Mohamed stands outside a refugee housing unit at the Kara Tepe accommodation facility where he volunteers as an electrician along with his brother Mofeed. ; Mohamed Dhib, 44, is an electrician and plumber with a university degree in archaeology. He came to the Greek island of Lesbos in April 2016 with his wife, four children and his brother, after fleeing the war in Syria. The family of seven crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey on an inflatable boat and were intercepted by coast guards. After being granted asylum by the Greek authorities the family lives in a house provided by UNHCR, through local partner Iliaktida, who provide accommodation for asylum-seekers. Mohamed volunteers as an electrician at the Kara Tepe accommodation facility where he installs electric power lines and solar panels on prefabricated houses that are being built to upgrade the facility.
In the frame: a Syrian refugee instals solar panels on temporary homes on the Greek island of Lesbos © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

Most evenings at about 11pm, Hanan and Ismail Abbas take their four young children to play in a park near their apartment in central Athens. “Local families are out enjoying the cooler temperatures so we feel safe being out so late,” says Ismail, a 33-year-old footwear designer who fled to Greece last year from the Syrian city of Aleppo.

“We eat ice-cream and practise speaking Greek to our neighbours.”

Mr Abbas was granted refugee status after crossing from Turkey in a smuggler’s boat and spending two months in a camp on the island of Kos.

He was later able to bring his family to Athens and now has a job with a small Greek business exporting handmade shoes. He says: “I was lucky to find work in Athens, not only a house.”

The family lives in a middle-class neighbourhood in a flat rented by SolidarityNow, a Greek non-governmental organisation founded by George Soros, which is participating in a European Union-funded programme that aims to house up to 27,000 vulnerable refugees.

There are hopes that the Greek programme, which provides shelter while helping to integrate refugees into their local communities, could serve as a model for other countries.

“There was an excess of supply of accommodation, mostly in Athens and Thessaloniki, and landlords have generally been happy to rent to NGOs and municipalities that are supporting refugee families,” says Giovanni Lepri, deputy representative for the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, in Greece.

Housing refugees and people who have been internally displaced because of conflict is “challenging because of the sheer volume of people we have to respond to”, according to Brett Moore, chief of shelter and settlement at UNHCR. “It’s also complicated by the different political climates we operate in. What works well varies considerably from country to country.”

More than half the world’s 68m displaced people live in urban areas, while an estimated one-third are housed in organised camps. As some of these have turned into long-term settlements for people fleeing from internal unrest and civil war, they have acquired urban infrastructure, such as paved streets, regular electricity and water supplies, and waste management systems.

The image of such camps being filled with UN tents is changing. Tents today serve a minority of displaced persons, Mr Moore says. “There are varied ways of building adequate shelter that offers privacy and dignity. In some parts of the world refugees themselves have the skills to build new homes.”

Northern Uganda, which is now host to an estimated 1m displaced people from neighbouring South Sudan, is one example of a country where the UN offers building plots and materials for refugee families to construct their own homes using traditional methods. In Turkey, which with 3.5m displaced people has the largest number of refugees in a single country, modified shipping containers to house up to 10 family members. These are easily transported by flatbed trucks and are gradually replacing tents.

Better Shelter, a Swedish social enterprise, developed an innovative flat-pack for refugees in need of temporary accommodation: a steel-frame shelter measuring 17.5 sq m with plastic windows that can be erected in four hours. A solar roof panel fuels LED lighting and a mobile phone charger. An updated version is being used in Greece for people in state-run camps while their asylum applications are processed.

Back in Athens, the rental programme has revived impoverished areas of the centre mostly populated by older people as refugee families get to know their neighbours, shop at small stores and send children to schools.

But the programme requires a high level of support to work effectively, says Antigone Lyberaki, general manager of SolidarityNow. “We’ve taken a holistic approach,” she says. “Each family is assigned a social worker, psychological support is available and we help with legal issues. We offer language teaching and educational programmes, and we also provide entertainment.”

Municipalities and NGOs are responsible for paying utility bills and give cash payments for food and other necessities based on the minimum social welfare payments paid to Greek families.

As opposed to telling people where to live by allotting them homes, refugees are given funds they can use to rent the accommodation of their choice. The recent phasing out of relocations to other EU countries and the implementation of stricter rules on cross-border family reunifications mean that most people in the programme now accept that moving to northern Europe is no longer a possibility.

“There’s a clear change from last year,” says Mr Lepri. “People understand that they’ll be staying in Greece and that they need help to rebuild their lives here.”

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