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.



Over the course of the next two years, more than 500,000 asylum-seekers would traverse the precarious stretch of water between Turkey and Lesbos, overwhelming the island’s population of around 80,000. At the height of the crisis, nearly 60,000 arrived on shores across the Greek islands daily. This extreme influx prompted hundreds of NGOs, thousands of volunteers, and millions of dollars to be poured into Lesbos to assist with the response. Yet, the impact of this prolonged emergency is not contained in the facts and figures. The true impact of this story is found in the characters of the crisis – the people who lived, responded to and recovered from these experiences on Lesbos.

Of the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers who landed on the island, ten thousand men, women and children funneled through a single, private cove: the pebbled beach of the Aphrodite Hotel. Starting on that April day, Aphrodite’s family business became not just a guesthouse for travelers and tourists, but also an unofficial humanitarian transit center for migrants and refugees.

After Mariola and her family handled the immediate needs of the first of many families to wash upon their shores, they tried to contact the authorities for help, but another boat with 200 refugees had just landed elsewhere on the island and most officials were preoccupied with that response. Eventually, the authorities told them that a bus would come to the main area of Molyvos to pick up the refugee families.

Mariola and her mother couldn’t imagine forcing their new lodgers to make the uphill trek to the city center, so they loaded the group into their cars and drove the coastal road to the center of the tourist hub. As she drove the family to the pickup point, many questions flooded through Mariola’s mind, including: where are these people going to go next?


II.        The migrants


The area outside the Moria refugee camp smelled of sewage, sweat, and souvlaki. Groups of migrants who live in the camp sat in metal chairs around plastic tables in the makeshift cafes and eateries that are scattered around the gates of the large complex.

Moria is the largest refugee camp on Lesbos. It was originally intended to support 2,000 migrants, but today the camp is occupied by more than 7,000 people. The area within the fenced-in, razor-wire perimeter of the Moria camp can no longer contain the masses, with many single men spilling out into a the “Olive Grove” – a second, NGO-operated location adjacent to Moria and filled with deteriorating tents and strewn trash.

The conditions inside the camp are better, but barely, with giant living containers stacked on top of one another and a roar created by human noise that is so loud that it is audible from outside the camp. On one perimeter wall, one can make out the remnants of a graffiti message that was unsuccessfully scrubbed away: “Welcome to Prison Moria.”

Ahmed and Bahaa sat side by side in one of the cafes directly beside the main entrance to Moria.

These two young Egyptian men spoke the masri dialect of Arabic to each other, but the tarp- covered eatery was filled with the sounds of many other languages: the Congolese spoke French, the Afghans spoke Dari, and the Syrians conversed in small groups in the shamii Arabic dialect. Bahaa, who is 18 years old, was wearing a burgundy baseball cap and flip flops. His friend Ahmed, who is 17 years old and registered in the camp as an unaccompanied minor, chatted happily as he charged his phone in an extension cord that hung from the rafters above.

 Ahmed and Bahaa, who only gave their first names,  both fled their dilapidated communities in rural Egypt in search of better opportunities and increased safety. According to Ahmed, he was involved in a personal dispute in his home community that led to threats on his life. His family decided it was for the best for the teenager if he fled the country for Europe in order to secure his safety and better life opportunities. Ahmed flew to Turkey, and shortly thereafter found himself on a small boat weighed down by the load of forty-eight people of varied origin – Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan and more. Smugglers facilitating the trip packed as many people onto the boat as possible, maximizing the profit by charging thousands for each occupant.

Not to long after Ahmed, Bahaa found himself, both literally and figuratively, in the same boat. Only Bahaa’s boat was even more crowded – he sat shoulder to shoulder with fifty-seven other migrants. In Bahaa’s account, he escaped persecution in Egypt. His uncle was a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and due to the political turmoil surrounding the Brotherhood and President As-Sisi’s actions against its members, Bahaa’s family supported him in following the same route Ahmed took to safety and opportunity in Europe.

After the perilous journey across the sea, a journey that has claimed the lives of thousands of other migrants as their boats sank, Ahmed and Bahaa both made it to Lesbos, where they were immediately registered, fingerprinted, and sent to the Moria refugee camp.

