At Home in Athens
In Greece’s only long-term safehouse for exploited women, staff and residents recover together
Photos by Easton Kawawaki
Every morning, Dina walks down the path that leads from her house to the sea and swims in the Aegean. This daily baptism is an essential routine, a non-negotiable beginning to her day.
Dina is a wife and mother of three grown sons. She lives with her husband Argyris, a pastor and professor at the Greek Bible College, in a coastal town outside of Athens. She’s petite, well-dressed, unassuming. Looking at her—smile lines by her eyes that suggest kindness, quiet composure—you wouldn’t expect her to be intimately acquainted with brothels, much less to receive threats from the Albanian mafia. You wouldn’t know she founded Greece’s only long-term safe house for women who’ve been trafficked and sexually exploited.
Ten, even five years ago, Dina might not have believed it herself. As she tells the story, God had to walk her through her own recovery before she could walk with women through theirs.
The vision for a safe house came to Dina not long after she began volunteering in the red light district of Athens. At that time, her boys were still young. Every Wednesday morning she visited brothels and ministered to girls nearly the age of her sons. Before long she grew frustrated with the lack of long-term resources for women who wanted to leave prostitution. Dina imagined a home where they could learn Greek, acquire job skills, and live in restorative community. She began praying for the opportunity to start such a house. Years passed.
It was during these intervening years that the Middle East imploded. Waves of migrants crashed onto Greece’s shores. With the influx of vulnerable people, trafficking rates shot up. Turkey became the de facto highway for human smuggling, a highway that emptied right into Greece, depositing thousands of vulnerable people into downtown Athens. Though Greece had long been a migration and trafficking route, the number of vulnerable people in the country soared.
Today, the country faces a secondary crisis. With European borders closed, Greece houses 50,000 individuals who arrived as refugees, all of whom need to be integrated into Greek society. As outsiders and sojourners, these people face a range of indignities and persecution—but perhaps the most insidious is trafficking and exploitation.
Since 2012, Greece’s economic collapse and the influx of migrants have pushed an increasing number of women and unaccompanied minors to the streets. Police statistics report the number of brothels in Athens at around 300. That’s the official tally, one that doesn’t include hidden brothels. All told, the total number is nearly 800. In downtown Athens, women from all over the world work the streets: self-medicating with drugs, earning as little as two euros a client.
Dina prayed over her vision for a safe house for seven years. Finally, in 2015, she and Argyris founded Community House Damaris—a recovery program and a safe house tucked in a neighborhood outside of the city center. The organization provides a healing community for women to live and walk together through a twelve-step holistic recovery program. Led by Dina’s example, the staff also goes through their own recovery program to heal spiritual and emotional wounds, serving the girls from a place of mutuality.
The name Damaris comes from Acts 17, in which the apostle Paul arrives in Athens and addresses a crowd from Areopagus Hill. Most Athenians turned away after hearing Paul preach, but two—a man named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris—heard the Gospel and believed.
Damaris House operates for the individual. To date, Damaris has served 19 women, plus nine children and infants. Three girls and a baby currently live in the safe house. In the face of Greece’s crisis, it’s a drop in the bucket, the smallest of seeds. Yet it’s work made all the more essential by the magnitude of the need and the lack of other options. For women and girls seeking full restoration and reintegration into community, Damaris is the only long-term safe house in Greece where they can go.
Argyris puts it this way: “We might not touch the masses, but these women are very different now because of Damaris House.”
Tell me about your early work with exploited women in downtown Athens. What is it like for women who work in the city’s brothels?
Dina: When I started, I had no idea what was happening in Athens, in our city. I never really imagined what is going on downtown. The first day in the brothels [in 2003], it was very difficult for me. But [the ministry] told me, “We need you, we need Greek women here to talk with the madams.” So I kept going. We would meet [before going to the brothels] and have one hour of worship and pray for protection for the girls. Then two women would go inside a brothel—one Greek and one Romanian because there were many Romanian girls—and the others would stand outside in prayer support. We told girls that we were from a Christian organization and if they needed any help, we could help them. We gave them coffee and tea and cookies and talked with them.
I stayed [with this ministry] for many years, and every year I told everybody that I wasn’t going to continue. I was so tired. Sometimes I felt hopeless. The years were passing by and we still saw victims of trafficking, young girls from eastern Europe, very young girls from Albania, just 16 years old.
