All the time I was asking NGOs why they weren’t doing things and they were always saying it was impossible.”

In 2010, after seven years attached to the UNHCR and 15 years working for Greek organizations, including the council for refugees and the national youth foundation, she decided to stop asking other people and strike out alone.

“I dropped everything and decided to see if it actually was impossible.”

She founded Metadrasi, a Greek NGO that has set about providing services that the Greek state and other organizations could not or would not offer.

Six years on, fresh from accepting the North-South award from the European Council, a prize for outstanding work in defense of human rights, solidarity or democracy, she says that it has been possible to make a difference.

Most of what Pappa says is said in a hurry. For a Swiss-educated veteran of national and international organizations, her style is tough and impatient. In conversation she is disarmingly blunt and undiplomatic.

One of the first challenges she wanted Metadrasi to tackle after setting it up was the mess of translation and interpreting services she found in Greece.

“Interpreters were a huge problem. There was no interpretation for the asylum system, no credible professional network.”

The failure to provide even basic interpretation services had seen the country reprimanded by the European Court of Human Rights. While it is easy in Greece to blame a lack of funding, Pappa says the real problem was corruption.

“There was no system. Some guys would be brought along and the police would ask them if they spoke Arabic, they would say ‘Yes’ and the police would say, ‘You’re an interpreter.’”

“Lawyers were bringing their friends, police were working with suspected people smugglers. There was a big corrupt network that didn’t want us to clear up the situation with interpreters.”

An entirely new system needed to be built to train, select and certify interpreters, conduct background checks and draft codes of conduct.

“We created all of this,” Pappa said.

Today, Metadrasi retains nearly 330 interpreters speaking 33 languages and dialects. Many of them were refugees themselves, several from Greece’s first reception center for unaccompanied migrant children that Pappa helped to set up in a village in the mountains on Crete in 2000, while working with the national youth foundation.

Metadrasi also trains staff in the asylum service and police, many of whom worked in the previous rotten system.

“An interpreter isn’t there to bring coffee,” says Pappa. “It’s a role to be respected.”

“Metadrasi is doing better at this than many government ministries in other countries. What we’re doing isn’t conference interpreting. It’s community interpretation, something that should be established all over Europe.

“These people aren’t just for asylum, it’s for schools, hospitals and courts (Metadrasi does not yet provide court translators). And when it goes wrong people can end up in jail.”

What no one, not even Pappa, could have foreseen when the punchy little NGO was started was that its early years would coincide with the greatest refugee influx Greece has seen since the Asia Minor disaster in the 1920s, and that Europe has seen since World War II.

Her nascent organization has grown to meet some of the challenges thrown up by the mounting crisis, especially those relating to refugee children arriving alone. Many of those who were identified after entering the country found themselves in detention for long periods, due to the absence of a qualified organization to undertake the work of escorting them to better accommodation. More than 3,500 children have so far been transferred in Metadrasi’s care, protecting them from abuse or from falling prey to traffickers.

More recently the organization has branched out by training and deploying a network of guardians who can provide legal advice to unaccompanied children and ensure they have access to basic services. It has also set up the country’s first temporary foster-care program to match refugee children facing prolonged stays in Greece with families willing to give them a home.

“The reason there were gaps in the past,” says Pappa, “is because they represented risks.

“Maybe we’ll get a bad family with fostering and it will be our responsibility. If a minor we’re escorting goes missing it would be our fault.

“But you have to take that risk.”

Metadrasi’s headquarters is a shabby office block in an unloved neighborhood behind Stathmos Larissis, one of Athens’ main railway hubs. It has the hectic atmosphere of a political campaign headquarters nearing election day. Bright young men and women – mostly women – many of whom have left careers behind for the cause, work long hours for less than they would earn elsewhere.

Pappa’s office is a cramped box on the top floor where the telephone rings constantly – but there is usually a new anecdote for anyone who makes the climb.

She relays the story of a young refugee boy who arrived in Greece three years ago as an unaccompanied minor and was helped by Metadrasi. “He came back to us,” she says with obvious delight. “He wants to find the people who escorted him and told me he wanted so much to do what those people did for him.

“He wants to work for us, he gets what Metadrasi is.”

Asked what has been learned, she says one of the most important lessons was to lose her fear of fundraising.

“I knew that for me I find it hard to ask for money. But people aren’t stupid when they see you’re doing things. They help.”

The scale of the human traffic through Greece during 2015 has left many of those working on its front line exhausted. Even now, when the huge flows have been temporarily halted, the country has been left with the difficult task of supporting 57,000 refugees and migrants for whom it is poorly equipped to care. Everything hinges on a deal with an unstable Turkey to stop migration, often at the expense of human rights.

This has left Pappa scathingly angry with the politicians who failed to meet the challenge: “Often it’s the people who have done more than the politicians. Many politicians have exploited the crisis to hold onto their position.”

A world away at a grand reception in Lisbon in June to receive the North-South award, she gave an impassioned speech that described how a small organization, faced with a vast world, was still able to make a difference.

She railed against the “monstrous bureaucracy” of the European Union and said her own country had become a “deadly abyss or a dead-end street,” used by its Western allies as “a buffer state called on to halt migration.”

In summing up she chose a quote from the great Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis to explain the nature of responsibility:

“I, I alone have the duty to save the world. If the world is not saved, it is my fault.”

An earlier version of this article appeared to suggest Metadrasi offered court interpreters while at present it does not. It has also been amended to show that the first reception center for unaccompanied migrant children in Greece opened in 2000.

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