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Story Publication logo December 5, 2014

Syrian Refugees Find Little Comfort in Greece

Rafat and Naif on the overlook in the Black Forest near Zell am Hammersbach, Germany. Image by Holly Pickett. Germany, 2014.

Thousands of displaced Syrians have made treacherous journeys across land and sea to the safe haven...

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Police holding camp for undocumented migrants on Chios Island, Greece, Oct. 4, 2014. After the Coast Guard has processed new arrivals, Syrian asylum seekers will spend a few days, or sometimes longer, locked in this detention camp while the police complete the paperwork for a temporary stay in Greece. Image by Holly Pickett. Greece, 2014.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The financially strapped country of Greece has spent years trying to dig itself out of an economic hole. And now it's also dealing with an influx of refugees from Syria. Around 30,000 Syrian refugees are expected to enter Europe through Greece this year. Though they tried to move onto richer countries, many of these refugees get stuck in Greece where conditions are growing more dire. With help from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, journalist Joanna Kakissis has the story.

JOANNA KAKISSIS: Syrian teenager Dania Olywi saw her family split up last year after the Islamic State captured her hometown of Raqqa in Northern Syria. Her pregnant mother fled first to Turkey. Smugglers took her by boat to Greece, then by plane to Sweden. Attempting to join her, Olywi and her younger sister boarded two small, inflatable motorboats with their father and 20 other Syrians when Olywi's boat started sinking near the Greek Island of Chios.

DANIA OLYWI: Our boat drowning. We were having problems. Everyone was screaming, and I was so scared.

KAKISSIS: They were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard. Officer Stefanos Tsagetas led the crew that found them. Tsagetas took me on a short night patrol recently. He says he and his colleagues rescue people here every day; most are Syrians.

OFFICER STEFANOS TSAGETAS: (Through translator) The number of people we're seeing has gone up 200 percent in the last two years. And that's because of the war.

KAKISSIS: I look out at the dark water and see craggy outlines of land.

TSAGETAS: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: I point to a hill of lights in the distance. That's Karaburun, a Turkish village, Tsagetas says. Smugglers often launch boats there. But boats depart from so many other areas, too, he says. That's why we practically have to be everywhere at once.

The sea is a dangerous way to enter Europe. Nearly 3,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean this year. Those rescued by the Chios Coast Guard arrive to a bare-bones shelter with no toilet, shower or running water. There, I visit Joud al-Bakri, an 18-year-old aspiring pilot from Aleppo. She sits on the floor of a wooden shack the size of a bedroom.

How many people are in this little house here?

JOUD AL-BAKRI: I guess 20.


AL-BAKRI: Maybe, yeah.

KAKISSIS: Is it comfortable?

AL-BAKRI: No, it's not. Actually, when you're sleeping, you just can't move.

KAKISSIS: The shack is crowded. Everyone sleeps on the floor.

AL-BAKRI: It's really hard even to sleep here without anything. And some people are sleeping outside, which is freezing.

KAKISSIS: As Turkish tourists and Greek locals listen to music and eat grilled fish at nearby taverns, the refugees huddle on the ground, their clothes still wet from sea water. Manolis Vournous, the mayor of Chios, is so disturbed by this site that he's donated the city council's giant meeting hall for extra sleeping quarters. He knows government resources are stretched, but he wishes Greece and the European Union would do more to help refugees.

MAYOR MANOLIS VOURNOUS: It's just that you must look after somebody who's in very difficult situation. What we should do about them? I think we should just give them a place to sleep and something to eat, proper clothes and a place to wash themselves.

KAKISSIS: The Coast Guard does give them two meals a day, and they are legally allowed to stay in Greece for six months. But they often leave sooner. Most hire smugglers in Athens to take them to northern European countries like Sweden where Dania Olywi's family was recently reunited.

But those who run out of money, like 28-year-old Sam Khaled, get stuck in Greece, which offers no benefits to refugees. His father sold his moped repair shop to send him to Europe. Last week, Khaled joined more than 200 Syrians on a protest and hunger strike outside parliament in Athens.

SAM KHALED: We are not greedy. We don't ask for, you know, like, thousands, or I don't know what. But we need just, like, normal shelter and normal food. But they said sorry, we can't provide it.

KAKISSIS: Greek officials told the Syrians that they had too many of their own impoverished citizens to look after. Khaled slept outside with the protesters for a few days. Then he returned to the tiny apartment he shares with 10 other Syrians. But his rent money has run out. He's worried that he will have to sleep outside soon. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.


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