Bahaa and Ahmed are two of the approximately fifty Egyptians registered and living at Moria. Inevitably, they met, as many of the groups in the camp stick to ethnic divisions, especially due to the language barrier. “Everyone talks to everyone,” said Bahaa as he gestured at groups around the makeshift cafe. “But Egyptians stick with Egyptians, Syrians stick with Syrians.”

Despite barriers between groups, everyone in Moria faces the same camp conditions. “The food they give us is rotten,” said Bahaa. “I cracked open an egg and I don’t want to tell you what I saw in there.” There are only three bathroom stations in the entire camp, according to Bahaa and Ahmed, and they are routinely out of service. The tents and living containers don’t protect from the cold of the winter. Children gather around fires of burning trash to stay warm in the night.

These conditions take a mental toll on the occupants of Moria. “I feel trapped,” said Bahaa. When Bahaa and Ahmed go into town, they see Lesbos natives walking their dogs, pampering them with a level affection many in the camps haven’t seen in months. “They wouldn’t even treat their animals like this,” Bahaa said.

For now, all Bahaa and Ahmed can do is hold up hope for their pending asylum applications, and be thankful they made it across the sea to Lesbos when thousands perished along the way.


I.    The grave digger


In late October of 2015, Moustafa Dawa stood in front of the open doors of a refrigerated shipping container containing the tangled limbs of forty-six stacked human corpses. The bodies were all of migrants recovered from the Aegean Sea, where many boats filled with asylum-seekers from Turkey sunk en route to Lesbos.

Dawa, an Egyptian-born academic who had recently arrived in Lesbos to offer volunteer translation services in a refugee camp, stared at the contents of the shipping container in shock.

“In that moment, I died inside,” he later said. “I felt like I wasn’t human.”

Due to the massive increase in Muslim deaths due to sinking refugee-filled boats, the Muslim area of the municipal Saint Panteleimon cemetery had reached its maximum capacity. With nowhere to lay the bodies to rest, many corpses remained in refrigerated storage for weeks. This backup not only led to further bodily decomposition and disrespect, but also violated the sacred Muslim funerary law of completing burial within 24 hours of death.

Dawa originally arrived at the moratorium to help a Syrian man who was in search of his sister’s body. However, with the sight of the tangled corpses, Dawa resolved to take action.

There were no humanitarian groups working to solve this problem, as many were focused on the plights of the living over the dead. But Dawa was determined. “Humanity is dead if people are left there for 30 days,” Dawa said. Dawa gathered friends and volunteers and the group met with city officials in Mytilene, including deputy mayor George Katzonos.

Within a week, with help from Katzonos, a plot of land filled with olive trees was secured as a burial site for Muslims lost on the shores of Lesbos. In the first eight days, fifty-seven bodies were finally laid to rest in the new Muslim cemetery, buried with respect in accordance with Muslim law.

Dawa worked as a one-man funeral service. He cleaned the bodies, wrapped them in customary cloths, dug the graves, recited the proper verses and buried the dead all by himself, sometimes burying ten bodies in a single day and working nonstop until past midnight. “I usually would work by myself, but sometimes other refugees would help,” said Dawa.

The first bodies laid to rest belonged to a single family: a mother, father, daughter and son whose boat had sunk on the way to Lesbos. Dawa laid them to rest with the children in the arms of their parents, locked in an eternal embrace.


II.  The hotelier


Though many boat sinkings ended in mass fatalities, others were staging grounds for demonstrations of immense Greek compassion. Private citizens sprang into action to save asylum-seekers from sinking, sunk or unseaworthy boats that were spotted sailing to Lesbos’s shores.

Aphrodite Vati Mariola recalled that even the most anti-refugee residents of her hotel would jump up from their pool chairs to help the boats of refugees that landed on the Aphrodite Hotel’s beach. “When you confront it face-to-face, it’s different,” said Mariola.

By the end of 2015, up to eight boats filled with refugees arrived on the hotel’s beach daily. With up to fifty asylum seekers crammed onto boats intended for twenty people, Hotel Aphrodite rallied to help the nearly 400 people that came ashore each day. Of course, business was severely affected by this monopolization of resources. In 2014, the hotel booked 9,104 overnight stays. By 2016, due to the immense pressures of the refugees on the hotel’s beach and the image the crisis projected across the world, the hotel was down by more than 75% with only 2,000 overnight stays. This effect on tourism ringed true through Lesbos.

