A crisis within a crisis: Refugees in Lesbos

Two families – one Greek, one Iraqi – come together in a Lesbos hotel, looking for stability amid their own crises.

Refugees in Greek hotel feature/DO NOT USE
Dimitrios Makris was the first hotel owner to take action when the snow came, as he drove to Moria camp to bring refugee families to stay in his hotel [Talitha Brauer/Al Jazeera]

Lesbos, Greece – Upstairs in the Blue Star hotel, Iman* cooks a large pasta dish and makes tea; a luxury after going without her own stove for more than a year. After dinner, the Alsamaray family* disperses.

Khalil, Iman’s husband, catches up on the latest news from the family’s hometown of Mosul, Iraq. Jamil, 13, goes out, while his sisters Amani and Aliya, 10-year-old twins, lie in bed and watch YouTube videos until they fall asleep.

The family had lived for 10 months in an overcrowded migrant centre in Lesbos, Greece until January, when they moved in to the hotel as part of a United Nations initiative to place vulnerable refugees in better housing during the winter.

Since 2015, more than a million refugees have come through Greece, often on their way to western Europe. Like the Alsamarays, thousands remain stranded until their asylum claims are processed; they find themselves in a crisis within a crisis, fleeing violence only to often spend more than a year in a country stretched thin over the past decade by a financial crisis.

READ MORE: Greece – the fishermen of Lesbos saving refugee lives

While their refugee guests dine upstairs, the Makris family tries to wind down after a long day. They clear the table from the catering delivered to feed asylum seekers and hotel owner Dimitrios Makris fields calls. There’s a long list of tasks to be completed in time for the tourist season, even if in recent years fewer tourists have been arriving.

At a time of unprecedented economic strife when Greeks are struggling to get by, the refugee crisis adds to the pressure on Greece – while also providing some locals with much-needed income.

Inside these crises, the Alsamarays and the Makrises each fight to survive. Both families know that life can be upended overnight and what it means to be exiled, and both fear their best days are behind them. But, at least for a moment, under one roof, they also give each other what they desperately need: a measure of stability among the uncertainty.

The Alsamaray family: ‘I forgot the fear when I saw Greece’

Amani and Aliya are typical pre-teens, sassy and busy developing their sense of style. They love pinks and purples, wear skinny pants, and worry about their long brown hair being messed up after wearing a hat.

And they love Mytilini, the capital of Lesbos about 10 kilometres from their home at the Blue Star hotel.

“We love the people, the shopping, the coffee,” Aliya says. Although the twins complain they hardly visit because their parents won’t let them go alone.

As the girls adapt to their new world, their parents look to their old lives.

Refugees Got Talent – Witness

“In Iraq, we had jobs, my house was good, and we had a car,” says 33-year-old Iman. She was a preschool teacher and Khalil was a mechanic.

But after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) took over Mosul – Iraq’s second city – in 2014, everything changed. “Women had to be covered all in black; men couldn’t smoke; if you were Christian or another religion, you had to convert.”

A year later, ISIL executed one of Khalil’s brothers in the middle of the street, accusing him of defying ISIL rules about travelling to Baghdad, and forced the family to watch.

In February 2016, the Alsamarays fled to Turkey, intent on finally reaching Sweden, where another of Khalil’s brothers has sought asylum.

After multiple attempts to cross, and a one-month stint in Turkish detention, they arrived in Lesbos nearly two months later.

Greece represented a new life. When their rubber boat reached Lesbos, Iman cried because she thought they were going to be safe. “I forgot the fear when I saw Greece,” she says.

The Alsamaray family picnic with a Syrian family who live in a nearby hotel in Thermis [Talitha Brauer/Al Jazeera]
The Alsamaray family picnic with a Syrian family who live in a nearby hotel in Thermis [Talitha Brauer/Al Jazeera]

But as days turned into months at the refugee camp near the village of Moria, that happiness turned into despair.

