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Belgian Philhellene warms up 7,000 children and 40 schools in northern Greece

'This is a small token of my appreciation towards Greece' - Jimmy Jamar

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09 January 2017

Through his charity initiative 'Fuel for Schools', Goodwill Ambassador Jimmy Jamar, who is also the head of the European Commission Representation in Belgium, has managed to raise €35,278 in order to heat 40 schools and 7,000 students in northern Greece.

It all started back in 2012 when, as a sign of solidarity and friendship towards the Greek people, a group of Belgian and European citizens living in Brussels launched a cultural event by the name of 12 Hours for Greece. Besides promoting Greek culture and gastronomy, the aim of the initiative, which is run entirely by volunteers, is to raise money and support Greek associations operating within the fields of health and education.

In previous years, the events have enticed thousands of people and have hosted well-respected Greek and Belgian artists such as Lavrentis Machairitsas, Dionysis Savvopoulos, Aleka Kanellidou, Panos Mouzourakis, Georges Corraface and Salvatore Adamo, in an attempt to raise funds and assist the Make-a-Wish Foundation, To Hamogelo tou Paidiou (The Smile of a Child), Médecins sans Frontières, ELEPAP (Greek Association for Handicapped Children) and the International Foundation for Greece.

Jimmy Jamar studied law and international relations in Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and the United States. He joined the European Commission in 1994 and, besides being the head of the commission representation in Belgium, he is also a real philanthropist and a true Philhellene.

In an interview with Neos Kosmos, Jamar talks about his 12 Hours for Greece initiative, his charity organisation and his endless love affair with Greece, which counts back to 1969 when the head commissioner first set foot in Katakolon in the Peloponnese.

What inspired you to go ahead and set up an initiative that helps Greek people?
It all started in the winter of 2011-2012, at the peak of the crisis. I decided that as a friend of Greece I had to do something and help in any way I could. I was posted in the Netherlands at the time and on my return, in February 2011, I had exactly 10 weeks to organise my first 12 Hours for Greece.

During those 10 weeks, I founded a charity organisation, booked a theatre, set up a 12-hour program with readings and dances and put together a fabulous music concert. I hardly slept during that period but the outcome was a great success that attracted lots of media attention and was received extremely well by thousands of people.

How did this year's fundraising go and are you pleased with the outcome?
On 22 October we organised the fifth consecutive 12 Hours for Greece event and I can safely say that the spirit is evident more than ever. We collected just over €35,000, which enables us to heat 40 schools and subsequently keep more than 7,000 children and their teachers warm during the winter months. I just came back from my first tour of northern Greece, between Alexandroupoli and Kavala, where we delivered fuel to eight of these schools. I will be back again in January, to visit another eight schools on the island of Samothraki and several others.

How long did it take you to collect the funds and attract sponsorships?
I work on this project all year round. In the first part of the year, I try to identify potential sponsors and spend a lot of time with them in order to show them what it is that we do. I also visit Belgian schools in an attempt to establish connections with schools in northern Greece.

Then I start planning for the concert, which is usually pencilled in for October. I select the performing artists, organise all bookings and travel arrangements and, together with a small organising committee we schedule meetings with Greek restaurant owners to encourage them to offer meals to people that need it most. Once we collect the funds from the concert, together with the International Foundation for Greece, we select the schools that will receive our assistance and start deliveries in December.

How hard was it to collect the funds and encourage people to donate towards this cause?
The project is now well known among the Greek community in Brussels, but of course, it's always difficult to collect money. Some people think the crisis is over just because Greece doesn't feature in the front pages of the world media any more. This perception is entirely incorrect.

I always invite those people to come with me and visit the schools so that they can see for themselves that the situation remains rather dramatic. There are hundreds of schools that struggle to purchase fuel. I saw the empty tanks.

How did the Greeks of Belgium welcome the initiative?
Brussels has a large and very well-organised Greek community of around 20,000 people. People here and in Greece are well aware of our initiative, therefore we receive a tremendous amount of support from the Greeks living in Belgium, as well as from many Belgians and foreigners living in Brussels.

How many schools did you visit in Greece and what was the reaction of the Greek people?
I initially organised a press conference in Athens on 12 December and the majority of the artists that performed in the Brussels' concert on 22 October (Lavrentis Machairitsas, Vassilis Lekkas, Alexandra Gravas, Petros Bouras) attended. That's always a very emotional and passionate moment for everyone. The artists describe their experiences from Brussels, their reasons for participating in the initiative and the feelings they brought back home from their time in Belgium.

Then, together with the president of the International Foundation for Greece, Aspasia Leventis, we flew to Alexandroupoli where we started fuel deliveries.

Overall, we travelled 400 kilometres in one day, going through from Alexandroupoli to Kavala and distributing fuel to eight schools. So far we have visited one school in Avanta (near Alexandroupoli), three schools at Stavroupoli near Xanthi, two in Paranesti (between Xanthi and Drama) and two in Nevrokopi (just south of the Bulgarian border).

I could never even attempt to describe and one could never fathom the emotions and reactions we experience at every school that we visit. Meeting with the school principals, the teachers, the students and their parents is such an amazing and moving experience that it fuels the soul with more energy to get back on the road and collect more funds for those people who need it the most.

You have written two books on Greece. You have set up a not-for-profit organisation whose aim is to assist the country in a time of turmoil, you own a house in Folegandros and you are always very complimentary towards our country. It seems like you have an endless love affair with Greece. Is that true?
I love Greece. I have always loved this country ever since I set foot in the harbour of Katakolon in the spring of 1969. It is a relationship that has been building up over all these years. My project for the schools is just a small token of appreciation for everything that Greece has given me and my wife, who is Greek, throughout the years. We both visit Greece as much as we can and stay at our little house in Folegandros, a beautiful little island in the Aegean.
The truth of it is, my love for Greece first started 45 years ago, and it hasn't stopped since.

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