Though the hotel owners had expected government assistance in dealing with the desperate people pouring into their property, they were surprised to find that political debate and bureaucratic regulations prevented any outside assistance.

“We were totally on our own,” said Mariola. She recalled a time when two officers had visited the hotel as a courtesy call to make sure everything was running smoothly. In the middle of their visit, Mariola spotted a boat on the horizon indicating an incoming group of refugees. She pointed the boat out to the officers. “They whispered to each other and then turned to me and told me they had to leave before the boat came. They were prohibited from intervening,” so they left before the situation became complicated, Mariola reported.

So, once again, the Aphrodite Hotel responded without outside help. Three rooms in the hotel were solely devoted to storing clothing of all sizes that could be distributed to the asylum-seekers washing ashore. Much of the clothing was collected from local stores, who donated their stocks that were going unsold due to the decrease in tourism caused by the refugee influx. When NGOs started to arrive to assist them and media began to cover the story of the hotel, people from around the world started to send boxfuls of clothing to the hotel to distribute to the freezing people.

Moriola and the rest of her family started to notice a trend relating to the people arriving on their shores as time went on. “It was not just people fleeing war,” said Mariola. “This route that was being set up is being taken advantage of.” Mariola mentioned the many migrants who join the crowds of refugees to take advantage of what Mariola calls “the false offering of the European Dream.” These people, though often victims of other difficult situations, take advantage of the

refugee exile “as a means of getting to Europe in an easier manner,” says Mariola.

Many people also worry about a different variety of stowaway who can be hiding among the refugees: terrorists. Politicians across the globe, like America’s Donald Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, cite the influx of Islamic refugees as the source of increased terrorism. When famed American interviewer Anderson Cooper came to Hotel Aphrodite to speak with Mariola, this question was at the forefront of his questioning: Aren’t you afraid you’re letting in terrorists?

Mariola and her family see this concern, but Mariola has a different take on the situation. “It all depends with how we treat them,” said Mariola. “If someone with anti-western thoughts comes to my shore and I kick them off, they reinforce their feelings about the west.”

Mariola, a mother and usher of thousands of refugees, completed her thought as if speaking directly to Cooper. “But if I treat them with kindness, things might be different,” she said.


III.      The camp director


Across the island from Moria camp is another refugee camp called Kara Tepee, a camp that self declares its mission as to embody kindness. Unlike the disorganized, trash-filled living spaces in Moria, Kara Tepe is a beacon of cleanliness, organization, and color – elaborate murals featuring messages of hope and positivity cover almost every flat surface in sight.

Kara Tepe is often used as a camp to house the most vulnerable of Lesbos’s asylum-seekers: disabled, pregnant woman, and unaccompanied minors are among those given priority access to living in Kara Tepe. A family transferred from Moria to Kara Tepe might be most shocked by, among many other things, the lack of fences. While Moria’s perimeter and interior are lined with barbed wire and metal fencing, at Kara Tepe there is not a fence in sight.

“We want to give them back some dignity. Normality,” boomed Starvos Mirgiannis, the director of the camp. “For us, this is a big deal.”

Mirgiannis stood near the entrance of the camp. He wore a green Teflon shirt, matching pants and aviator sunglasses akin to a 1970s drill sergeant. In one hand, he held a cup of coffee, a pack of cigarettes, and a flip cell phone. In the other, he grasped a full-sized walkie-talkie and ear buds. He spoke with passion and volume, speaking in a somewhat staggered English that was so confident one tended to forget his mistakes.

“We have a flag that in our minds flies. It has five words: freedom, democracy, respect, dignity, hospitality,” said Mirgiannis. “We don’t want people to feel like lumps, take your life in your hands! Don’t dream of the red carpet somewhere else!”

Kara Tepe lives true to this mantra, not only providing “residents” (not “refugees”) with services

and hospitality, but also challenging them to educate themselves, volunteer throughout the camp and eventually move on. In Mirgiannis’s words, they fight the “tragic mentality” of defeatism.