Then the Albanian managers, guys from the Albanian mafia, started going after me. They threatened me many times. They told me, “Don’t bother my girls. They don’t need your Bibles. They know what they need.”
The girls were afraid, they were scared of these men. But they wanted me to visit them. So I kept going; it didn’t stop me.
What prompted your vision for a long-term care house? Where did brothel outreach fall short?
Dina: When I was doing outreach in the brothels I worked with three girls who came out of prostitution. But it was very difficult for them to find a job in Greece. So I began taking them into my home, teaching them skills and the language. The ministry [I was working with] didn’t let us bring girls into our homes because of the mafia, but there was nothing else to help them—I mean, how do you teach a girl if there are [no resources] downtown? The girls didn’t have papers, no families. So I saw the need for a safe house to teach them Greek, to help them with their papers, with doctors and lawyers, to help them find jobs, and, most of all, to talk with them about Jesus.
Argyris: We started thinking, “Now we think this is a puzzle we cannot solve, but the kingdom has a solution. What is the kingdom response? What is the kingdom solution to this problem?”
After some thought and reflection, we [decided] we needed a Christian safe house. So Dina started visiting other safe houses in North America. There was nothing like that in Greece back then. She finally found SA Foundation, a Canadian organization with a long-term model. She borrowed that model, so we didn’t have to build everything from scratch.
In the beginning there was no organization behind it, it was just Dina. We had missionaries and a few churches supporting us. It was a big thing to find the house; nobody would rent us a house for this [vision]. Dina finally found this house [in March 2016], which was owned by a pastor, but it was in very bad shape. But because Dina had been praying all these years for a safe house, when we decided we wanted to start one in Athens, people responded. We were able to raise 30,000 euros to renovate the space, and then another 30,000 to equip it.
It’s a miracle how we had all these great responses. From day one it’s been a miracle of God’s faithfulness. We keep going through all [our funds] each month, yet it’s just an amazing story, because every month God provides what we need.
“Now we think this is a puzzle we cannot solve, but the kingdom has a solution. What is the kingdom response?”
How does your personal transformation equip you to walk with women who are going through their own recovery?
Dina: From the beginning, I was afraid of everything: the mafia, the danger, everything. Everybody was telling me that [starting] this house was expensive, that it was dangerous. I had madams in the brothels telling me, “You are crazy for coming in here. You have three boys back home, and the mafia is going to kill you for coming in and saving the girls.”
Really, it was God’s grace. I didn’t believe in myself, but I prayed, “God, if you want this house, if it is your plan, please prepare me. Give me your strength, give me your wisdom, take my fear away, work with me.”
And God worked with me: first to trust him, and then to continue the work, because this ministry has many obstacles. From the beginning, the enemy didn’t want this ministry to be in Greece. He was trying to push me back, to find ways not to start this ministry. But now I recognize the enemy.
“I had madams in the brothels telling me, ‘You are crazy for coming in here. You have three boys back home, and the mafia is going to kill you for coming in and saving the girls.'”
What spiritual practices are essential for you to continue in this work?
Dina: I pray a lot, every morning. And I swim in the sea.
With my team, too, we start the day with prayer. Prayer is very important in our ministry. On the first day of the month we stop everything and we come together to pray: for the last month, for health, for protection, for money, for everything. And I write down all the miracles that happen in our ministry, miracles that you cannot explain: with the girls, with their papers, with everything.
From the beginning, the first thing I felt that God was working on was me. I was praying for years for this house, but he worked with me first to trust him and not to be to be afraid. And now I believe that I’m not scared about anything. If he wants to keep this ministry going, he will provide. I can see how God is working through the girls, through this staff, through everybody.
This ministry is not easy. As a staff, we also have issues. We are not there to tell them what to do. We need recovery, just like the girls.
Argyris: The staff also goes through the 12 steps [of the program]. And this is very important [because it equips] the staff to come next to these girls—not from a supreme stage as if they have it all figured out, as if they are okay and are coming down to help the girls—but to come humble, another weak sinner reaching out to help somebody else.
