Reporting on the front lines of history in Greece

Category: Migrants

Fiery riot in Moria migrant camp

Image from inside Moria camp during disturbance taken by Ehsan Mansuri, an Iranian migrant and resident of Moria. Obtained by Talya Nevins

By Talya Nevins

MORIA, Greece— A riot and fire today tore through the Moria migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. Moria camp is the primary reception center for refugees who land on the Greek island of Lesbos, just five miles from the Turkish coast.

Princeton University journalists who were working outside the camp Monday afternoon heard explosions. Migrants could be seen in the distance hurling stones at metal housing  containers, and a column of black smoke billowed about 15 stories high, blocking the sun.

Videos and photos taken by migrants inside the camp, and obtained exclusively by the journalists on the scene, showed several structures were gutted. At least two persons were seen collapsing just outside the camp and were treated.

One migrant explained that tensions erupted between a group of migrants and the non-governmental organization Euro Relief. Others claimed that the riots were in line with previous disturbances at the camp, in which migrants protested against the dismal conditions and stagnant registration process. During interviews in the days preceding the event, camp residents complained about overcrowding, inedible food and violence within the camp. 


“They burned the camp because (authorities)  don’t want to let people go,” Dandeen Matoko, a Congolese migrant who has lived in Moria for eight months, said in an interview while the disturbance continued on Monday. “They are keeping people here, we are not sleeping nicely, we are sleeping on the floor, other people are sleeping without covering themselves.

“They don’t give medication,” Matoko said. “Nothing at all. People are suffering. They are giving us dry rice. No meat, no soup. How can you survive? Back there it’s so difficult that we can’t really stand it. So people are so tired of this place, they don’t want to live.”

At one point, a squad of uniformed men bearing clear riot shields walked into the camp in formation. Fire trucks approached the gates of the camp, which is circled by coiled razor wire, but did not enter. One migrant collapsed outside the camp gate and others splashed her face with water. A man groaned on the ground before being carried away down a two-lane access road.

The camp houses more than 3,000 refugees, far beyond the capacity it was built to hold. There were no official reports of casualties in the incident. 


Princeton journalists Alice Maiden,  Jack Lohmann, Ethan Sterenfeld, Chiara Ficarelli and Andie Ayala  contributed to this report. Video captured by Lohmann was published by permission by The Daily Mail of London, and can be viewed at

Look for more exclusive video soon at Reuters News and on the website of Greece’s most distinguished newspaper, Kathimerini, a news partner with The New York Times. Still images captured by our reporting team are available at


Raw video taken inside Moria camp by Ehsan Mansuri, an Iranian migrant and resident of Moria. Video obtained by Talya Nevins


The man and the sea

By Chiara Ficarelli

SKARAMAGAS, Greece — Marwan Al-Ajam likes to fish.

On this Friday, the sea lapping on the dock at the Skaramagas migrant camp is giving.

Al-Ajam’s green bucket is filled with more than a dozen fish. Tonight he will feast.

“The little ones are very delicious,” Al-Ajam said, referring to the silver fish, which are no longer than his index finger. “I fry them quickly with spices.”

The 59-year-old has been following this routine for the past four months, ever since authorities resettled his family in Germany without him. Mornings begin with black coffee, a hunk of bread and a handful of dried dates. By 9 a.m. Al-Ajam is down at the dock with his rod, bait, and bucket. At 6 p.m. he heads home. Fish or no fish.

Al-Ajam spent a year living in Skaramagas with his 25-year-old son, Mohammad; his 28-year-old daughter, Noor;  and her son. Since his family left, he lives alone in an apartment in the Athens neighborhood of Omonia, provided to him by the U.N. refugee agency. His wife died in Syria.


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Setting up shop in Skaramagas: Waterfront real estate with a breeze, and something to do


A refugee-owned pool hall along the sea (Photo by Joe Stephens)


By Alice Maiden

SKARAMAGAS, Greece — Temperatures climbing to over 104 degrees Friday left a sleepy air over sun-drenched Skaramagas.

The port-turned-refugee camp, in a western suburb of Athens, is made up of a grid of Isobox containers that house 3,300 refugees, laid out over an expanse of arid dirt — a floor plan that offers few patches of greenery or shade for respite from the baking heat.

The edge of the dock here, since it runs along the waterfront, makes it a desirable piece of real estate. At least, it is for the businesses that refugees have established along the water at one end of the camp. The waterfront offers a welcome breeze —and view — for refugees preparing falafel in containers-turned-cafés, sweeping outside their storefronts, and manning a pool table where you can play for one euro per game.

