By Marina Rafenberg, AFP/Athens
After escaping poverty in Pakistan and spending two hard years in Greece without family or money, Manassif Raza proudly stands in his brand new hair salon, receiving his first customers.
“I feel more confident now that I am working, I feel my future will be better,” the Pakistani, who is in his twenties, says in the poor Athens neighbourhood of Agios Panteleimonas, home to many immigrants and refugees.
His achievement is particularly precious in a nation struggling with severe unemployment, where migrants face an uphill battle to get work.
“Here in Greece you often have to make it by yourself ... I had to do a lot of undeclared work: cleaning houses or hotels, washing dishes in restaurants ... I couldn’t even afford to rent a house, so I was hosted by some friends for a while,” Raza adds.
After nearly a decade of crisis and drastic cuts in public spending, Greece’s economy is beginning to recover.
Unemployment has fallen but is still the highest in the eurozone at 18%, and even higher among young people.
More than 70,000 refugees and migrants live in the country in the wake of a mass influx of people, most of whom were fleeing war-torn Syria.
Just 10% of those in Greece have jobs, says Dimitris Skleparis, a politics lecturer at the University of Glasgow working on refugee issues.
“Refugees in Greece receive no orientation or training support (from the state),” he said.
Fortunately, there are private initiatives.
In 2017, Citi Foundation teamed up with the International Rescue Committee to help refugees start businesses in Greece through local partners.
One of them is chef Moussa, who came to Greece after the deaths of his parents and younger brother in Ivory Coast over five years ago.
“For me, business is first of all, do something that you like,” he says in an IRC video, which says he is now opening the first Ivorian restaurant in Athens called “Our Home”.
“All of us, we have an idea, we have a dream. I am a refugee, I come to another country, I try to make my dream come true.”
On the day of a visit by AFP, a group of around 20 refugees from Afghanistan, North Africa, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast sit in an Athens classroom, learning how to give a PowerPoint presentation.
They will then have two weeks to show their projects to a jury of business people and NGO staff.
Successful applicants are given a startup fee of around €1,000 ($1,140). More than 150 people have been trained by the programme.
“It’s only a small amount, but it’s encouraging nonetheless,” says Touria, a 31-year-old woman from Morocco.
She also wants to open a restaurant, but at the moment, Greek bank loans are hard to come by, she notes.
Another initiative is Project Layali, meaning “my nights” in Arabic, which helps fund refugee businesses and assists applicants with the onerous task of navigating Greek bureaucracy for permits.
Raza from Pakistan says that he was contacted by them a year ago, while he was still training to be a hairdresser.
The project “got the salon for free through someone we know”, says Marine Liakis, who is French-Greek and helped to launch the initiative.
“To build the business, we had to gather a lot of paperwork, spend hours in administrative offices and secure funds ... for a foreigner in Greece, opening a commerce is a battle,” she adds.
Project Layali in December also opened a shop near central Syntagma Square selling handicrafts made by refugees, who receive all the proceeds.
Shaghayegh Farhang, a 26-year-old from Iran, is one of the artists whose objects are sold here.
“For a long time I hated Greece because I felt I couldn’t express myself here either,” says Shaghayegh, a self-taught photographer who left her country over two years ago because of the censorship imposed by the religious authorities.
“With this project now I start to find a new goal in my life.
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