A Greek Orthodox priest from Athens has been announced European citizen of the year, in a ceremony that took place at the European Parliament in Brussels on Tuesday.

Having served as vicar at the Saint George Church at Akadimia Platonos in Kolonos since 1998, Father Antonios Papanikolaou witnessed children not attend school or hang out on the streets as their parents were destitute or addicted to substances.

Father Antonios took initiative and started a basketball team in order to keep an eye on the children and establish a relationship with them.

With the support of his wife Stamatia Georgandi and members of the wider community who empathised the priest launched Ark of the World (Kivotos tou Kosmou) a charity that helps orphan and neglected children.

What started as a small organisation has evolved into one of the most important facilities in Greece, housing hundreds of children.

“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, 500 children of all ages come to the Ark”. “Our door will always be open for them,” Father Antonios said in a previous interview.

“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”.

Residents from Kolonos and neighbouring areas began to volunteer and donate to the Ark making housing and support programs possible for many kids regardless of religion and ethnicity, ensuring they stay off the streets and attend school.

Even though most children are Greek, Father Antonios has struggled to convince his parish to accept migrants.

“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”.

“For me, the Ark is God’s plan which pre-existed… God has blessed this task and we go on with His help,” he added, “Love devises ways and knows no borders or terms”.

Another two Greek NGOs received awards, “HOPEgenesis” and “Wind of Renewal” after they were nominated by SYRIZA EP and Vice-President Dimitris Papadimoulis, Elisa Wozenberg MEP and Miltiadis Kyrkos.

A total of 50 prizes were awarded to agencies and citizens from 26 EU Member States this year.