Statue of Liberty

Refugees gaze to sea from the base of Mytilene’s Statue of Liberty (Joe Stephens)

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)

 

Lesbos has hosted 90,000 refugees since January 2016 alone, bearing the brunt of international migration from countries like Syria and Afghanistan. The island has been praised for its humanitarian response to the crisis, and islanders on the frontlines have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The “festivities” were held at Kara Tepe, Mytilene’s open-door refugee camp. But at Moria, a closed refugee camp run by the military, no such celebrations were to be found.

“In Moria, you have to fight to solve basic problems,” said Ilektra Koutsoumani, an aid-worker from Doctors of the World who has worked at Moria since December, explaining the difference in circumstances at the two camps. Kara Tepe Camp calls itself a “hospitality center”, while Moria Camp operates as a temporary detention center when migrants first arrive, complete with guards and fences topped with coils of razor wire. Only after 25 days at Moria are migrants free to leave the camp, and even then they must remain on the island.

 

Mytilini wide cropped

Mytilene (Joe Stephens)

 

Andriotis-Konstantios said that the municipality did not have the means to build a mosque, using informal prayer spaces erected at Kara Tepe Camp. But even if it did, it has little reason to erect a permanent structure. It is only a matter of time before nearly all of the refugees will leave Lesvos, and the island will once again be overrun by tourists.

Stavros Mirogiamis, General Director at at Kara Tepe Camp, refers to the 750 refugees living at the site as “guests,” in an effort to avoid dehumanizing language. But the term emphasizes the transience of the visitors—no one knows how much longer the refugees will remain, but the camp has an expiration date.

Some 57,000 refugees remain in Greece and, though few want to stay in a country still reeling from its own economic crisis, many will be forced to make Athens their home in the coming years. Athens, already home to more than 300,000 Muslims, is the only European capital without a mosque, and also lacks a cemetery for Muslims.

After a shipwreck saw the death of more than 80 migrants, Lesbos sidestepped Greece’s two-year waiting process to build a much-needed cemetery, Andriotis-Konstantios said, another show of hospitality that mainland Greeks have failed to live up to. Back in Athens, the city’s Muslim population continues to wait for the government to construct a cemetery, sending their dead abroad in the meantime.