Reporting on the front lines of history in Greece

Torched grove leads to hunger strike

President Nick Trackellis of Moria town on hunger strike outside of the Aegean Ministry in Mytilene

By Matthew Miller

MYTILENE, Greece — Claims of pet cats killed, skinned and eaten. Residents assaulted with knives. A fire that burned fields and farms.

These are all problems created by migrants, according to residents near the notorious refugee camp of Moria.

On Sunday, the elected leader of the nearby village of Moria, Nick Trackellis, launched a hunger strike. Trackellis, whose official title is village president, is now on day three of the strike, on view to the public in front of the Aegean Ministry. He calls it a final attempt to force Greek government officials in Athens to act on these concerns.

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Life and death and what comes after

By Karolen Eid

KATO TRITOS, Greece — Moustafa Dawa never planned on becoming an undertaker. The 32-year-old Egyptian translator came to Greece to study Greek literature. He now buries bodies in an unofficial cemetery in a remote olive grove on the island of Lesbos.

He works in a small shed, washing and wrapping the bodies. Three pieces of cloth for the men. Five for the women. He prays for them and positions them in the ground with their heads facing Mecca. He hopes that they will be found by their loved ones.

For three years, Dawa has been managing the only Muslim cemetery for refugees on the island. He is just one figure in a fight against the obstacles facing Muslim migrant burial in Lesbos, which include the lack of an official cemetery, lack of support for families in the identification process, and possible corruption by NGOs claiming that they are collecting donations for this cause. Dawa’s experience provides a rare glimpse into the hidden tensions of an often overlooked aspect of the refugee crisis. Not only life and death, but what comes after.

Moustafa Dawa, the unofficial undertaker of the Muslim cemetery of Lesbos

In October of 2015, Dawa was working as a translator for migrants in the camps of Lesbos when the sinking of three migrant boats sent dozens of bodies to the morgue in the hospital of Mytilene. Until then, the bodies of Muslim migrants had been buried in a small section of the cemetery at St. Panteleimon’s church. With the overwhelming increase in the death toll during the perilous journey between Turkey and Greece, the cemetery was full.

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The characters of crisis

A hotelier, two migrants, a grave digger, a camp director, a protestor and an elephant – perspectives on the refugee crisis in Greece

By Isaac Wolfe

LESBOS, Greece. July 11, 2018

I.The hotelier

It was a bright April day in Lesbos when the first boat landed on the beach at the Aphrodite Hotel. On that day, Aphrodite Vati Mariola, for whom the hotel is named, was very busy. She was making sure that the season opening for the family-run hotel would be smooth and enjoyable for her first guests of 2015. She and her family had led the staff in preparing the 52 rooms, preening the shimmering outdoor swimming pool and tidying the pebble beach that opened out into a private cove.

The season was almost fully booked, set to be one of the most profitable in the hotel’s history. Then, Mariola heard sounds coming from the beach.

Perched on the edge of Aphrodite’s shore sat a dinghy carrying a family of fifteen people. Eleven adults and four children were huddled together on the boat, the youngest passenger only a year old. “I had no idea what a refugee was as the time,” Maroila later said. All she saw was a family in need. But these people were indeed refugees, a family of Syrians who had escaped through Turkey and smuggled themselves across the Aegean gap to Greece. As the fifteen shell- shocked passengers leapt from boat to land, touching European soil for the first time, Aphrodite Vati Mariola was there to greet them.

“They were traumatized and scared to death,” Mariola said of the first group of refugees she helped. “They didn’t know us, didn’t know water, didn’t know where they are.” One of the passengers was an older man and as Mariola and her family attempted to help him off the boat they realized he was paralyzed from the waist down. Mariola’s father quickly opened two hotel rooms for the group and provided them with food while Mariola ran home to find a change of clothing for the wet and shivering passengers. She took items from her own son’s and daughter’s wardrobes to cloth the children who washed onto her shore.

As the Syrian family recuperated and the hotel owners began to strategize their next steps, Mariola watched the seven- and eleven-year-old Syrians dressed in her own children’s clothing. “I realized those could be my children,” she recalled.

This was only the beginning.


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Muslims in an Orthodox state

By Matthew Miller

ATHENS, Greece – Two bearded men in traditional Islamic robes left prayer at their underground mosque and ran down Evripidou Street, pushing their motorcycle to jump-start it. They sprinted past generations-old Greek spice stores and butcher shops, past traditional sausages hanging over the sidewalk.

“The neighborhood, the religion here, it’s changed a lot,” said Marios Chatzigeorgiou as the men dashed by. Chatzigeorgiou has operated a shop here for 20 years. He sells classic Greek spices and dried fruit, just as his father and grandfather did before him. But today the store has new neighbors. An electronics store run by Chinese immigrants sits across the street; a few doors down is Masjid Al-Jabbar, an unofficial mosque for some of Athens’ burgeoning Muslim community.

