Reporting from the frontlines of history in Greece

Author: Joe Stephens

Greek hospitality is put to a religious test

ATHENS, Greece — Abdul rose just before sundown on one of the last days of the holy month of Ramadan. The 17-year-old refugee from Afghanistan was keeping odd hours, eating breakfast in place of dinner and passing the day in slumber.

Abdul, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy as a juvenile, lives in a shelter for underage refugees who arrived in Greece without parents. For many, this was their first Ramadan away from their families, and it was a lonely one.

“In Afghanistan, our father, mother, sister all fast. All people are doing it. Here, it’s different,” Abdul said. “It will be difficult for us, but we will not forget our religion.”

Abdul and his friends find themselves in one of the most homogeneous Christian nations in the world. Greece, which is 98 percent Orthodox Christian, hosted 1 million migrants on their way to other European countries. The vast majority of those passing through were Muslim.


Greece has won high praise for its hospitality toward the migrants. Some islanders on the front lines were even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Greeks take pride in this and point to their history to explain this reception.

But even given that proud history, academics and volunteers fear that the warm welcome of the last year could wear thin when the refugees start to integrate in a nation that has long resisted a multifaith identity.

Read the complete story on Religion News Service 


The Classroom Cure

Greece’s child refugees are at risk of becoming a ‘lost generation.’

Is education the answer?

By Hayley Roth and Iris Samuels

 ATHENS, Greece –– Two young boys with skinny frames, buzzed hair and bright t-shirts jostled beneath the hot Greek sun. But as humanitarian workers approached, it became clear the children weren’t playing.

One, originally from Afghanistan, jabbed his finger at the other and yelled, “Kurdish, no good, no good!”

“They started getting aggressive,” recalled Sultan Ozcan of the aid organization Save the Children, who witnessed the scene at a refugee camp in the Greek village of Oinofyta. “They don’t know what is right and what is wrong.”

She places much of the blame for that and similar incidents played out across Greece on a lack of formal education, and the absence of the social cohesiveness nurtured by group learning activities. That vacuum in education is a looming challenge that threatens to set a generation adrift, according to interviews conducted across Greece with top government officials, academics, aid workers and refugees.

Since the escalation of the Syrian civil war early last year and a rise in violence throughout the Middle East, more than 1 million people have fled to Greece, their gateway to the European Union. Most migrants considered the debt-ridden Hellenic Republic as just their first step in a long journey north — not a destination for families looking to rebuild their lives.

But earlier this year, Europe closed its internal borders to undocumented migrants, effectively stranding 60,000 inside Greece. Some now are beginning to realize that they may be here for a very long time – if not the rest of their lives.

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Omonia After Dark

By Amanda Blanco

ATHENS, Greece — The first rule of survival in the red light district of Omonia is to think fast and act even faster. Built around one of the oldest town squares in Athens, Omonia used to be a center of commercial activity. But Greece’s ongoing financial crisis and the recent refugee crisis have taken a toll on the district.

At 9:30 p.m. on a typical Thursday night, men gather in clutches in front of dingy hostels and windowless bars. Their eyes sweep left to right as they swig cans of beer and survey their prospects. Young women in tank tops and jeans stand at regular intervals, their own eyes alert for danger, whether it from be a customer, a policeman or an irate pimp.

A woman leans against a payphone, her gaunt silhouette visible against the dim streetlight. Another wears glittery pink lipstick and blue eye shadow. She offers her younger co-workers a friendly smile and reassuring small talk. The way she rests her hands above her slightly swollen stomach suggests the possibility of a recent pregnancy. Amid it all, a family of tourists ambles by, oblivious to the drama in action. The children, blond and tan, scamper past a woman with a high ponytail and a baby-blue crop top. Her eyes follow them, the smallest intersection of two parallel worlds.

Across the street, Maria Galinou watches the scene unfold from her parked sedan. “Look at these people!” she exclaims, referring to the tourists. “They have no idea.” Galinou, who works for the Salvation Army, has visited this district of Omonia every week since 2014, building relationships with the women who live here. Galinou was instrumental in bringing the charity organization to her home-city in 2012. Now she directs the Green Light Project, a team trained to work with victims of human trafficking.

Galinou on the front lines. If “you touch the trafficking, you touch the girls,” she says. While she uses her motherly appearance to disarm the traffickers’ suspicions, Galinou is savvier than she may appear. After years of experience, she now notices the slightest interactions, physical gestures, and power shifts. “As they watch, we watch,” she says, “When they act, we act.”

Walking distance from the brothels is a three-story yellow building where Galinou runs a Salvation Army center. There, women can find temporary solace. In the streets, Galinou says the human traffickers are in charge. “Their territory, their word,” she says, “but when they come into my territory, it’s my rules.” Continue reading

The Sympathy of Greece

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.


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Art amid refuge

By Iris Samuels | 7/11/16

Art scene: A term evoking the gallery-lined streets of lower Manhattan, or the resplendent museums of Paris.

Then there is Ritsona, a refugee camp an hour north of Athens. Worlds apart, its scene is vibrant, nonetheless.

Home to 600 migrants, mostly from Syria and Iraq, Ritsona at first seems a bustling summer camp. Children run barefoot while cicadas hum in surrounding pines.


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First Impressions: Port of Piraeus


Tents at Athens' Port of Piraeus

Tents at Athens’ Port of Piraeus

By Amanda Blanco

Section E2 of the industrial Port of Piraeus was never meant to be called home. But since closure of Greece’s borders, that is exactly what it has become for roughly 1,000 refugees.  Their tents cluster under a highway overpass, squeezing together to escape the blistering sun.

“The image speaks for itself,” says Negia Milian, a volunteer camp director from a Piraeus-based group supporting the refugees. Milian, a former  Cuban refugee, emphasizes that her group is not a so-called Non-Governmental Organization, or NGO. However, there are several NGOs working at Piraeus, including the Red Cross and Save the Children.


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Ai Weiwei comes to Lesbos

By James Haynes

ATHENS — Ai Weiwei has made bringing attention to crises a lifelong effort. As the Chinese artist once told an interviewer, “If my art has nothing to do with people’s pain and sorrow, what is ‘art’ for?”

Most recently, he has been pointing attention toward Greece. He first visited Athens and the island of Lesbos last year, when thousands of refugees were washing ashore from Turkey daily . He quickly established a studio here, and in May the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens showcased the studio’s work by opening the artist’s first major exhibition in Greece.


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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 2016,  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 #PrincetonGR 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 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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