Reporting from the frontlines of history in Greece

About this project

Welcome to Borderland, a project of students in Princeton University’s first border-crossing global journalism seminar, “Reporting on the Frontlines in Greece.”

In June and July 2016,  students traveled to Athens and the island of Lesbos, notebooks and cameras in hand, to serve as eyewitnesses at a pivotal moment in world affairs. Their challenging assignment: Produce a compelling and rigorous first rough draft of history. Follow this site and #PrincetonGR in your social media, and join us on our journey along the border between  Europe and Asia, Christian and Muslim, modern and ancient, affluent and wanting. We call it the Borderland.

Overnight on March 15, 2016, this ship picked up several hundred refugees shortly after they launched from Turkish beaches under cloak of darkness, and delivered them safely to this dock on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Several hundred refugees launched westward under cloak of darkness from a Turkish beach on March 15, 2016. They were picked up by this ship before sunrise and delivered safely to this dock on the Greek island of Lesbos.


This seminar is co-sponsored by the Council of the Humanities, which is home to the Ferris Seminars in Journalism, and by the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, with the support of the Paul Sarbanes ’54 Fund for Hellenism and Public Service.

Greek hospitality is put to a religious test

ATHENS, Greece — Abdul rose just before sundown on one of the last days of the holy month of Ramadan. The 17-year-old refugee from Afghanistan was keeping odd hours, eating breakfast in place of dinner and passing the day in slumber.

Abdul, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy as a juvenile, lives in a shelter for underage refugees who arrived in Greece without parents. For many, this was their first Ramadan away from their families, and it was a lonely one.

“In Afghanistan, our father, mother, sister all fast. All people are doing it. Here, it’s different,” Abdul said. “It will be difficult for us, but we will not forget our religion.”

Abdul and his friends find themselves in one of the most homogeneous Christian nations in the world. Greece, which is 98 percent Orthodox Christian, hosted 1 million migrants on their way to other European countries. The vast majority of those passing through were Muslim.


Greece has won high praise for its hospitality toward the migrants. Some islanders on the front lines were even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Greeks take pride in this and point to their history to explain this reception.

But even given that proud history, academics and volunteers fear that the warm welcome of the last year could wear thin when the refugees start to integrate in a nation that has long resisted a multifaith identity.

Read the complete story on Religion News Service 


The Classroom Cure

Greece’s child refugees are at risk of becoming a ‘lost generation.’

Is education the answer?

By Hayley Roth and Iris Samuels

 ATHENS, Greece –– Two young boys with skinny frames, buzzed hair and bright t-shirts jostled beneath the hot Greek sun. But as humanitarian workers approached, it became clear the children weren’t playing.

One, originally from Afghanistan, jabbed his finger at the other and yelled, “Kurdish, no good, no good!”

“They started getting aggressive,” recalled Sultan Ozcan of the aid organization Save the Children, who witnessed the scene at a refugee camp in the Greek village of Oinofyta. “They don’t know what is right and what is wrong.”

She places much of the blame for that and similar incidents played out across Greece on a lack of formal education, and the absence of the social cohesiveness nurtured by group learning activities. That vacuum in education is a looming challenge that threatens to set a generation adrift, according to interviews conducted across Greece with top government officials, academics, aid workers and refugees.

Since the escalation of the Syrian civil war early last year and a rise in violence throughout the Middle East, more than 1 million people have fled to Greece, their gateway to the European Union. Most migrants considered the debt-ridden Hellenic Republic as just their first step in a long journey north — not a destination for families looking to rebuild their lives.

But earlier this year, Europe closed its internal borders to undocumented migrants, effectively stranding 60,000 inside Greece. Some now are beginning to realize that they may be here for a very long time – if not the rest of their lives.

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History Repeats

By Iris Samuels

The Benaki Museum in Athens is an unlikely place to find teenagers on a hot summer afternoon. Yet on a recent Saturday, two 16-year-old boys were roaming amid ancient statues and Ottoman-era jugs, arms crossed awkwardly over gangly bodies. They were fascinated.

In their t-shirts and sneakers, they looked like nothing so much as Greek schoolboys on holiday. But Karim and Amir were refugees [GlobalReporting is not using their real names to protect their families abroad.]

They fled Afghanistan early this year because, they said, staying would risk pressure from ISIS or the Taliban to join their causes. They are part of a contingent of refugees younger than 18  who have journeyed to Greece all alone.

On the third floor of the museum, they came across an image of the city of Smyrna — modern day Izmir, Turkey — engulfed in flames in 1922. The painting depicts what Greeks call The Catastrophe, a war that sent one million Turkish Christians into small unseaworthy boats bound for Greece. For the boys, this was not the first time they had considered the parallel between this historical event and their own journey out of Izmir by boat, just a few weeks earlier.


