“Out of my window, I could see young children, abandoned, involved with drugs and misery. I started wondering how I could help them. At first, it was a group of teenagers. I approached them and asked them to play basketball. Now (2016), 500 children of all ages come to the Ark”. “Our door will always be open for them”.
Father Antonios Papanikolaou served as vicar at the Saint George Church at Akadimia Platonos, Kolonos. He began his clergy work in 1998 in one of the most degraded areas of Athens, where many gangs are active and where drugs are sold in almost every corner. From the first moment, he felt the need to react to what was happening around him. Every day, he saw children who frequented squares instead of being at school or children who were members of high-risk groups, while they and their families were always in need. Little by little, he approached them through basketball and acceptance, in a humane manner, trying to talk with them about their problems, their everyday life, trying to talk to them as equals, without judging and advising them and, above all, trying to find a way to stand by them and help them in their needs. Over time, he gained their acceptance and, step by step, their trust.
“I sat down to listen to the children; I accepted them just as they are. I shared their home, the square, the playing field. Through sports and championships, their positive elements came out. When someone is as desperate as they are, what can you say? That Christ saves? They could not care less”.
In this struggle, his wife Stamatia Georganti has always been is companion and helper; they make sacrifices together and share anxieties, difficulties and, naturally, the satisfaction of the project.
“Our goal is for the children to feel that there is another world, apart from the one they know. Our only motivation is love and we rely on it”.
The offerings of the people started coming after a while, when they got to know the young priest and realized his intentions. The residents of the area started coming one after the other and volunteer their services. Teachers started giving lessons to the children, housewives from the area started bringing things from their homes, food and clothes that their families no longer needed.
Thus, with the help of volunteers, the Ark of the World was created, an organisation aiming to pull as many children as possible away from poverty and abandonment and offer them a chance to stand on their own two feet.
As the people seeking help increased at fast rates, Father Antonios saw that the children and their needs were ever-increasing and wanted to house the project in a former café. He started creating support programmes, the first goal being to help older children of the area to go back to school and complete their studies.
“I do not have any plans when I started … one thing led to another. The children were sick. And we said that we should offer homemade meals in one corner and teach them on the other. Then came the homeless and we put in beds. Then we made bathrooms for the children to wash and one thing led to another. Things took their course and one need generated the next…”.
The support of Greeks and immigrants has been a significant matter of concern for many citizens and bodies in the broader area, since many maintained that the priest’s efforts should focus solely on Greeks in need, and not foreigners. The embrace of the Ark accepts all those in need, regardless of nationality and religion. Father Antonios has made great efforts to explain and convince the community that support to immigrants contributes to boosting safety for all people living in the area and that their own children are also protected, since marginalization and desperation foster criminal behaviour. Naturally, lately the highest percentage of children and families has been Greek.
“How will refugees survive if you do not train them and help them find their way? They will be forced to steal! I approached the children of immigrants and refugees because I explained to them the history of our grandfathers and fathers… We know what being a refugee means, what is racism and death. If each one did something in their neighbourhood, we would not have this huge problem with foreigners who cannot leave the country and are marginalized! So, we either lock ourselves in our homes or help them stand on their feet”.
Despite difficulties and adversities, Father Antonios has never lost his optimism and hope, nor his dedication to his goal, and has always found ways to help as many children as possible!
“For me, the Ark is God’s plan which pre-existed… God has blessed this task and we go on with His help”.
“Love devises ways and knows no borders or terms”.