Moria camp – a former prison surrounded by chain-link fences and barbed wire – was initially a reception centre to process migrants and asylum seekers, but it became a long-term housing facility. There was no privacy in the crowded centre; the Alsamarays shared a room with six other families. 

Khalil was afraid for the family’s safety and Iman was always sick. With little to keep people busy, many of the men drink to pass the time. Frustrated locals complain of petty theft. There have been fires and sometimes fights break out.

Human rights groups note a rise in suicide attempts and self-harming in the housing facilities, including by children. In January, Iman was at the doctor’s when her neighbours brought in her daughter Aliya. She had tried to kill herself with a knife.

“She witnessed the brutal killing of her uncle in Iraq and has serious suicidal thoughts, weight loss, depression and suicidal attempts,” a doctor’s note from January 17 reads. She needed immediate care and “a safe place to live”.

READ MORE: Why some refugees in Greece are being driven to suicide

Every time Aliya saw people leave the camp for Athens or another country, she cried, Iman says – afraid that, if they weren’t leaving, it meant they would be deported and that she would have to face ISIL again.

Even now, just driving by the camp is a trigger. “Please don’t take me to Moria, please don’t take me to Moria,” Aliya pleads if they pass the camp.

Refugees Got Talent – Witness

Moving to the hotel meant they have the sea in their backyard, a park and a puppy to play with.

Inside the small hotel studio, the twins decorated the headboard of their bed with stickers and lined it with stuffed animals. In the other room, they have their own kitchen and table where the family can eat together and a private bathroom.

The twins also picked up fishing. Every morning they run to the back of the hotel, retrieve spools of fishing line hidden in the rocky harbour, and mix old pitta bread softened with sweet milk which they use as bait.

As the twins fish, they glimpse the snow-capped mountains in Turkey, where they pray never to return, and the ferries heading to Athens, where they hope their journey to a new life will begin.

Amani and Aliya are enjoying a bit of normality, but the Blue Star isn’t home and the Alsamarays have learned over the past few years that circumstances can switch in a moment.

A lesson many Greeks know all too well.

The Makris family: ‘I want to stay here, but how can I find the money?’

For Dimitrios and his family it was never a question of whether they should host refugees.

While some hotel owners worried about the wear and tear in the rooms or a potential backlash from tourists, for the Makrises it was a humanitarian issue.

Forty-seven-year-old Dimitrios’ grandparents fled their home in 1923, when more than a million Greeks were expelled from Turkey and nearly half a million Muslims were sent the other way.

While they were growing up, Dimitrios and Toula heard stories about their grandparents; how they had lost their transportation business between Greece and Turkey, a big ship and a large home; how they arrived in Germany with only a small suitcase.

A family portrait of the Makris family from 1938: Dimitrios's grandparents Efthimios and Stratigoula Makris with their son Dimitrios and daughter Akindinoula. [Talitha Brauer/Al Jazeera]
A family portrait of the Makris family from 1938: Dimitrios’s grandparents Efthimios and Stratigoula Makris with their son Dimitrios and daughter Akindinoula. [Talitha Brauer/Al Jazeera]

Forty years later, Dimitrios’ parents had to leave Greece to become guest workers in Germany, where they lived for 15 years, raised their daughter Toula, had Dimitrios, and slowly built up hotels in Lesbos. Before the economic crisis, Dimitrios and his family had expanded their business ventures in Lesbos, including other hotels, a restaurant by the sea, a nightclub, an internet cafe, and a crepe shop.

Because Lesbos traditionally relied mostly on Greek tourists visiting the island’s historic churches and thermal springs, when the economy tanked, Lesbos was one of the first places to be hit, as many tourists – Greek and foreign – stopped coming.

“It was like a domino effect,” says Dimitrios. “Every year we would put more money into the businesses because we expected things would be better the following year, but things only got worse.”

