By Hayley Roth
It’s hot. A little boy runs across the sizzling asphalt to avoid burning his bare feet. He takes a bottle of water and pours it over his head and shoulders, shrieking with laughter.
Another boy, even younger, toddles forward. He can barely support himself on unsteady legs. His shirt reads “DUSSELDORF: meine leibe.” He isn’t German.
Further away, a girl of five or six drags a doll behind her as she runs toward a cluster of tents. Her dark, curly hair is tied back in a messy ponytail.
These children aren’t anomalies. An independent Greek support group, known as Refugees Welcome to Piraeus, says that 165 of the 835 refugees living beneath a roaring highway just off Gate E2 of the Port of Piraeus are under 11 years of age. For their parents, strips of asphalt in Athens are preferable to houses in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other homelands rocked by instability and violence.
Katerina, a Greek worker for Refugees Welcome to Piraeus, fondly describes how these children have come to see her as a familial figure. “Like a grandmother,” she said proudly.
Since the escalation of the Syrian Civil War in early 2015 and the spread of violence throughout the Middle East, over 1 million migrants and refugees have come to Greece, the gateway to the European Union. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 11 percent of the country’s current population is composed of non-Greeks. Refugees Welcome to Piraeus is just one of many Greek organizations that have sprung to the migrants’ aid.
“A bewildering array of people came who defined themselves in solidarity with the refugees,” said Stratis Sourlagas, a Greek anthropologist who has studied human behavior at Princeton University.
These people joined organizations that are unaffiliated with the Greek state, which has taken a less welcoming stance toward the refugees in an effort to curb the influx. Thousands of citizens have compensated for the slack through volunteer work and jobs with high-functioning non-governmental organizations that focus particularly on healthcare and education for the refugees. Online support communities have also sprung up on sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Why is there such an abundance of Greek sympathy for the plight of newcomers?
The answer lies in the history books. A large portion of Greek adults are grandsons and granddaughters of refugees from Asia Minor who came to the Attic Peninsula during the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1920s. Today, when Greek islanders see water-soaked families clambering to shore and Athenians see homeless migrants in the squares, they are reminded of their own ancestors who braved the Aegean. They see others “who are desperate and want to leave [their homeland],” said Sourlagas. “Otherwise, I don’t think they would help so much.”
The Greeks call it “philoxenia”, or “love of the other.”
Even so, many Greek aid workers say they still face stiff opposition. With enactment of a landmark agreement between the European Union and Turkey, and the sealing of the Turkish border on March 20, 2016– a day that Katerina called “nightmarish”– many refugees now face the possibility of being returned to Turkey. Conditions are worsening in state-run camps like Ellinikon, and there are plans to clear the remaining 835 refugees from Piraeus by July 20.
Negia Milian, another worker from Refugees Welcome to Piraeus, shook her head in despair and determination. Although her organization now has an expected expiration date, she wants to finalize travel arrangements for each of the 835 refugees before the informal camp shuts.
“I may lose the war,” she said. “But the battle I’m going to win.”