Religion is changing in Greece. The Hellenic Republic traditionally has had largely one faith, Greek Orthodoxy. While Greece offers freedom of religion, the Greek Orthodox Church is the official religion and is interwoven with the government and daily life.

The yellow flag of the Greek Orthodox Church flies alongside government flags throughout the country. In 2008, 98 percent of Greeks called themselves Greek Orthodox, one survey found. In 2015, the migrant crisis hit Greece when hundreds of thousands of migrants began washing up on Greek shores, seeking asylum so they could live legally in the European Union. After three years of the migrant crisis and Greece’s changing demographics, only 90 percent of the population now identifies as Greek Orthodox. Muslims and other Christian denominations are rising. The new Greece must cope with the religious needs of migrants and freshly minted Greek residents as they try to rebuild lives and create spiritual homes.

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For migrants, camps are hell. Or home

By Karolen Eid

KARA TEPE, Greece – The refugee camp here is lined with picket fences. Colorful murals decorate its walls. Park benches are scattered in its center around a sign that reads “Kara Tepe Square.”

For the organizers of the camp, which is run by the city of Lesbos, dignity is a priority. They call the camp a hospitality center. Sectors are “neighborhoods” and the refugees are “residents.” Instead of food lines, the residents get meals delivered to their doors.

The locals who work here believe that these small changes make a difference in the eyes of the residents. “We’re trying to play a little bit with the minds and the psychologies of the people,” said Manos Chatzelis, one of the camp’s coordinators.

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Zooming in, zooming out: art in refugee camps


At Kara Tepe, Mytilene, Lesbos

By Emily Spalding

Perched on the hill of Schisto refugee camp in Athens, a large rabbit — around 20 feet wide and 10 feet tall — has found a home, with grass at her feet and the blue sky as her backdrop.

Stretched along an ISOBOX modular housing unit, an intricate painting of the rabbit spans the length of the box, offering a pop of color amid the browning terrain.


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An education

Migrant Ludovic Ikoko Mpeti often can be found with a book in hand.

By Khanh Kim Vu

Twice a day, Ludovic Ikoko Mpeti takes the bus between Moria, an infamous refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, and Mosaik, a nonprofit that offers free classes. A native of the Congo, he takes all three courses offered at the camp: Greek, English, and information technology. When not in class, Mpeti can be found doing his homework in an unoccupied classroom, pen in one hand and phone in the other, ready to look up new words. “Studying, it’s my life. I love learning,” Mpeti said in perfectly enunciated French. However, like many other migrants who have interrupted their education to find safety across borders, Mpeti struggles to find intellectual stimulation in Moria, a place ridden with physical hardship.

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Mosques and cemeteries mark battle for acceptance

By Karolen Eid and Isaac Wolfe

ATHENS, Greece — As Neymar Jr. scored a second overtime goal for Brazil in the Russian World Cup, Naim El-Ghandour sat in his living room in the quiet neighborhood of Ilioupoli, sipping chai and watching the game. El-Ghandour’s living room was dark but welcoming. Its walls were lined with photographs of his children, collections of Islamic texts and a framed print of the Mona Lisa. El-Ghandour wore a traditional white robe and sat barefoot on a white couch while his wife, Anna Stamou, sat across the coffee table.

El-Ghandour is president of the Greek Muslim Association, a non-profit organization that advocates and provides for Muslims throughout the country. Egyptian by birth, El-Ghandour moved to Greece in 1974. Since then, he has gained Greek citizenship, served in the military and established himself as the de facto leader of Greece’s Muslim community.

This leadership comes with its difficulties. While trying to provide resources and a prayer space for Greek Muslims and refugees, El-Ghandour has made enemies of groups like Golden Dawn, Greece’s ultranationalist, far-right political party.

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Chefs break bread and stereotypes at food fest

By Emily Spalding

ATHENS, Greece — In a city where Greek salad, feta cheese and souvlaki dominate menus, restaurants here were in for a distinct dining experience when six restaurants swapped their pita for injera.

During the third week in June, Athens restaurants opened their kitchens to accomplished chefs who also happened to be refugees. They prepared meals from their native countries — including Eritrea, Syria and Afghanistan — as part of the Refugee Food Festival.

Launched two years ago by French citizens Marine Mandrila and Louis Martin, today the festival has won an international audience, with 15 cities participating across three continents.  The list includes Athens and the nearby island city of Mytilene, perhaps the most striking locations given their position at the center of the European refugee crisis.

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On the hunt for urban renewal? Come back Monday

By Maia Hamin

Photos by Matthew Miller

ATHENS, Greece — Just around the corner from a 900-year-old church, the graffiti-covered entry of Scholiou 4 gapes open. Inside, neon spray-paint eclipses murals on the walls and flies buzz around the trash piled in the rooms’ corners.

