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 (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.
Piraeus has seen the passage of more than a million refugees during the past year, as they tried to make the journey from their war-torn home countries, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan, to a safer and more promising future in Germany and other countries in northern Europe. When the borders were closed this past February, the refugees were thwarted, resorting to makeshift camps throughout Greece. At its peak, the port was home to 6,000 refugees. Of those, many have been relocated to official camps facilitated by the Greek military, where they await resettlement.
Those who remain in Piraeus today are among the least-fortunate refugees in Greece. While the official camps provide social and medical support, here the assistance is minimal. Even so, many choose to remain. “Being in a port, you feel like you’re going somewhere,” says Negia Milian, who has been volunteering here since refugees first began arriving. Some refugees have been offered better accommodations in a remote village, but have refused to leave. Milian explains that some still have hope the borders will reopen, though such hope is quickly dwindling.
During a recent event on the refugee crisis, Theodoros Dritsas, Greek minister of shipping, promised the camp would be cleared by July 20, by transferring the remaining refugees to the official camps. However, when asked about this plan, Milian shook her head. “We’ve been hearing that since April,” she said. She plans to continue volunteering as long as refugees remain in the port, and sees no end in sight.
With her maternal, wise expression, Milian is trusted by both refugees and the many aid workers stationed here. She stands under the shade of a canopy beside a container spray-painted with the phrase, “Refugees welcome to Piraeus,” and is constantly surrounded by a gaggle of UNHCR workers wearing blue vests.
Together, they are in the process of organizing a list of young mothers and their children to be sent to a new camp in Rafina, a distant coastal town. Many of these women come from patriarchal societies, and do not feel safe in the large camp, where the only laws that apply are those of courtesy. Milian emphasizes that the buildings in the new camp are made of concrete, a rare luxury for these refugees, many of whom have been living in tents for five months or more.
Milian belongs to a coalition of aid groups that have come together to more effectively aid the refugees in the camp. She insists that there is no internal hierarchy in the organization, and volunteers help where they can.
While she speaks, a young girl across the lot pushes a baby in a stroller. The girl falters, and the baby falls to the ground. The baby’s wails fill the air, and two volunteers rush over, scooping the child from the ground and carrying her to the shade.
At Piraeus, children run freely between the tents, under the shadows of heavy port machinery and at the edge of the platform, where water laps against the concrete and the risk of falling into the sea is ever-present. Sultan Ozcan, a nutritionist from Save the Children stationed in Piraeus explains that the parents don’t have the energy or the ability to keep watch over their children.
“They are not disciplined,” she says. “They don’t know what is right and what is wrong.” According to a recent report by Save the Children, child refugees stranded in Greece have been out of school for an average of 1.5 years. “This makes the prospects of sitting in a classroom very difficult,” Ozcan adds.
Ozcan sits in the shade of a small building that used to function as a waiting area, filling out a routine report. She proudly lists that she has encountered no sick children here, stressing the importance of cooperation between the different NGOs, or Non-Governmental Organizations.
Even with all her goodwill, Ozcan admits that working in Piraeus is often extremely difficult. In the summer heat, she says, the aid workers can’t keep up with the energetic children. “I can see people melting,” she says.
Inside the building, another young woman wearing a red Save the Children vest occupies a group of children with a Greek lesson. She slowly sounds out syllables. The children parrot after her excitedly, making mistakes with the unfamiliar sounds. The glass door of the building reads “air conditioning,” but inside the air is still and laced with cigarette smoke.
While the Greek Ministry of Education has promised to provide all child refugees with an education beginning this September, there are still many obstacles to making this happen, including a Greek education system facing a dire deficit in teachers. In the meantime, the children of Piraeus are being raised in the schoolrooms of barefooted idleness.
Back in the Athens of tourists, business is as usual. The city is heavily dependent on the revenue from its tourism industry, and perhaps the metropolis simply cannot afford to display the strain caused by the refugees at its gate. Waiters stand at the entrance to cafes, coaxing potential customers with a sweet cup of cappuccino freddo. Carts offering an assortment of nuts are parked along the narrow streets of Plaka and gift shops sell wide-brimmed hats against the Athenian sun. On street corners, bored police officers survey the scene.