A formula for dignity: kind words, ready smile & cup of hot tea

In July, my husband and I returned to his hometown of Megara, about an hour from Athens for a friend’s wedding. It’s a welcome break to see familiar faces and walk among intimate surroundings. My fondness for Greece is deep and harks back to memories of romance; the boisterous first meeting with my big Greek family to road trips with my husband where the only loud noise came from the radio, barring a signal. In recent years, the fondness is tinged with a bit sadness as we hear stories of hardship from family and friends whenever we came home.

The economic meltdown of Greece is well known. Adding to Greece’s woes – it’s the first steps to Europe for refugees fleeing another type of destruction in the Middle East. I like to introduce here, Emphasis Foundation and its founder, Maria Karra, one of the shining stars when everywhere seems bleak. Maria is a veteran in the hotel industry and had worked in 14 different countries in Europe, Southeast Asia and Middle East. She had been involved in social work since 2000 in various parts of the world, primarily for disadvantaged and vulnerable children. I learned about Emfasis’ mission when researching tea culture and Middle East, and my colleague corresponded with Maria for this story.

The Founding of Emfasis Foundation

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Maria Karra, founder of Emfasis Foundation (image: Emfasis Foundation)

Emfasis was founded in April 2013 as a non-profit organisation in Athens. Maria said it was a response to the social decay that creeps steadily into society due to the recession. During 2012 when Maria was travelling back and forth to Greece, she had taken the opportunity to walk Athens for hours on end. She saw in people’s faces, loneliness, sadness and uncertainty. Queues at soup kitchens are daily occurrences. Men standing around nervously while trying to look busy, and kids hustling on the streets instead of in school.

“I SAW NEGLECT AND LACK OF CARE EVEN TOWARDS ONESELF – MARIA KARRA”

Deciding enough is enough, Maria and a small group of friends rolled up their sleeves, started going to the people to offer help instead of expecting people to ask for help. That’s the basic part of Emfasis’ approach, to give attention when none is offered, to listen when heads are turned and to support when all seems lost. Hence their ethos, “Giving Dignity to Human Life.” They have several social programs running but I am only going to touch on one of them to highlight their activities.

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The tent city of Elliniko (image: www.ekathimerini.com)

Refugees at Ellinikon Airport
No, they did not arrive by plane, and there are no flights in and out of Ellinikon* since 2001 after a newer airport opened. Asylum seekers from Middle East has been using Ellinikon as a make-shift shelter on their journey deeper to Europe. By UNHCR’s count (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), more than 4000 people are crammed into the closed airport. Until they are granted asylum or other forms of legal protection, their lives are in limbo. Maria and her team visits Ellinikon and other hot spots in Athens few times a week, true to their roots of social street work. They go from tent to tent, asking the refugees questions. Would make a difference for them today? What would make them feel like a normal human? What would you like to eat?

A cup of tea to restore dignity
Though Maria had spent some years in Middle East, and was aware of the importance of tea in the middle eastern and asian cultures, the notion of simple gestures like offering them a cup of tea did not cross her mind as the tide of human misery is too swift to contemplate at that moment. It was during the muslims’ fasting period of Ramadan in 2016, Emfasis’ teams re-discovered these small details that made a huge difference – and tea was one of them. The Emfasis’ teams had been trained about Ramadan “etiquette” and how to provide comfort in a respectful manner.

“NEVERTHELESS, IN THE OVERWHELMING AND SURREAL CONDITIONS OF THE REFUGEE CRISIS IN GREECE AND THE EXTRAORDINARY HUMAN PAIN AND LOSS YOU WITNESS, THESE SMALL THINGS ARE NO LONGER ON THE AGENDA – MARIA KARRA”

According to Maria, the fact that Emfasis’ teams understood how much tea drinking was part of their cultural identity was crucial. Especially during the fasting period when tea is more important than water to a Muslim. It proved that they had put in effort to discover and respect their traditions. It proved they had made the first step to getting to know them and accept their cultural background. It proved that without spending money but spending time understanding them, a group of volunteers touched them more than a donation of goods. The Emfasis’ teams noticed an immediate impact on demeanor. The refugees were more open towards volunteers, friendlier and seemed to be more appreciative.

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Emfasis volunteer with refugee children at Elliniko airport (image: Emfasis Foundation)

In Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, tea is part of everyday life, but initially couldn’t be found at camps in Greece. Once Emfasis knows dignity could be delivered through something as simple as a cup of tea, they shifted focus to addressing other cultural voids in the refugee camps. They helped set up designated prayer zones, separate bathrooms for men and women, and a playroom for children. They distributed books in Arabic to kids and fabric to women who wanted head and body veils.

According to Maria, on average, all adults and young people drink at least 2 to 3 cups a day which makes 2000 cups. They receive tea from various donations and food companies.

“ONCE WE HAD THESE HOMELY TOUCHES, EVERYBODY WAS IN A MUCH BETTER PSYCHOLOGICAL STATE – MARIA KARRA”

Back to the streets
Maria’s last visit to Ellinikon was March 2017 from the last correspondence. The camp had since relocated as it could no longer provide the required facilities to the refugees. It lacked privacy and basic hygiene standards with congestion as a main challenge to maintaining an acceptable level.

For Maria, her passion and devotion to help remains. She still joins her colleagues in Emfasis on the streets of Athen to provide social outreach. She doesn’t seem to be slowing down as she said, “like with everything in Emfasis do it now and do it the best way you can.”

Kudos to her and her team.

Bernadine Tay is a tea designer and founder of Quinteassential. She tells stories and relives memories through her tea designs. She is the tea curator and brand ambassador for Wedgwood, and has designed bespoke blends for luxury brands and hotels. She had won 7 Great Taste awards out of her 12 blend designs for her own tea range and is now also a tea judge.