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.
Extremists affiliated with Golden Dawn have violently attacked immigrants, refugees, and leftists. El-Ghandour was called to testify against Golden Dawn in an ongoing criminal trial of the group. Charges include the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, an anti-fascist rapper, and Abuzid Embarac, a Muslim-Egyptian worker.
“Personally, I bear the brunt of all of these things,” he said. “And I am considered the only Muslim who is present at the front of the line against Golden Dawn.” Golden Dawn frequently threatens El-Ghandour as leader of the Muslim community. In just one incident, he said, 200 Golden Dawn supporters gathered to rally against him, and threw trash as he passed.
The Golden Dawn party holds 17 seats in the 300-member Greek Parliament.
Attacks by Golden Dawn represent just one of the many obstacles facing Muslims in Greece. In 2006, the Muslim Association submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs to establish an official mosque in Athens. Although approved by Parliament, El-Ghandour said that the slow-moving Greek bureaucracy has not followed through.
“It’s a hot potato,” said Stamou, describing how the issue was passed from one administration to the next without conclusive action. Athens is the only European capital without a mosque.
Instead, Muslims throughout Greece gather in makeshift spaces. “Garages turned into mosques. Underground storage rooms turned into mosques. Rooftops,” El-Ghandour said. The imams, or leaders of Muslim prayers, also come from unexpected places. In the Friday prayer, one could find a carpenter acting as the imam, reading his sermon from a piece of paper, said El-Ghandour. The next day, prayer might be led by a baker or a floor mason or a street merchant.
Despite these challenges, Muslims throughout Greece still try to organize a place to pray. “We have approximately 100 places,” said El-Ghandour, “but 95 percent of them are underground.” El-Ghandour himself uses a small area in his basement as a prayer space.
Besides delaying the establishment of the mosque, the government also has refused to accredit an imam for the Muslims of Athens. The Muslim Association has approached the ministry, offering to pay for the installment of an official imam if the government would provide him with legal residence as a religious leader. The proposal was denied.
“The state doesn’t help,” El-Ghandour said. “The state doesn’t want the Muslims to have a respectable imam.”
The need for resources has been exacerbated by the influx of migrants. Though the Muslim Association does not provide direct assistance to people in camps, migrants often reach out when searching for a prayer community.
One thing the association is unable to provide is an Islamic burial. With no Muslim cemetery in Athens, many people are forced to bear expensive costs to send bodies back to their native countries or to a Muslim cemetery in northern Greece. This process often results in extended periods between death and burial, violating the sacred Muslim practice of burying the dead within 24 hours.
“You see bodies moved from refrigerator to refrigerator,” said Stamou. “It’s inhumane.”
Stamou, who serves as the Muslim Association’s marketing director, complained that refugees who drown en route from Turkey are buried in mass, unmarked. She recalled a family in Sweden that tried to locate the remains of a lost family member who died on the island of Lesbos, only to find that the unmarked graves made it impossible to do so. Stamou scrolled through photographs of these graves on her Facebook feed. One read: “Unknown girl. Number 135.”
“We have to stop this,” Stamou said. To her and El-Ghandour, it’s a matter of dignity.
Though Muslims are spread throughout Greece, it is not surprising to find groups of Muslims who moved next to each other in Athens in order to create community. According to El-Ghandour, areas like Exarchia and Omonia, where a large number of Muslims live and own businesses, do not receive the same services as other neighborhoods.
El-Ghandour claims that the municipality does not clean up trash in those areas. “They leave the trash there so it appears that this is what foreigners are like,” he said. “That they are the ones who make the place dirty.”
To El-Ghandour, this unequal municipal attention is one element in the ongoing campaign.
“It is intended to make Muslims seem disorganized, poor, pitiful. And we’re not like that. We have Muslims who own companies. Airline companies. Ship companies. Merchants, engineers, doctors. And workers of course. But all of the governments want to present the image that the Muslims who live here are ignorant, second- and third-class people,” said El-Ghandour.
On the shelf directly to El-Ghandour’s right were two framed college diplomas.
Still, El-Ghandour and Stamou insist that Muslims are an integral part of Greek society.
“In the Friday prayer, when we pray, we pray for Greece, for God to make it a good country, respectable, safe, and at peace,” El-Ghandour said. “We are a part of society.”
El-Ghandour and Stamou embody this sense of optimism and integration in their family. They send their children to a public school and live in a multicultural neighborhood. During Ramadan, they decorate the house with lights and lanterns, inviting their non-Muslim neighbors over for iftar, the traditional breaking of the fast. El-Ghandour’s children speak Greek with their peers, and take Arabic lessons in the basement of their home.
On the far wall of the living room hangs a large black and white photograph of a farm from the Greek island of Paros, where Stamou’s great-grandfather lived. Sitting on a cushion across the room in her pink hijab, Stamou said, “Not only the Muslims are losing when discrimination is allowed to spread.”