Here we need humble people who understand their own needs. The staff needs to be in touch with their own needs, otherwise they cannot be useful to these girls. All the staff has been through a transformation. We are not that different from these girls; any of us could be in their shoes. We know we are all standing on the same foothold of grace.
“We know we are all standing on the same foothold of grace.”
What particular challenges come with serving women whose refugee status has made them vulnerable to exploitation?
Argyris: These women are exploited already, so they come to us with less trust. They have been tricked, they have been beaten, they have been raped over a long [period of time], so they don’t trust us easily. They need to connect with us. They need time.
These women leave their home for jobs. They’re promised work in a hotel or a business… the story’s always the same. Then they are trafficked through Turkey—Turkey is the common denominator, the traffic strategy. All the girls here at Damaris are telling the same story.
Dina: We have girls from Dominican Republic, from Africa—Morocco, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Ghana, and Sierra Leone—from Syria, from Jordan, Romania, Greece, all of them. We’ve had Catholic girls, we’ve had Muslims girls. They come [to escape] war and crime and poverty.
I volunteered for a year with Salvation Army at night in downtown Athens when I first started Community House Damaris. I saw many girls working in the streets for two euros. There were pregnant girls from everywhere, girls from all over Africa, from India, from Bulgaria, from Albania. Sometimes they were very young, they were like children. They would say there were 18 but they were obviously much younger. And there was always a pimp who was watching them and pushing them to have sex.
I observed that the trafficked women would only be there for a few weeks and then they would disappear to other places. The pimps have them hopping from place to place, not staying long in one place.
Can you share a story about how you’ve seen God’s divine love transform a woman’s life?
Dina: One of our girls was from Nigeria. A lady from her neighborhood invited her to come to Turkey and work with her in a store that sold African goods. This girl said of course, and the woman paid for her ticket and her visa. They came together and at first, everything looked okay but the next day, the woman locked her in her room and told her that from now on she would please the men.
Many girls [like her] don’t understand how many days they stay in brothels because they’re given drugs and they [lose track] of how many days they’re there. One night everybody was drunk and they left the door open, and she escaped. She met a guy from Nigeria. They fell in love, and she became pregnant. They were ready to get married but the woman [who brought her from Nigeria] was looking for her. She sent a message saying, “Where are you? I will kill you.”
So the father of her baby said that it was not safe for her to stay in Turkey. The only way out was Greece. He put her on a boat at seven months pregnant. It was winter, it was January and snowing.
When they approached Greece, the Turkish smugglers left them unattended. There were Syrian people and African people on the boat and they began to scream and to pray. After a few hours they arrived safely on an island. On the island, [officials identified] pregnant girls as vulnerable cases. So that was how she came to us—through A21.
In the beginning, even though she was a Christian, she was against us. She was always saying, “You don’t love me.” Now it’s been two years that she’s been with us. She’s a totally different person. She has finished phase one [of the program] and she is doing phase two. She found a nice apartment and she lives with her son and comes to see us every day. She dedicated her baby in the church and we all went.
We have seen after two years how she has transformed and how she wants to stay with us. She told me, “Dina, now I know that you love me.”
Besides being the only long-term restoration home for this demographic in Greece, what sets Damaris House apart?
Argyris: Just yesterday we had a visit from a girl who has finished the program. I remember the day I went to pick her up; she was on the street, she hadn’t had a shower for days, she was pregnant and she was sleeping on the floor with newspaper. Now take that and compare it to Damaris House, and the beautiful rooms there.
The girls always ask, “Why, why? Why are you doing this? What do you want to get out of us?” And there’s only one explanation—it’s love. Here, Christianity comes to them through influence and love and not by force.
Dina: I love these girls. I [have] worked with them [for many years] and I can help them. But also I explain to them about my faith; I tell them that I’m not responsible here, that God is the provider, that he does everything. I go through the 12 steps [of the program] with them. I explain my personal story to them, and [I tell them] that Damaris House is not an organization like other organizations. Here, you are going to feel the love of God.
View more of Easton’s work at eastonkawawaki.com.
Annelise is a San Diego-based journalist and essayist who writes about food, travel, faith, and the terrain between. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing through Seattle Pacific University and her work has appeared in The Millions, Brevity, Hidden Compass, Sojourners, and Civil Eats, among others. She is the Editorial Director at Nations Media. View her work or say hello at annelisejolley.com.