Migrants´ stories 2021 | International Organization for Migration

Migrants´ stories 2021

Career Day in Thessaloniki

Seeking job opportunities in Northern Greece


"I arrived in Greece in 2017, but I feel that my life started in 2018, when I started going to school and working. Today, I work as an interpreter and at the same time I attend the last grade of high school. My dream is to work as a social worker or educator ", says Umer, a recognized refugee from Pakistan who participated in the Career Day – ‘Career4all’ organized for Refugees and Asylum Seekers that took place at the City Hall of Thessaloniki, at the end of September.

Umer is one of the approximately 300 recognized refugees who participated in the event which aimed at bringing together refugees with the Greek labor market. The initiative was organized by the Council for the Integration of Immigrants and Refugees of the Municipality of Thessaloniki and the Working Group for the integration of migrants and refugees, with the support of the HELIOS integration project, implemented by the International Organization for Migration.

Participants had the opportunity to attend a series of presentations where job counselors presented, among other things, job search techniques and talked about labor relations and labor market rights. Also, representatives of the construction industry referred to the employment opportunities in the specific industry while a representative of a recruitment agency explained to the participants how one can use the services of such agencies.

Amongst the participants was Brug, originally from Burundi, who responded to the call to claim a better future: "In Greece I have worked for four different employers. Today, I work in a glass factory. To find a job you must use all the ways and means. I am systematically supported by an employment consultant through the HELIOS project. I am informed about new jobs and always participate in Career Days ".

The presence of employers from the wider area of ​​Thessaloniki was also significant. Representatives of 14 companies and recruiting agencies attended the event confirming their interest in recruiting workforce, while individual interviews were conducted with the participants with the help of interpreters where the need arose.

“For the HELIOS project, events like today have a dual purpose: refugees have the opportunity to meet and talk with employers exploring areas of cooperation and, in addition, such initiatives give them the opportunity to become acquainted with actions and practices around labor market which as Greeks know and use very well”, said Natasa Arapidou, HELIOS Employability Coordinator.

One such case is that of Severin, from Cameroon, who had the opportunity to follow, among other things, the advice given by qualified career counselors on practical issues related to access the local labor market.

"Do not give up, do not lose hope! "No matter how many CVs you send, stay focused on your goal and you will achieve it", says Severin with a smile. He is currently working as an employee and interpreter in a hotel in Milos, while looking for a job in the city of Thessaloniki.

Umer, Brug and Severin are three examples of people continuously striving to improve their lives, setting the ground for an autonomous living in the country.

This efforts of the recognized refugees in Greece are supported by the integration project HELIOS of the International Organization for Migration, which through its pillars of action aims at the smooth and effective integration of the recognized refugees in the Greek society, making them active and autonomous members of the community.

The project, implemented with the support of the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum and funded by the European Commission, enhances job readiness through the provision of counseling services, access to work-related certifications and networking with potential employers.

It is worth noting that from the beginning of the program in July 2019 until September 2021, 6,216 counseling sessions were held with recognized refugees on labor issues, based on skills, work experience and market needs.

More information here.



Returning home with dignity, the story of Abdelmonaam from Tunisia



The moment was overwhelming. Abdelmonaam burst into tears at the sound of his family’s voices as he disembarked from the airplane in Tunis. He had not held them in twenty years.

As the family’s sole breadwinner, Abdelmonaam left his home in Tunisia in 2001 to find a job that would allow him to support his parents and siblings in Tunisia. He worked as a seaman on a cargo ship until he was too old to meet the challenges of his job. He then settled in Greece, one of the countries he had come to know well through his travels on the cargo ship. Building on the skills he had developed in Tunisia as a blacksmith, Abdelmonaam worked at various, mostly construction, jobs to earn daily wages to support his family back home.

Two years ago, Abdelmonaam lost his vision due to a medical condition. He was unable to continue working and wanted to return to Tunisia for his family to take care of him. He contacted the Embassy of Tunisia to enquire about assistance to return home and the embassy provided him with information about IOM Greece’s assisted voluntary return and reintegration (AVRR) programme.

IOM supported Abdelmonaam in the operational procedures for his return and an IOM medical escort accompanied him on his trip from Athens to Tunis. “I am grateful to IOM Greece for assisting me to return home with dignity”, Abdelmonaam said at the airport surrounded by his family.

