– June 19 2019
Reuniting families: Putting children’s needs first
Lena Papathanasiou has a special, and at times heart-breaking, role at SOS Children’s Villages – she is a lawyer who works to reunite families.
Since 2016, Lena has helped over fifty children - most of whom had been separated from their loved ones in the rush to flee violence and persecution – to return to their families.
Her life’s work can be challenging – navigating the legal system, supporting scared and vulnerable children through the long reunification process, and ensuring their needs are provided for - but it is always rewarding. And with millions of children’s lives destroyed by warfare and disaster worldwide, it is a crucial part of our work ensuring that children can grow up in a stable environment, where they feel loved, safe and supported.
The SOS shelter in Greece, where Lena works, offers a temporary home to refugee children who have arrived in Europe alone. Many have lost their parents or been separated from their families during the long and dangerous journey to safety. At the shelter we ensure children are cared for and protected, while we work to reunite them with their loved ones. We believe that every effort should be made to reunite families and keep them together. Our experience tells us that all children need stable, resilient relationships, and that these are best developed in a caring family environment.
We asked Lena to share some of her experiences with us.
“All of the children at the shelter are in my heart. I want to help them realise their dreams and hopes. The legal profession is a humanitarian profession; this work gives me inspiration.
The process is incredibly complicated. The first thing I do is try to find the child’s family. I talk to the child and try to piece together who their relatives are, and where they might be. Then once a relative has been located, the really hard work begins. The authorities require documents for everything – and the children often don’t have them - so we search and search and try to find solutions to cover the gaps in the paperwork. Even when everything is in place, we sometimes have to battle, really battle, with some countries so these children can be reunited with their families.
Getting approval for a child to join their families can take a very long time. For most children in this situation the process can take up to a year – but SOS Children’s Villages is well respected and that helps speed up the reunification process a great deal. Often it comes down to the professional relationships we have built with lawyers and authorities in other countries. This means we can usually get children back with their families within three to four months.
I am always truthful with the children about what is happening, and how difficult the process of getting them back with their families might be. It is important that they feel that level of respect and acceptance from me, and it makes things less scary for them. We go to the asylum and immigration authorities together and I keep them informed. I want them to understand that they can trust us, and that we believe in them.
We stay in touch with the children even after they have left us and been reunited with their families, and they will often contact me to let me know how they are getting along. They send photos and share stories of their lives with their families and in their new homes. It is very emotional for me, but it means so much.”
Two-thirds of the unaccompanied child refugees in Greece are homeless and without appropriate care. Since 2016, SOS Children’s Villages has provided more than 250 children in the country with the care, shelter, educational assistance and legal support they need to be reunited with their relatives.
In the UK, SOS Children’s Villages is also working as part of the Families Together coalition to ensure refugee children can be reunited with their family.
Find out more about the campaign