Decaying furnishings — a couch, an office chair, a lone traffic cone – dot the rooms. Sections of the roof and floor have caved in, revealing bright sky above and tarnished copper piping beneath. The conditions make it likely that, as an inscription on the wall promises, the “itinerant artistic project” that the building once housed has long since moved on.

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Profiting Off Protest

By Matthew Miller

ATHENS, Greece — With the theme from Rocky playing in the background, vendors on June 17 hawked everything from patriotic banners to Mickey Mouse balloons at a protest at Syntagma Square that ended with riot police teargassing members of the crowd of up to 5,000 protestors.

A protestor singing along to the music at Sunday’s protest

A range of vendors profited off of the cheerful atmosphere that prevailed earlier in the day.  Greek men, women and children gathered at Syntagma Square outside the Hellenic Parliament to protest a recent deal to change the name of the nation of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia. Greece claims historical ownership of the Macedonian name and has blocked Macedonia’s membership in the European Union and NATO over the naming dispute. President Alexis Tsipras of Greece and President Zoran Zaev of Macedonia reached an agreement to rename Macedonia  in exchange for Greece’s official recognition. This agreement sparked right-wing protests in both nations as protestors complained that their government traded away their country’s claim to the name Macedonia.

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Service, community and demolition

By Isaac Wolfe

ATHENS, Greece – As the sun set over Mount Lycabettus, a six-story building in the neighborhood of Exarcheia was still brimming with activity. Volunteers at the Khora Community Center shuffled in and out, towing boxes of toys, chunks of drywall and demolition tools as they prepared the center’s equipment for its next move: into storage.

Khora, a volunteer co-operative for migrants, has undergone many changes in its short life. Since the group was formed in 2016 by activists on the island of Lesbos, Khora has evolved continually to keep up with the people it serves.

“Khora is well-known in the squats and camps. People know our name and know to come here to find help,” said Hudson McLane, a 20-year-old volunteer from the United States. McLane, like many of his colleagues, arrived at Khora after unsatisfying experiences at other relief services. “Our goal is to give people a sense of dignity,” he said.

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Nationalism on Display at Macedonia Demonstration

By Maia Hamin

ATHENS, Greece — Syntagma Square was jubilant Saturday afternoon. Music blared, children waved flags, vendors toasted nuts. Stands sold scarves, hats and even kid’s t-shirts bearing slogans like “Macedonia is Greek.”

For all its cheer, the gathering was not a block party but a demonstration against a proposed agreement between the governments of Greece and Macedonia. After a 27-year dispute, the nation north of Greece agreed to change its name to the “Republic of Northern Macedonia.” In return, Greece agreed to stop blocking Macedonia’s membership in NATO.

The agreement set off waves of resistance. Minority parties in Greece withdrew support from the ruling party, complaining that by retaining the word Macedonia in its name, Greece’s neighbor hinted at territorial claims on the Greek province of the same name.

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Scenes from Parliament

On June 15, protestors displaying the blue-and-white flag of Greece gathered outside the Hellenic Parliament in Athens to kick off a three-day demonstration against the nation of Macedonia. Photo by Khanh Kim Vu

Protestors demanded that the nation north of Greece remove the word “Macedonia” from its name entirely. “Our government, they’re traitors,” declared Greek demonstrator Theodora Kortessa. Photo by Khanh Kim Vu

In Athens, Joyce and Soccer Bring Nations Together

By Emily Spalding

ATHENS, Greece — Somewhere in the Fluntern Cemetery of Zürich, Switzerland, James Joyce might be rolling over in his grave.

Nestled in an alleyway near Athens’ tourist neighborhood of Monastiraki, the James Joyce Irish Pub so reveres its namesake that even placemats and napkins display the iconic Irish writer’s face.  Yet on June 16, the pub transformed into a multinational tapestry as it aired the 2018 FIFA World Cup soccer matches between Morocco and Iran, and later Spain and Portugal.

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Renaming of Greece’s neighbor met with protests, waving flags – and t-shirts

By Karolen Eid

ATHENS, Greece — Demonstrators gathered in front of the Hellenic Parliament on Friday to protest negotiations between the national governments of Greece and Macedonia, or what is known here by the awkward acronym of FYROM — the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The protest came in response to an accord between the two nations, set to be signed on June 17, that would change officially Macedonia’s name to the Republic of Northern Macedonia.

Hundreds of demonstrators carried Greek flags, sang anthems and chanted “Macedonia is Greek.” Vendors peddled bottles of water and “Macedonia is Greek” t-shirts. Police carried helmets and leaned on fences, observing the scene.


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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 2018,  students travelled 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, 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 Princeton University 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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