COMMUNITY

In Greek seaside resort, refugees see dreams put on hold

NICHOLAS PAPHITIS

TAGS: Migration

At the end of a long, straight road on the coastal flats between the southern Greek village of Myrsini and the Ionian Sea sits a refugee shelter that could have popped out of a travel brochure.

The 338 Syrians and Iraqis who have been living there since March say they’re grateful to be safe in seaside bungalows, but getting restless, eager to continue journeys they hope will take them to the more prosperous nations of western Europe.

Local authorities volunteered the resort, which had been abandoned for years, to a Greek government that encountered strong opposition from some other communities as it quickly tried to build camps for tens of thousands of stranded refugees.

About a million people fleeing war or poverty in the Middle East and Africa arrived in Greece from neighboring Turkey between January 2015 and March 2016, when a series of countries further north closed their borders. New arrivals have since dropped to a few thousand, mainly because of a new European Union deal for Turkey to host people who otherwise would have arrived by boat, but about 54,000 remain stranded in dozens of official camps — and two makeshift tent cities — across Greece, awaiting asylum in the financially broken country or relocation elsewhere on the continent.

Most of the organized camps consist of boxy prefabricated units or canvas tents, set up hurriedly by the military. About 1,300 people live in the former arrivals area of the old Athens airport, and another 2,100 in defunct sports venues built for the 2004 Olympics.

In several cases, local communities bucked sharply at their selection to host migrant shelters, some ploughing the appointed sites overnight or fighting for days with riot police.

Not so in Myrsini, part of the municipality of Andravida and Kyllini. Municipality Mayor Nampil Morant is a Syrian immigrant himself, who married a Greek woman and settled in nearby Lechaina almost three decades ago. But he says that wasn’t what motivated his municipal council’s decision.

"We could see the dramatic situation of these refugees, the children that drowned at sea, the difficulties they face — and that can’t leave you untouched," said Morant, a Paris- and Brussels-educated doctor born in Homs, a city ravaged by Syrias civil war. In 2014 he became the first immigrant to win a Greek local election.

"The site was useless to us, it had been abandoned and was in the middle of a court process," he said. "So we told the central government: ‘Look, this place is in a mess. If you want, you can have it, fix it up and put them there.’" The Syrians and Iraqis, mostly families of women and children, moved there from a squalid encampment of thousands that sprang up on the quays of Piraeus, the port of Athens where Aegean island ferries dock.

Morant says he believes things have worked well so far, so much so that refugees from other parts of Greece are turning up on their own. But they’re sent away because Morant wants people to live in proper facilities, not in tents.

In the camp, men play volleyball, children throng a playground, mothers hang washing outside the ochre-painted bungalows and young women chat on the beach. At least one baby has been born here and was entered by Morant in the local birth register.

It’s a carefree, sheltered existence. But the refugees are antsy. They risked their lives to reach Greece in flimsy boats, paying a small fortune to smuggling gangs, with the ultimate aim of starting a new life. Now that’s been suspended, with no clear indication of how long they may have to wait.

Heba Algafer, an English student from Damascus, says it’s time to move on.

"We don’t need a place to live or OK food, we don’t need this life," she said. "We need to travel, to find a place to stay, and work, and learn."

Algafer and her fiance, Damascus car mechanic Ahmed Qasem, crossed to the island of Samos on a boat crammed with nearly 70 people on March 19, a day before the cut-off date after which any refugees reaching Greece are liable for deportation to Turkey, under the agreement with the European Union. They landed destitute, as smugglers forced them to dump their bags with all their cash and belongings into the sea, to make space for more passengers.

The couple is now impatient to register for relocation to Sweden, where Qasem’s mother has lived for the past five years. His father, a schoolteacher, remains in Syria.

Wis Najjar, 53, a house painter and furniture polisher from Aleppo, has already registered, together with his wife and three sons. But he, too, is frustrated with the wait.

"It’s good here, and the people are good, they help a lot and Im very grateful," Najjar said. "I did my papers a month ago and am waiting, but I wish the process was quicker. All day it’s sleep, food, sleep, food — that’s not a proper life. I want to work, and the boys to go to school or work."

Morant said he expects the camp will start to empty after September. Some 60 percent of the residents are women with children who should be accepted by countries their husbands have already reached. Another 20 percent, he says, want asylum in Greece, while the rest will either be relocated in Europe or will return to Syria.

While local councilors overwhelmingly backed the camp, what Morant describes as a "small minority" of residents initially opposed it, citing fears of crime, disease or religious discord with the Muslim refugees.

"I had some elderly constituents telling me that they would shut themselves in with shotguns to protect themselves," he said. "Well, now the same elderly people are going to the camp to hand over useful items to the refugees."

Camp residents say they feel welcome.

"They are very good people here, they have given me lifts to and from the camp," Qasem said. "Once when I was in the village it started to rain and somebody gave me an umbrella."

He plays a video on his mobile phone shot on the sea journey to Greece, when he says Turkish officials fired warning shots in the air and tried to puncture the rubber boat to stop them. He says he will keep the footage to show his children.

"I want them to see what happened to us," Qasem said. [AP]

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