“Freedom, democracy, respect, dignity, hospitality,” Mirgiannis repeats with unwavering commitment. “We move this ferry with 1,200 passengers with those five words.”


IV. The migrants


Though Ahmed is an minor who arrived in Greece without a parent or guardian, he was not transferred to Kara Tepe. Instead, in June 2018, he was moved to a government owned home in Mytilene that houses a group of under-age migrants miles away from the roar of Moria. Though this was a vast improvement for Ahmed, he still dreamed of something more.

Ahmed and Bahaa hold out hope for their asylum applications, hoping to move beyond Lesbos to find good work and new lives. Bahaa had his eyes on France, hoping to learn French and reach Paris in order to find meaningful and profitable work. But he was not attached. “I’ll go anywhere where there’s work,” Bahaa said.

But first the pair must be granted asylum, a step that proved very difficult for most of their Egyptian friends. Egyptians, as opposed to Syrians and groups from other war-torn regions, have a harder time convincing the system of their status. Migrants from countries where politics are more stable, like Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, often rely on specific situations to justify their illegal border crossings. “For most Egyptians, it’s rejected, appeal, rejected, appeal,” said Bahaa of the asylum application process.

Moria is a sort of limbo, filled with thousands of people waiting to hear back on their asylum applications and to be granted papers to continue on their journeys. Those who do not qualify can be sent back to the country they crossed into Greece from. “There are people who give up everything to come here and end up getting deported,” Bahaa claimed. Bahaa heard of one person who was sent back to Turkey and then back to Syria, a fate he was unable to fathom.

Moria provides lawyers to help applicants with their asylum cases, but Bahaa and Ahmed doubted their effectiveness. “The lawyers don’t do anything,” Bahaa claimed. “They told Ahmed he would be finished in one month six months ago.”

But the pair remained hopeful. One of their Egyptians friends just received their papers to ride the ferry to Athens, but many Egyptians are sent right back to Lesbos as soon as they dock, Bahaa claimed.

For now, Moria is home. And even in Moria, life goes one. Moria residents raise children, swim at Lesbos’s renowned beaches, run errands – riding a shuttle bus that transports people to downtown Mytilene – and even fall in love. Bahaa and Ahmed recalled a recent marriage


celebration within Moria, between young Syrian refugees. It was not an official state wedding, but a religious ceremony held for the benefit of the love-struck couple. “They went to the head of the Syrian community in Moria to be married,” Bahaa reported. Of course, this wedding would not be recognized by the Greek government: no papers.


V.     The Protestor


On June 25, Anna Koukoulis stood in a group of a dozen people outside the Aegean Ministry in Mytilene in high heels, lipstick, and sunglasses. She was there in support of Nick Trakellis, the president of Moria village, who sat a few feet away on the stairs of the administrative building on a hunger strike. With two painted black, white and red signs reading “HUNGER STRIKE” and “SOS SAVE MORIA NOW,” Koukoulis was supporting Trakellis’s protest of the impact the residents of the Moria camp have had on the surrounding village and Lesbos as a whole.

Koukoulis, who was among the people helping refugees ashore in the early stages of the crisis, condemned the behavior of the asylum-seekers throughout Moria. Without papers to move on, more than 7,000 refugees are trapped on Lesbos, and Koukoulis represents just one of the many residents perturbed by the actions and destruction allegedly caused by refugees.

“People swim naked at the beach and make a mess,” Koukoulis said. “We can’t go swimming because of them.”

Koukoulis cited many other behaviors and incidents involving the reproachful and sometimes criminal behavior of migrants. On June 24, a fire started in an olive grove that burned four acres of private property. Koukoulis and many others believed it was a fire started by asylum-seekers to barbeque animals stolen from Lesbos residents.

From stealing food, to killing cats, to harassing local girls, to vandalizing Christian cemeteries and churches, Koukoulis stood with President Trakellis in calling for a response to the migrant overcrowding in Moria. “There are no rules. There is no control,” Koukoulis said as a car drove by the ministry, honking in support.

“In 2015, we would run and help them,” she said. “We want to help them. They’re given cards, money, resources.” But this behavior, said Koukoulis, was unacceptable.