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Behind the wire

By Amanda Blanco

For those trapped inside of the place known as Moria, razor wire doubles as clothesline. Jeans and t-shirts drape over barbed spindles, and makeshift tents crafted from blankets use the fence as support.

Located on the Greek island of Lesbos, Moria was established in late September 2013 as a registration site for refugees who arrived on its azure shores seeking asylum. Greek officials meant it to be a short-term home and temporary sanctuary, not a long-term detention center. But since the signing of the EU-Turkey agreement in March 2016, that has become its destiny.



Refugees inside Moria hang laundry on the barbed-wire fences that surround the camp.


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Omonia After Dark

By Amanda Blanco

ATHENS, Greece — The first rule of survival in the red light district of Omonia is to think fast and act even faster. Built around one of the oldest town squares in Athens, Omonia used to be a center of commercial activity. But Greece’s ongoing financial crisis and the recent refugee crisis have taken a toll on the district.

At 9:30 p.m. on a typical Thursday night, men gather in clutches in front of dingy hostels and windowless bars. Their eyes sweep left to right as they swig cans of beer and survey their prospects. Young women in tank tops and jeans stand at regular intervals, their own eyes alert for danger, whether it from be a customer, a policeman or an irate pimp.

A woman leans against a payphone, her gaunt silhouette visible against the dim streetlight. Another wears glittery pink lipstick and blue eye shadow. She offers her younger co-workers a friendly smile and reassuring small talk. The way she rests her hands above her slightly swollen stomach suggests the possibility of a recent pregnancy. Amid it all, a family of tourists ambles by, oblivious to the drama in action. The children, blond and tan, scamper past a woman with a high ponytail and a baby-blue crop top. Her eyes follow them, the smallest intersection of two parallel worlds.

Across the street, Maria Galinou watches the scene unfold from her parked sedan. “Look at these people!” she exclaims, referring to the tourists. “They have no idea.” Galinou, who works for the Salvation Army, has visited this district of Omonia every week since 2014, building relationships with the women who live here. Galinou was instrumental in bringing the charity organization to her home-city in 2012. Now she directs the Green Light Project, a team trained to work with victims of human trafficking.

Galinou on the front lines. If “you touch the trafficking, you touch the girls,” she says. While she uses her motherly appearance to disarm the traffickers’ suspicions, Galinou is savvier than she may appear. After years of experience, she now notices the slightest interactions, physical gestures, and power shifts. “As they watch, we watch,” she says, “When they act, we act.”

Walking distance from the brothels is a three-story yellow building where Galinou runs a Salvation Army center. There, women can find temporary solace. In the streets, Galinou says the human traffickers are in charge. “Their territory, their word,” she says, “but when they come into my territory, it’s my rules.” Continue reading

Lesbos: The Waiting Game

By Hayley Roth

Take a walk down the main street of Mytilene, the capital of the Greek island of Lesbos, and you’ll see freshly-scrubbed storefronts, colorful awnings and potted plants. Hotels, restaurants and travel agencies face the placid waters of the Aegean. Docked boats scrape against the sidewalks. Shopkeepers lounge in doorways, squinting at the sun. But the scene is incomplete.

“We don’t have tourists,” explained Diamonto Kordogianni, a young woman who works at a waterfront kiosk that sells information pamphlets, t-shirts, and trinkets targeted toward vacationers. Its shelves are overstocked and no one is buying. “It’s difficult. We don’t have jobs.”



Kordogianni’s kiosk on Mytilene’s main street ibrimming with merchandise.  


Lesbos is situated a mere five miles off the western coast of Turkey. In the past year, the island witnessed the influx of more than 850,000 refugees from the Middle East, all seeking asylum in the European Union. According to Marios Andriotis, senior advisor to the mayor of Lesbos, the crisis peaked in September 2015.


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Paradise lost

By Harrison Blackman

Four months have passed since the European Union outlawed undocumented migration from Turkey, effectively trapping new arrivals from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan in camps in Greece. As of July, United Nations statistics show that the agreement has cut arrivals by sea from the peak of 210,000 people a month in October 2015 to a markedly smaller 1,554 over the month of June.

Yet despite the relative quiet of Lesbos today,  the migration crisis continues to shadow the Greek island at the center of the storm. Frustration stews in the remaining camps, and Lesbos’ once-vibrant tourism scene has evaporated. No place on the island of 630 square miles appears to remain untouched.

“I think the island will never be the same,” said Marios Andriotis-Konstantinos, an adviser to the mayor of Mytilene, Lesbos’ capital and port city.

“But I hope the island will never be the same in a positive way.”

