While serving different segments of Athens’ residents — Blueground with its mission to “make people feel at home wherever they choose to live” and Safe Place International’s in creating a “family atmosphere for those who are far away from anything familiar” for double marginalized refugees — both organizations are united in offering hospitality to communities in need over the long-term. On the occasion of a second in-kind furniture donation to furnish Safe Place’s soon-to-open Women & Children’s Center, we sat down with founder Justin Hilton to learn more about the work that the NGO does in Greece to serve LGBTQ refugees and migrant single moms and kids. This year, Pride wasn’t necessarily celebrated in its trademark loud and out manner, but it doesn’t mean that its grassroots origins are forgotten. We continue the conversation in learning how Safe Place’s support continues to adapt through the COVID era and the new role that brands like Blueground offer in fulfilling their mission.
What was your calling to start Safe Place International and specifically to serve double marginalized refugees in Greece?
The story actually traces its way back to my work in Southern India, in LGBTQ advocacy, and addressing women’s trafficking in Northern India and Nepal, while at the same time I was flying through Turkey every six weeks. I kept hearing about the refugee crisis and wanted to do something. Slowly, I got to understand the needs of refugee families and LGBTQ refugees in Istanbul and their situations. Often LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ refugees settle into the same areas in their host cities, and what happens is that a vulnerable community and those they were running away from were back living shoulder-to-shoulder.
I went from working piecemeal supporting local non-profits to then creating a shelter for 21 at-risk refugees and eventually taking over a struggling NGO. Simultaneously, I was traveling to Athens and understood how Greece is effectively the door in for refugees heading to Europe, while Turkey is the door out.
In Athens, I met with local LGBTQ groups and also refugee organizations to find out how they serve this intersectional community, and it was apparent that there was a gap in services. I came into contact with a group of LGBTQ refugees and bought them an apartment. Fast forward to today, we’re now at 17 apartments and there is still a waiting list.
And your work isn’t just limited to the capital.
I also went over to Lesbos, and we started providing studio apartments and eventually an LGBTQ shelter. In the camps, we kept encountering single moms and children (another marginalized group within the refugee population), and we created a shelter for them on Lesbos. We have since added another one in Lavrio southeast of Athens, which Blueground provided a first donation of furniture to get those up and running at the beginning of 2020.
Tell us about your Global Family arm.
With Global Family, we’re on track to share knowledge and best practices with grassroots organizations around the world in how to support local vulnerable populations in hostile environments whether that is applied to Tijuana, Cox’s Bazar or elsewhere. Together, we’re raising the issue with larger institutional bodies like UNHCR with the message that double marginalized communities like LGBTQ refugees exist around the world, and it’s not a regional blip.
What a treat to see in-person how the Women & Children’s Center is coming together! While the idea was conceived before the pandemic, why is it even more relevant in the current reality?
The original idea was for it to be a drop-in play center and obviously that has changed over the course of this year due to social distancing. We’re looking to open two new shelters on Lesbos and two on the mainland. So we need a place for initial interviews, and we need a place for the kids to play while mothers speak with our team. And often when you have toddlers, there’s no chance to have them sit still — they’re flying off the wall.
The Women & Children’s Center will be a place where we can distribute aid, offer a play space and host affinity groups. The preceding Athens Community Center was originally conceived for LGBTQ folks and once we started to serve moms and kids, they were getting lost in the mix with 100 LGBTQ community members coming in every day for meals. Moms and kids have particular leads — for formula, diapers, prenatal and pediatric care — so this dedicated Women & Children’s Center is specifically for them and a gateway to those services.
How many people does Safe Place settle in its homes in a year and what kind of reach does the Women & Children’s Center potentially have?
This is rapidly changing. Right now, we have the capacity to host 40 women and children in our homes but we’re in the process of doubling the capacity through our Moms2Moms program. We’re always at capacity but we’re providing aid and social services to get these families on their feet to independently start a life within 2–3 months. So in a year, we’re looking at helping 250.
For LGBTQ folks, we’re serving 70–80 at a time, and the program takes about 6 months. But we’re most concerned about those who we are not housing and wondering how we can still serve them with things like clothing, backpack and basic necessities.
What role does corporate social responsibility play in Safe Place’s work?
It’s a new form of partnership for Safe Place and there are a lot of possibilities.
The two beautiful rounds of gifts that Blueground offered to Safe Place are invaluable. Your reaching out to us is remarkable because building relationships and prospecting takes an enormous amount of our time (and time away from primary responsibilities around operations) and for a company to come to us and present furniture and houseware donations is really helpful.
We appreciate that you are thinking of how to help even through a pandemic and being so responsive. There are the tangibles that a company gives, monetary and goods, but there are also the intangibles: here’s a person who has their basic needs met, they have a house and a job, they aren’t under immediate threat; and yet they go out of their way to make sure that someone else is taken care of.
We’ve also worked with Levi’s and Lego in Athens. Levi’s actually has a long history of LGBTQ worker rights including providing full healthcare benefits for their HIV-positive employees, and they’ve provided in-kind donations of clothes.
All in all, this is a powerful movement of corporate culture and it’s significant that brands are reaching out. Regardless of how many bunk beds, chairs and tables we get, it’s inspiring to see that willingness to help and to build a lasting partnership.
What are the good news bits that have come out of this time?
We focus on community and leading up to this year we saw amazing attendance in our Community Center’s yoga, meditation and language classes. What we realized is that people need their communities, and because of this pandemic and a sudden shift to online gatherings, we now have more equalized access to these meetings and discussions. So for example, now it’s not out of the question for a refugee in the Moria refugee camp to access a video call with an LGBTQ organization in Seattle or Sacramento. So we reached out to these groups and asked if our folks could join and they said sure!
We realized that bona fide online courses could be overwhelming for our community members. So with the help of education professionals, we are building eight different online learning tracks tailored to the people we serve. With a donation of tablet computers through the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation to our Athens residents, a refugee can study a program on fashion and also access affinity groups online.
Just as when a population moves from landlines to mobile phones, I think we’re seeing a similar shift now where increased access to the Internet in parallel with a sharp rise in online services is having an equalizing effect around the world. And it’s a positive for the population we serve so that they can engage from their phone on the street or tablet at home.
The protests around Black Lives Matter may find its beating heart a 10-hour flight away from Athens, but how has the topic been discussed and engaged with here in the context of a marginalized community — specifically when a sizable proportion of Safe Place’s members are of African origin?
Our refugees face a lot of blatant racism in just simply moving around Athens. It’s total intersectionality. Our message has always been that All Black Lives Matter. The very systems of how refugees are treated and get out around the world are a function of racism and devaluation of people of color. We are excited about the BLM movement and that people are talking about systemized racism. We want to take the opportunity to say “YES” and raise the profile of the communities we serve who are people of color, in addition to being LGBTQ, mothers, children; and that they need to be included in the conversation.
The months may be rolling by in 2020, but the messages of Pride month and its enduring fight for equality continue to inspire us throughout the year. Blueground acknowledges the double stigmatization of refugees who are rejected by the populations of their home and host countries, due to a non-conforming sexual orientation, their status as a single parent, belonging to a certain cultural minority or other defining characteristics. We recognize the intersectionality of social inequalities and the rich diversity of our guests, employees, partners and neighbors. Blueground stands by Safe Place International in their continuing and astounding work.
To learn more about Blueground’s corporate social responsibility initiatives, be sure to follow our Medium publication, Inside Blueground, and on LinkedIn. Individuals and brands are invited to get in touch with Safe Place International to learn more about volunteer, mentorship and in-kind donation opportunities.