As part of the personalized reintegration plan that Abdelmonaam and IOM reintegration counsellors developed with the support of IOM medical experts and cultural mediators, Abdelmonaam also receives medical assistance that allows him to have eye surgery in Tunis that will restore his eyesight.

“I am looking forward to undergoing the eye surgery provided through my reintegration grant. I will be able to see, work and function again in my home country”, Abdelmonaam said with optimism.

The implementation of assisted voluntary returns including reintegration measures and operation of Open Center in the Prefecture of Attica for applicants of voluntary return (AVRR/OCAVRR) project is co-funded 75% by European Funds (Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund) and 25% by National Funds.



Speaking the willpower, the story of Mohammed 



“I arrived in Greece in 2019 encountering many difficulties during my trip mainly because I could not communicate with anyone. In Korinthos Site, IOM gave me the opportunity to communicate again with the world and finally to express my thoughts that I had deep inside me since i was a child. Today, I am very happy to attend sign language classes in Korinthos Site as now I am closer than ever to make my dreams come true” said Mohammed from Gambia.

Mohammed is 33 years old and came to Greece from Gambia and the city of Baro Kunda. He lost his parents when he was very young and due to an accident, his hearing was severely damaged. As a result, Mohammed grew up with speech and hearing difficulties.

When he arrived in Greece, he was not able to communicate at all. However, his willingness to learn the sign language was strong. He was partially trained in an American type of a sign dialect which led him into social isolation and exclusion from the community.

Mohamed is now living at the open accommodation site of Korinthos and with the support of IOM Non – formal education, community engagement teams and the organization “Polyhoros Kivotos he started following sign languages courses twice a week. This effort was followed also by his friends and roommates at the site, which gave Mohammed the opportunity to communicate with his closed ones.


IOM operates in the open accommodation site of Korinthos, as the official management support (SMS) agency, with the support of the European Commission (DG HOME).



“I’ll always believe that no matter where you are born or what your choices and beliefs are, you deserve to live the life you want. After all, you only live once,” says Nina* a refugee from Cameroon, who decided to rebuild her life in Greece


“For so many years I felt weak inside. I couldn’t make my own decisions. I couldn’t express the inner me. I was feeling like a puppet in my family’s hands,” says Nina, a 36-year-old refugee from Cameroon. Nina left her country in 2017 without telling her sisters, her sick mother, and not even her husband. But the hardest part was that she was forced to leave her children.

“I didn’t even get the chance to kiss them goodbye. My life was threatened because of my choices, my beliefs, my thoughts. I couldn’t tell anyone that I was leaving.” Nina was trying to avoid the inevitable: to get married to a man she didn’t want to marry.

She continued: “We were a very poor family. When my father died, I was trying to find a job to support my sisters and my mom.  I started working as a cashier in a small company and then got promoted. But still the money wasn’t enough. When my mother got sick, I was left with no other choice but to get married.”

Nina has always been determined to follow her own path. “I’m a gospel singer. I started singing when I was 14 years old. My family did not approve of my decision. They thought that performing was an inappropriate profession for a girl. I was forbidden to sing. When my parents discovered my music books, they set fire to them, but that didn’t stop me. I created my own band and I was singing secretly at weddings,” she remembers.

Nina confesses that she always knew how she wanted to live her life. She wanted to be free and write her own rules. She felt that it was for these reasons that her family had treated her as an outcast. “My sister told me that I always create issues in our family,” she recalls.

“Life became even harder as soon as I got married. I remember so many nights that I couldn’t sleep. My life was a torture. I felt that I was sleeping next to a stranger. I was a disgrace for my family. I wasn’t even allowed to see my kids. My hands, my heart, my body were empty. My soul was absent, bleeding somewhere.”

“I deserved to be loved for who I was. But at that time, I didn’t know who I was,” she said, recalling that this was the moment she realized that she had to leave. After many challenges, Nina reached Greece in 2019.

“The moment I reached Lesvos, I started feeling alive again. I felt relieved, and in a way, free. Even though things weren’t easy, I was feeling good inside. I knew that I was given a second chance. I could be myself, I could find a job, get my children and life back. I applied for Asylum, got to Larissa and then to Athens.”

Once Nina was recognized as a refugee, she decided to register for the EU-funded HELIOS integration project, implemented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which assists recognized refugees to achieve independent living.