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Island hospitality, refugee style

By Alexandra Markovich

The office of the mayor of Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos island, overlooks the Aegean Sea. Huge windows open onto the city’s port, where discarded boats that once carried refugees to the island are still docked. Less than 10 miles separate the island from Turkey’s coast.

Marios Andriotis-Konstantios, the senior advisor to the mayor of Mytilene, is quick to praise the local government for its treatment of some 3,000 refugees stranded on Lesbos after the EU-Turkey deal was made in March. Some wait for asylum applications to be processed in Greece, some to be relocated to countries like Germany, but most await deportation to Turkey.

In celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, Andriotis-Konstantios said the migrants on Lesvos enjoyed “exceptional festivities.” He said the mayor’s office ordered two tons of dates and commissioned a Syrian musical group.

“The festivities lasted for five days. Our biggest Greek Orthodox holiday lasts only three days!” Andriotis-Konstantios said, praising the efforts of the community to make Eid-al-Fitr special for refugees. Andriotis-Konstantios cites the celebration as only the island’s latest expression of hospitality.


boats seized

Boats seized from human smugglers line the harbor of Mytilene (Joe Stephens)


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The Sympathy of Greece

By Hayley Roth

It’s hot. A little boy runs across the sizzling asphalt to avoid burning his bare feet. He takes a bottle of water and pours it over his head and shoulders, shrieking with laughter.

Another boy, even younger, toddles forward. He can barely support himself on unsteady legs. His shirt reads “DUSSELDORF: meine leibe.” He isn’t German.

Further away, a girl of five or six drags a doll behind her as she runs toward a cluster of tents. Her dark, curly hair is tied back in a messy ponytail.

These children aren’t anomalies. An independent Greek support group, known as Refugees Welcome to Piraeus, says that 165 of the 835 refugees living beneath a roaring highway just off Gate E2 of the Port of Piraeus are under 11 years of age. For their parents, strips of asphalt in Athens are preferable to houses in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other homelands rocked by instability and violence.


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Art amid refuge

By Iris Samuels | 7/11/16

Art scene: A term evoking the gallery-lined streets of lower Manhattan, or the resplendent museums of Paris.

Then there is Ritsona, a refugee camp an hour north of Athens. Worlds apart, its scene is vibrant, nonetheless.

Home to 600 migrants, mostly from Syria and Iraq, Ritsona at first seems a bustling summer camp. Children run barefoot while cicadas hum in surrounding pines.


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Lost in Piraeus

By Iris Samuels

At the foot of Athens’ monumental Acropolis, many languages can be heard as foreigners take in the sights. The steps leading to the ancient Parthenon are worn slick from the generations of tourists who have come to marvel at one of the world’s most impressive landmarks. It is easy to forget that, a short distance away, refugees are treated to a far different welcome.

A child at play in the refugee camp at Piraeus Port

A child at play in the refugee camp at Piraeus Port (Iris Samuels)

At the Port of Piraeus, 20­ minutes away from city center, a thousand refugees have found a temporary home. Ropes strung between highway support beams serve as both laundry lines and makeshift walls. In the heat, every piece of shade is put to use. Men and women sit at the entrance to their colorful tents, legs folded, doing nothing. Strollers are strewn next to empty water jugs. An underwear-clad child runs across the sweltering expanse of asphalt, clutching a water bottle. He stops in front of a makeshift encampment composed of tents, plastic barricades and blankets bearing the logo UNHCR, for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Yelling happily, he pours the water over his head.

As the tourist season revs up in Athens, the port docks glamorous cruise ships and large ferries that shuttle back and forth from the Greek islands. But between gates E1 and E2, the view is different: a row of blue portable toilets stand opposite a row of tents, pitched in the shade of an elevated highway. The sun beats down relentlessly, and the sound of cars from the highway gives a sense of restlessness.


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Athens at First, Second and Third Glance

By Hayley Roth

It has been seven days in Athens, and the experience is somewhat like eating an exotic fruit for the first time. Its surface beauty is striking but bite into it to discover the real content. Our task, as six student journalists from Princeton, New Jersey, is to get to the core of the city in five weeks.

On day one, I was picked up from the airport by the soft-spoken middle-aged Mr. Panayiotis, and we walked together into the blistering Athenian heat. It took me about 30 seconds to realize that he was soft-spoken because he could understand only a smattering of English words, and didn’t like trying. But he loaded me and my suitcase into the little taxi and we zoomed inland in silence on a dusty, near-empty highway with a stunning overlook of the white city below.

whitecityoutlook The city of Athens.

It was midday, and the streets were empty. The heat had driven people into apartments and cafes and even beyond the city limits to the beaches and islands. The buildings, stuccoed and whitewashed, were maddeningly reflective. The sun felt different here– not just hotter, but bigger. Closer. Brighter. The cars were reflective, too. Most are gray, white, or yellow, managing to invoke the colors of the sky and the asphalt together. “Dingy” and “garish” are adjectives that came to mind. But lift your eyes and there is the glistening Acropolis.