In 2009, he closed the nightclub. Other businesses followed one by one until 2011, when Dimitrios and his wife Michelle left for Germany to find work that would keep the family’s two hotels open; finding jobs as waiters in a banquet hall in Frankfurt. They returned to Greece last year to help run the hotel business again.

When refugees recently started arriving in Lesbos, the family opened their doors. They invited refugees inside to rest, they made them cups of tea and fed them.

IN PHOTOS: Lesbos – The refugee crisis in 2015; the island today

The already hard conditions in the camp became worse in the harsh winter. Some people sleeping in tents burned cardboard, plastic and scraps of wood inside the tents for warmth. In November, a woman and child died after a gas canister attached to a hot plate exploded inside their tent. In January, another three men would die and a fourth was left in critical condition in another incident – the cause of death is not yet clear.

When snow fell in January, Dimitrios drove to the camp in Moria to pick up families and take them to the hotel.

Greece: May Day rally against more austerity

Since January, the Blue Star has hosted 60 people through the UNHCR and the Greek non-profit Iliaktida. The UN pays between 20 and 28 euros ($21.8 and $30.6) per person per day, depending on the type of catering. While it helped offset some of the losses from tourism, Dimitrios says it is still a relatively small amount of money.

Dimitrios says he is not sure how much longer he can afford to stay, as Greece remains mired in economic strife and the tourists remain scarce. Yet another Greek default may loom, while there is little sign that austerity will be eased. Perhaps he will have to return to Germany again to work.

From one side of the hotel, thick olive groves dot the landscape. On the other, there is deep blue sea.

“I want to stay here, but how can I find the money?” asks Dimitrios.

Leaving the hotel

Inside the Blue Star hotel, both families say they consider each other friends. But the language barrier keeps them from really getting to know one another.

As much as Greeks sympathise with refugees, still they see them as different. The refugees have usually heard about Greece’s economic troubles, but to them it is abstract. They look around and all they see are people who have what they don’t.

Many Greeks worry about the impact of refugees. Since 2015, the municipality of Lesbos has spent more than five million euros ($5.5m) on refugee-related expenses, a source in the Ministry of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Media told Al Jazeera. Lesbos municipality opened a cemetery, a migrant centre to house asylum seekers, and the hospital had to take thousands more patients.

Some locals are also concerned about what will happen as the refugees move on. Fewer people are coming since the EU-Turkey deal. The number of refugees stranded in Lesbos dropped to below 3,000. While placing refugees in hotels was only a temporary solution, hotel owners in places such as Mytilini or other cities where migrants are hosted also benefited from the aid workers and government officials who came to help.

Placing refugees in hotels is only a temporary solution, and asylum seekers are being sent to apartments, to the mainland or to other migrant centres; hosting refugees is not a long-term business model.

“The future is investments from the Greek government to renovate the thermal baths, to encourage investment,” says Dimitrios’ wife Michelle.

IN PICTURES: Life in Greece’s Elliniko refugee camp

The refugees are meant to leave Dimitrios’ hotel as the UN refugee agency’s programme is ending; the Alsamarays are supposed to go to Kara Tepe, a camp ran by the municipality of Lesbos.

The UN’s refugee agency says Kara Tepe offers a safe environment for families.”The conditions at the facility are adequate and services are available on site, including medical and psychosocial support,” spokesman Leo Dobb says. The bathrooms are shared, though, and Iman will have to give up her stove.

The family refuses to go. Iman says they feel that her daughter’s psychological concerns should have been enough to get the family transferred to an apartment.

“I cannot continue to see my children in this situation,” Iman says. “I’m tired.”

*The ‘Alsamaray’ family have been given pseudonyms to protect their children’s identities.

Dimitrios and his two-year-old son Efthimios walk every day around Thermis harbour. Thermis is home to 900 Greeks and 50 refugees [Talitha Brauer/Al Jazeera]
Dimitrios and his two-year-old son Efthimios walk every day around Thermis harbour. Thermis is home to 900 Greeks and 50 refugees [Talitha Brauer/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera