Reporting on the front lines of history in Greece

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‘Hands off the squats’

In Athens, many refugees live in abandoned buildings known as squats. The Greek courts recently ruled that all occupants must be evicted, including at the well-known City Plaza Hotel. On June 23, opposition to the ruling was the focus of a rally outside the federal housing ministry. Our video team captured the action. 

Greek refugee camps becoming permanent

Food distribution lines at Skaramagas refugee camp


By Ethan Sterenfeld

ATHENS, Greece — Dilshad Ali decided, after his first four months in the Skaramagas refugee camp, that his bed should be more comfortable. So on Thursday, the 37-year-old native of Mosul, Iraq, gathered cardboard boxes to support his mattress.

The camp, which is built on a gray concrete dock near the Greek capital, is home to about 3,000 migrants, mostly Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis, Al Jazeera reported last December.

At Skaramagas and other Greek refugee camps, there is no longer an acute crisis of feeding, clothing and housing the migrants, who have their own beds in air-conditioned trailers. Systems have been developed in the two years since the crisis erupted to support the roughly 60,000 refugees that the International Rescue Committee says live in Greece.

Faced with uncertain prospects and often held for longer than a year in what were originally designed to be temporary stops, some refugees have adopted routines that would normally be found in permanent neighborhoods.

Two Afghan men in the Schisto refugee camp, 2.5 miles down the road from Skaramagas, proudly displayed gardens of tomatoes and sunflowers that they maintain in front of their trailers.

Wet clothes hung on fences and railings around Schisto. A baby’s cradle sat next to a trailer. A chocolate brown dog lounged on the steps of the squat, nondescript main office. Flags from Greece, the United Nations and the European Union fluttered above the entrance to the former army base.

Castaway supplies next to a refugee’s trailer in Schisto refugee camp.

Nobody knows when the camp might close, but it is not expected anytime soon. Camp administrator Kostas Asinakopoulou said that there is no timeline for when or how the migrants might leave Schisto and be integrated into Greece or another European country.

Even when migrants gain legal status and can leave the camp, they sometimes attempt to stay, Asinakopoulou said. Refugees struggle to find jobs in Greece, which has suffered through an economic crisis for years.

Greece’s unemployment rate, the highest in the European Union, is 23.2 percent, the European Commission reported in April.

“The whole point of hiring a foreigner is to save money on wages,” Asinakopoulou said. He said that refugees often must work for a fraction of what a Greek citizen might make, and that he has heard of mistreatment by employers.

Back in Skaramagas, an elderly man from Damascus, Syria, was fishing off a dock —not to feed himself, but to pass the time. He cut off a chunk of fish to use as bait and dipped his fishing line into the turquoise waters of the Aegean Sea, which washes along the edge of the camp.

He said he  comes to the edge of the water every day in the early afternoon. On this Thursday, nothing was biting.

“No fish today,” he said with a shrug, handing the rod to his granddaughter, Sara. He would come back the next day, when he needed an activity to pass the hours, days, and months of waiting, and try again.

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.

Sunflowers and refugees

Mohammed Farid Eskandari and his  wife Rooya Golami

By Andie Ayala

ATHENS, Greece –– Mohammed Farid Eskandari watered his flower garden while his wife Rooya Golami peeked through the front door. Out front were a pink bicycle and bright red slippers belonging to one of their four daughters.

But this was not the family’s house. It was a prefab metal container to which Greek authorities temporarily assigned the Afghan family when they arrived at the Schisto refugee camp 18 months earlier.

Schisto opened near Athens in February 2016,  after the European Union demanded that the Greek government establish more relocation centers. Because most of the refugees at Schisto are from Afghanistan, it is difficult for them to win certification as asylum seekers, according to Kostas Asinakopolou, one of the federal employees who helps run the camp.

That wrinkle means that many of the migrants who arrived at the so-called relocation camp have remained, instead of quickly heading to northern Europe, as envisioned.


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Athenian Civic Action, Two Ways

SIngers in a 1000-voice choir hold flashlights and perform the music of Mikis Theodorakis in honor of the composer’s 92nd birthday.


By Talya Nevins

ATHENS, Greece — On June 19, nearly 50,000 Athenians turned out to pay tribute to Mikis Theodorakis, a renowned composer and icon of Greek revolutionary nationalism, at a concert held in honor of the composer’s 92nd birthday.

The next day, activists with the Greek Paraititheite movement rallied outside Parliament, calling for the government led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to step down.

Together, those outwardly unconnected events highlighted themes of revolution, resistance and perseverance that are central to this ancient city’s cultural and political identity.

Theodorakis, with his wild, shock-white hair and imposing eyebrows, is Greece’s foremost composer. He also is a political icon for left-leaning Greeks. Theodorakis was detained during the Greek civil war in the 1940s, according to an interview with The New York Times, and the music he composed grew increasingly political in the decades that followed. Theodorakis regularly drew themes or lyrics for his music from classical Greek poetry and, during the military dictatorship from 1967-1974, he and his music were banned. Theodorakis later was elected twice to parliament under the Communist party.

The Greek National Opera organized the June 19 concert, called “1000 voices honor Mikis Theodorakis.” The audience nearly filled Kalimarmaro, the marble stadium that was constructed for the first modern Olympic games in 1896. The massive choir and a full orchestra performed Theodorakis’ music for more than two hours. The crowd swayed in synchrony. Young children and elderly men alike hummed along with the starting notes of each song.

One composition, Tο παληκάρι έχει καημό (The Heartbroken Boy), with words by poet Manos Eleftheriou, spoke of a young unemployed man who could not afford even a cigarette, yet “his eyes are two birds” and he lived with hope.

“Resign” movement members at Syntagma Square in front of Greek Parliament on June 19.


The next day, it was the Paraititheite movement’s turn. The group, whose name means “resign” in English, represents a more conservative version of political engagement and resistance in Greece. The group blames Prime Minister Tsipras and the Syriza party for the economic collapse of the last few years.

On Tuesday, a middle-aged protestor, Christos Catiforis, stood at the front of the peacefully insistent crowd at the Paraititheite rally, holding a sign that read “COMPLETE LIES TSIPRAS: NO MORE.”

Catiforis, who wore a neat checkered shirt and sunglasses perched atop his salt-and-pepper hair, explained that most of the Paraititheite advocates are new to political action.

Syriza is a radical left coalition in Greek parliament, and the Paraititheite protesters are generally moderate-to-right voices who blame Syriza for allowing the economy to fall into ruin. According to Eurostat data, Greek unemployment rates have hovered around 25 percent since May 2012, the same time that Syriza became the main opposition party in the New Democracy-controlled government. Syriza became the leading party in the general elections of May 2014. According to Catiforis, “this government does not want Greece to recover.”

Although the Paraititheite protests and Mikis Theodorakis’ music do not seem initially comparable, the two share a focus on empowering citizens to speak and think about the forces that affect everyday life in Greece. Although Theodorakis supports socialists and the Paraititheite advocates would prefer a center-right approach, both show that in Greece, culture and politics work best when working in tandem.




The Block Party, Athens Style

Ancient Athens peaking out behind the modern-day protester at Syntagma Square. Photo by Chiara Ficarelli


By Chiara Ficarelli

ATHENS, Greece –– A bee stung Lefteris Stefanis on Syntagma Square Tuesday, at a rally aimed at convincing the Greek prime minister to resign. The sharp pain in the 34-year-old’s right index finger caught him by surprise.

“It is a new tactic of the regime,” said Stefanis, joking that Alexis Tsipras’s government had released bees to discourage his opponents.

Stefanis was sharing a Mythos beer with his friend from college, Petros Papalianos. Vendors sold roasted corn on the square, which was filled with milling crowds. Occasionally someone began chanting or picked up a microphone to demand that Tsipras step down. But mostly, the air was filled with upbeat music.

Police stood on the steps of the Parliament nearby, resembling parents watching children on a playground, indifferent to the unfolding scene.

“Alexis will be laughing until tomorrow,” said Stefanis, referring to the small and quiet turnout.


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“There is no light”: Resign movement protests another bailout


JUNE 24, 2017

ATHENS, Greece — One man waved a Greek flag. Others chanted and held aloft banners. Photographers rushed across Syntagma Square to capture the sun-washed scene in front of the Parliament building — so many that the photographers often outnumbered the activists.

A week earlier, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had signed a financial recovery agreement with the International Monetary Fund. For Greeks already struggling to avoid poverty, the deal meant more austerity measures—exactly what the so-called Resign movement argued Tsipras had promised to fight.

The movement’s demonstration on Tuesday – aimed at convincing the leftist government to step down – was calm but lively. By nightfall, bodies filled the square and their chants gained momentum. People leaned quietly on poles and perched atop walls, smoking and chatting as if at a neighborhood party. Still, some described themselves as angry.

When asked, participants acknowledged that Tsipras and his colleagues were unlikely to heed their demands.


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Welcome to Borderland

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

In June and July 2017,  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 #PUGreece in your social media, and join us on our journey along the border between  Europe and Asia, modern and ancient, affluent and wanting, Christian and Muslim. We call it the Borderland.

ABOVE: 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 course 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.

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