Cafés and restaurants have sprung up in Skaramagas, which hosts many refugees who are counting their anniversaries there as time passes. Skaramagas follows a pattern similar to that in other camps in Greece and elsewhere. The refugees there, many of them Syrian, are just people uprooted from their engineering jobs and college careers, bored in the limbo of a camp with dwindling savings. So they start businesses.

Mostafa Balkes is a 26-year-old Syrian man who has won asylum in Greece, and so need not stay at the camp. Nonetheless, he sat among other Syrian refugees by the water on Friday — his business is in Skaramagas, and so are the friends that help him run it. He owns the pool table, a 2,500 euro-investment, which is in a covered room where he also offers coffee and cold beer, among other refreshments. On the other side of the wall is a space with shade overhead and an open-faced front overlooking the water.

There, Balkes and three others sat in white plastic chairs in front of a dauntingly large pile of long reeds, which they were shucking to weave into big blinds to cover the front of that room. With ample chairs for the kids and men who passed through the room that afternoon, either to help with the systematic shucking process or just joke around a bit, the room already had the welcoming atmosphere of a café. Balkes’ friend Jahid Zughbi, a 40-year-old Syrian refugee whose countdown to leaving had dwindled to just 10 days, translated for Balkes and explained how they planned to cross the reeds in a grid.

Skaramagas is one of the nicer Greek refugee camps, whose Isobox housing trailers offer electricity and plumbing that other camps cannot promise their residents. Those who built the camp  — and those who live there —  never expected residents to stay for long. Nevertheless, as they remain in Skaramagas, they have settled in and set up shop. Woven blinds give personality—and shade—to Balkes’ pool café.

As the prospect of leaving Greece becomes increasingly less likely for those still here, the next steps for refugees in Skaramagas are murky—but so is the question of how these businesses can help beyond the camp, if at all. Economic activity in refugee camps seems to alleviate boredom and improve mental health, but Zughbi and Balkes were both marine engineers in Syria (and Zughbi was a chief marine engineer). Ali Alshaaer, an 18-year-old who lived at the end of Zughbi’s block in Lattakia, had to put his studies at Damascus University on hold to leave Syria.

Between calling each other nicknames that matched animals—among which multiple people were unluckily branded “donkey” — talk about who was leaving for where and when persisted. Alshaaer was hoping to leave for Germany in a month; Balkes had an uncle in Baltimore, Maryland; and Zughbi had just 10 days left before meeting his parents, wife, and two kids in Belgium.

Skaramagas is not forever, but many do not have a precise number of days left they can count down on two hands. Until then, the woven blinds will help with the summer heat.

For refugees, new routines are a way of life

Photo by Jack Lohmann

By Jack Lohmann

SKARAMAGAS, Greece — At Skaramagas refugee camp, someone has scrawled black numeric codes on the front of each of the hundreds of otherwise identical metal containers that house refugees.

The codes mark each container’s location.  Other than an occasional clothesline, few other features distinguish row after row of these mass-produced trailers. At Skaramagas, authorities have hauled in more than 400.

The camp sits on an idle dock near the Port of Piraeus, just outside Athens. On a recent afternoon, water lapped at two sides of the camp, and a sea breeze struggled to cool the midday sun. Blue-purple mountains loomed in the distance.

Inside a stained tent by the water’s edge, an elaborate cluster of speakers blasted music as boys played pool.

Nearby, a group congregated outside a small, shed-like building. In light-blue stenciling, someone had painted “HELP DESK” across its wooden exterior. Inside, aid workers helped people fill out registration papers, tax forms and other documents. Fliers advertised English lessons and other opportunities. A steady stream of refugees made its way inside.

Romal Barakzai stood silently in a corner as two workers reviewed his tax information. Barakzai fled Afghanistan in 2016. Slender and quiet, he proudly shared his resume with a reporter. He wanted to find a job in Athens.

According to his resume, Barakzai speaks five languages and “exemplifies integrity.”

In Kabul, Barakzai worked as a border patrol officer; he later became head coach of a women’s cricket team. Three years ago, his team won entry into the World Cup. “I have not contacted my family in three months,” Barakzai said. He does not own a phone.

On a wall next to an aid worker’s desk, a laminated map offered insight into the place that thousands of displaced people now call home. The map showed a playground, an outdoor gym and a music area. Other buildings — for the Hellenic Navy, the International Red Cross and a “Woman’s Communal Space” — offered a stark reminder of how the world has changed. Novelty and routine intermix; men, women, and children negotiate the difference.

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