HELIOS staff guided her through the process of identifying and renting an apartment in her own name, and now she lives in a house located in the center of Athens. At the same time,  she is following Greek language courses in the HELIOS Integration Learning Center in Athens and studies in Alba Graduate Business School, through a scholarship program that she found online; Nina has been receiving employability support by the HELIOS job counsellor with whom she has regular and substantive communication aiming to get empowered to achieve her educational and professional  goals.  In this frame, HELIOS employability supported Nina to get her English language diploma, which has already proven invaluable to her professionally.

“I’m working remotely in a big customer service company. I’m really happy for that. I’m also studying Finance through a scholarship program of Alba Graduate Business School. I was looking at the Internet and I thought that this might work out good for me.”

“Even though I’m not a very outgoing person, I have made friends in Greece.  A Greek-Cameroonian family are the closest people to me. We share time together, talking about life in Greece, our kids and aspirations,” she says with kindness. “I love Athens, I love the fact that no one has the right to tell me how I suppose to live to be, or what to become.”

Today, Nina feels that she is free to pursue the hopes and dreams she had as a little girl, but the hardest part has been missing her own children.

“My sister is raising my children and even today she does not allow me to communicate with them. A good friend of mine visits them and informs me about their situation,” she says. “I have applied for a Family Reunification program and I won’t stop waiting until I get to see them again.”

Nevertheless, she has no regrets over her decision. “I’ll always believe that no matter where you are born, or what your choices and beliefs are, you deserve to live the life you want. After all, you only live once.”

Through the HELIOS project, IOM aims to promote the integration of beneficiaries of international protection into the Greek society through integration courses, housing and employability support. IOM's HELIOS project is implemented with the support of the European Commission - DG HOME.


*Nina asked IOM not to disclose her surname.


A second chance to childhood



By the age of 14 most young boys are worrying about their school performance, their relationships with their friends, dreaming of the day they will get older, be free and able to choose for themselves. A.Z. a 14-year-old from Kabul, Afghanistan, shares the same worries, even though he has chosen his very own lifepath a long time ago.

“I’ve lost my mother when I was really young. She died when she gave birth to my brother.” Life in Afghanistan was always difficult and access to medical care and education was limited.

“I started working with my father at a building material factory outside Kabul. I was only 10 years old, but I knew I had to provide for my family. Even though it was a very hard time for me, I miss those days.” At the age of 12, on his way home, A.Z learned about the death his father.

“It was one of those moments in my life, that I won’t be ever able to forget. Also, it was the moment when I realized that I wasn’t safe, and I had to leave my country.”

After many challenges A.Z reached Chios island on January 2021 and was hosted in the Safe Area of Reception and Identification Center. It wasn’t easy at first; he found it hard to sleep, he had flashbacks and struggled with the separation from his family. But it was the first time in his life that he started to feel safe. The aim of his travel was to arrive to a country, where he could have access to education, he could be able to start his life from scratch. 

“I feel lucky that I have so much support from everyone and that I’m finally able to dream a better future. With all the support I receive from the IOM team, I have the opportunity to restart my life. I still can’t believe that I have the chance to be a child again.”

Following many discussions about his goals and dreams, he was registered in the official public high school, where he attends classes. His Greek classmates are very supportive, help him improve his language skills and he already became friend with many of them. He also attends Greek and English lessons, provided by IOM educators under the framework of non – formal education activities.

“Learning new languages like English and Greek is a challenge for me. But I know that it would be a valuable asset for my future either in Greece or in another European country.”

“Having the chance to meet new people from other countries, new cultures and different backgrounds, has widen my horizons. Although I was feeling frustrated when I first arrived in Greece, I feel now much more confident to succeed my goals and built a life that I had never imagined. Education opens so many opportunities to a child. “

He enjoys learning new things and participating to many activities to keep his mind busy and be able to provide to the other children staying in the Safe Area, which operates under EU – funded project MERIMNA. “It is so important to make your own choices about your life. It is also important to feel safe and contribute to the society,” he adds. “Now, I feel safe and ready to set my next goals. I want to study, work hard, travel the world and learn as many things I can! But mostly I want to help other children with similar background to mine, make them believe that they deserve a second chance to childhood.”