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The Muslim Matriarch

Anna Stamou sits in her living room in Athens on June 29. She is the Marketing Director of the Muslim Association of Greece, and one of a small population of Muslims in Athens.

Anna Stamou sits in her living room in Athens on June 29. She is the Marketing Director of the Muslim Association of Greece, and one of a small population of Muslims in Athens. (Alexandra Markovich)

By Alexandra Markovich

Just after the sun sets, Anna Stamou covers her dining room table with platefuls of food to break the Ramadan fast. She pulls a stew of Egyptian sausages from the oven and sets it on the table, followed by a bowl of Egyptian salad.

Then, spanakopita, a Greek spinach pie, unexpectedly becomes the centerpiece. When Stamou finally sits down, the table is crammed with an odd collection of traditional Greek and North African food.

Stamou is one of some 600,000 Muslims living in Greece, making up about five percent of a largely Greek Orthodox Christian nation. Stamou, a native Greek, converted to Islam 17 years ago. She is married to Naim Elghandour, who moved from Egypt to Greece 19 years ago.

When I ask her about the food she is serving, Stamou says it is “all Greek.”  Egyptian salad—chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions—is just the chopped-up version of Greek salad, she says, save the olives.


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First Impressions: Port of Piraeus


Tents at Athens' Port of Piraeus

Tents at Athens’ Port of Piraeus

By Amanda Blanco

Section E2 of the industrial Port of Piraeus was never meant to be called home. But since closure of Greece’s borders, that is exactly what it has become for roughly 1,000 refugees.  Their tents cluster under a highway overpass, squeezing together to escape the blistering sun.

“The image speaks for itself,” says Negia Milian, a volunteer camp director from a Piraeus-based group supporting the refugees. Milian, a former  Cuban refugee, emphasizes that her group is not a so-called Non-Governmental Organization, or NGO. However, there are several NGOs working at Piraeus, including the Red Cross and Save the Children.


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St. Paul’s Day at the Areopagus

By Harrison Blackman and Amanda Blanco

The Book of Acts describes how the Apostle Paul traveled to Athens in the first century A.D. and visited town leaders on a large outcropping  below the Acropolis, at a spot known as Areopagus Hill.

Acts 17:23 quotes Paul as saying; “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

After the homily, the passage tells us, “Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.” The sermon’s influence had been established for history.  

More than two millennia later, on June 29, 2016, the celebration of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul was alive and well on the Areopagus Hill. 

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The heat

By Harrison Blackman

From June 15 to June 19, the daily high temperature for Athens jumped from 82 degrees to 102 Fahrenheit. From June 19 forward, the heat has been on.

Taverna operators hustle to rope overheated tourists into their air-conditioned restaurants. The city’s ubiquitous street kiosks — the periptera — are stocked with bottles of Zagori mineral water, Mythos beer and Coca-Cola. In the morning, Athenians crowd into Metro trains, looking tired with anticipation of the heat outside and above.  The city’s cafes are packed and, by the university, they are packed with students sweating in a different kind of way as they pour over textbooks and hunch over laptops, cramming for merciless exam schedules.


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Getting to know Greek literature: A look inside Aiora Press

By Harrison Blackman

While ancient Greek literature has been celebrated for millennia, outside of Greece few are aware that substantial fiction has come out of the Hellenic Republic in the last 150 years.

Many Greek publishing houses publish only in Greek, or translate international bestsellers into the local language, compounding the problem.  As result, Greek literature has never gotten the international attention of Latin America’s  magic realism or Scandinavia’s noir crime fiction.

One publisher in Athens is trying to change that. Aiora Press is extending the reach of modern Greek literature.

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Yoga, therapy and a welcoming network

By Amanda Blanco

Tucked away on a side street off Victoria Square in Athens is a house whose door is always open. It is the home of Melissa Network, an organization for the empowerment of migrant women and children.

A marble staircase, lined with children’s artwork, leads visitors to an open landing. Whitewashed arches reveal a reception area for visitors, a living room, and a garden patio.


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Ai Weiwei comes to Lesbos

By James Haynes

ATHENS — Ai Weiwei has made bringing attention to crises a lifelong effort. As the Chinese artist once told an interviewer, “If my art has nothing to do with people’s pain and sorrow, what is ‘art’ for?”

Most recently, he has been pointing attention toward Greece. He first visited Athens and the island of Lesbos last year, when thousands of refugees were washing ashore from Turkey daily . He quickly established a studio here, and in May the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens showcased the studio’s work by opening the artist’s first major exhibition in Greece.


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