“This is why I’m interested in studying Phycology. I want to obtain the knowledge and all the available tools what will ease the pain of children with a trauma. I’ve been through the same process and I know that there’s always a way out at the end of the tunnel.”

The Safe Area team on Chios island operates under IOM’s project MERIMNA, with the support of European Commission – DG HOME.

Every person should have free access to education and every school should be a safe place for everyone

M. Zafari and M. Riza share their thoughts and feelings through their talent


Mohammed Zafari and Mohammed Riza, two male artists with similar experiences, met by chance in the open center of Malakasa and narrate their adventures and concerns through their paintings. The two men combined their knowledge and paved the way for the visual arts for the residents of Malakasa, providing daily painting lessons for free in the workshop they have set up. Both artists have their own perceptions of the world and their works are inspired from their personal experiences. The issue of migration has been captured on their canvas, depicting their concerns but also the hope for the future.

[ Mohammed Zafari ]

Mohammed Zafari is 23 years old and comes from Uruzgan, a province of Afghanistan that has not ceased to be a battleground of various forces since 330 BC, he explains. Although he was born in Afghanistan, his family moved to Iran when he was very young, and he grew up there. He explains the struggles he experienced in Iran. "We had to pay tuition fees, of exorbitant prices, while the Iranians had not. They offered us the opportunity for education when in fact it was hindered," he says. "We were five siblings and our parents could not afford it for all of us."

Mohammed Zafari started to work from a very young age in Iran as a builder to make ends meet and not be a burden to his family. However, he did not like it since it was not what he had imagined for him. He left his family and decided to travel to Turkey. He stayed there for two years until he raised some money and managed to move to Lesvos. In Moria, his life changed when he met Eric, a volunteer from the United Kingdom who was helping with the situation at the camp. Speaking with gratitude about Eric, he explains that he gave him the necessary materials to start painting. "So, I started painting and I discovered my talent. Now I teach others to paint. It gives me even more joy to see others evolving in this art through me."

Zafari likes painting and music. He plays guitar and piano.

"Art and music are necessary in our lives more than ever, especially now that we are isolated because of COVID-19. Despite already existing distances, combined also with those that the pandemic created, our paintings act as a bridge and bring us closer, regardless our country and language."

Always adhering to the protocols to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, the two men provide classes daily to those who wish to learn painting.

The Hope Eye

"This painting belongs to the surrealist movement. It tries to bridge two contradictory situations, the dream and the reality that is not directly perceived by the human eye. At first glance, the painting may not seem logical, but each element has an interpretation and correlation with the rest.

Initially, the eye is inspired by the well-known ‘evil eye’ that prevails in the Mediterranean and the Middle East and symbolizes the bad energy. In my painting, it can be interpreted as the other look with which we need to look at some situations, such as the need for some people to come to Europe in search of a better life. "The eye is the Eye of Hope and its center consists of the European flag," Zafari explains.

"Blue symbolizes both the sky and the sea, two elements that you cannot easily distinguish one from another when looking at Greece from Turkey. Blue defines the hope of passing from Turkey to Greece and from there, to the rest of Europe.

The two hands are inspired by the painting "The Creation of Adam" by Michelangelo. The painting gives the impression that God (on the right), the Giver of life, is approaching Adam (on the left and below of his Creator), who has not yet received it. The two are not on the "same level." In my approach, both hands are of humans; one hand from a European citizen and the other from a person far from Europe who wants to find refuge in it. Both hands are on the "same level" because all people are equal. The two fingers have not touched each other yet, but both point to the European Union and are close enough so the one gets energy from the other.

[ Mohammed Riza ]

Mohammed Riza is 30 years old, born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Mohammed managed to go to school in Afghanistan, and for 13 years he did what he loved. He was a professor of painting at a university, until the university was attacked, and he felt that his hopes were dashed, together with the university.

He and his family decided to seek refuge in neighboring Iran first, but there they had no right without the necessary documents and there was no chance of obtaining them. They stayed there for a while and continued their journey to Turkey and from there to Greece. In 2019 they arrived in Lesvos.

When asked if he would like to return or if there is something he misses from his country, he wondered who would like to live or have a family in fear, poverty, dust from the ruins and extremism? "I do not mind staying in Greece or going to another country. Afghanistan is an unstable country and I want to be where I feel safe."