Though Koukoulis blamed the asylum-seekers for their behavior, she did not fault them for their situation. “The people don’t want to live in camps. They want their freedom.” Koukoulis argued that the Greek government, the EU, and Turkey must handle the overcrowded Moria camp and contain the situation. “We’ve called for help so many times. The government has promised many things.” So far, however, the citizens of Moria and the rest of Lesbos have seen no follow through.

Koukoulis hoped that President Trakellis’s hunger strike would prompt the Aegean powers to truly address the issue, to give the Lesbos she once knew back to her. Mostly, she wanted the beaches to be rid of underwear-clad refugees so she could swim in peace. “Lesbos was only supposed to be a stopover for them,” Koukoulis said, “and now they’re stuck here.”


VI.     The grave digger


As the sun set over the mountains on the western shore of Lesbos, Dawa prayed before nearly one hundred Muslim graves buried between large plots of Greek olive trees. Dawa faced Mecca as he prayed, the same direction each of the bodies faced buried underground. Since the first six bodies were buried in 2015, the cemetery has grown with the crisis.

Still, in June of 2018, Dawa worked alone. When a Muslim person dies in one of the camps, Dawa is the only lifeline for a timely, ritually-proper burial. Though many organizations collected funds and claimed to offer the same services in Lesbos, Dawa called this these groups scams. He is the only Muslim grave digger, he claimed.

The plot of land nestled between the olive groves has still not been officially designated as a cemetery due to various bureaucratic hindrances, a threat that worries Dawa daily. Will the bodies be able to stay? Will he be able to continue?

Many of the headstones marking each of the graves, headstones that Dawa also made himself, showed not names but numbers: “Unknown woman No. 134”; “Unknown infant No. 31”. The headstone of number Infant Number 31 sat directly adjacent to another headstone belonging to Infant Number 36. Beneath the ground, the children were lied to rest in the same coffin, not because the cemetery is running out of space, but because Dawa felt he couldn’t separate the babies. “I just felt they shouldn’t be alone,” he said.

Each of these graves marked a body that was never identified, waiting to be located by surviving family. Each number corresponds to a DNA profile maintained in a database, but there is no active system established to help connect a family member with the remains of their missing loved one.

Again, Dawa tried to fill in where the state did not, sometimes using his knowledge of the bodies

– such as scars and age – to connect searching family members with the remains of their loved ones through his own means. This is one of the many roles and skills Dawa developed in a short time. In one year, Dawa saw himself move from Egypt to Greece, from a life of academia to a life of death.

“I feel like I can’t go on,” said Dawa. With the mental stress of his obligation taking a toll, Dawa finds himself drowning not in water, but in his duty, his worry. “I put too much pressure on myself,” he said. But Dawa trudged on, knowing that no one on the island has his knowledge – his familiarity with Muslim burial law, his respect for the dead, his mental record of each of the identified and unidentified bodies contained in every grave, beneath every headstone, under every lump of soil.

He worried about the future. He worried that if he left, there would be no one to carry on his work. He worried families would never find their loved ones. He worried that a dead Muslim would be left in a refrigerator for weeks. He worried that if he died, the cemetery would die with him.


VII.    The hotelier

“People speak of Lesbos as the Island of Despair,” said Mariola with a grand sweeping motion. But there’s so much more, said Mariola. “Lesbos is not just the refugee crisis.”

“When the media speaks of Lesbos that way it brands us all with that image,” Mariola said. How can we recover from the loss, both in tourism and beyond, if the media makes us look like a refugee infested island filled with racists? she asked. In her viral Facebook posts and other writings, Mariola argued that the media needs to present a more balanced view of the refugee crisis and of Lesbos. “We are asking for solidarity and support through actions not only for the refugees but also for the local communities affected by all this,” she said.

According to Mariola, when the media writes about Lesbos and people speak about Lesbos, “they have to remember the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant.”

“A group of blind men find an elephant, but none of them know what it is. The first blind man reaches out and touches the trunk and exclaims, ‘The elephant is like a snake!’ Another blind man, whose hand was on the its leg says, ‘An elephant is like a tree stump!’ The blind man who put his hand on the elephant’s side says, ‘An elephant is like a wall!’ …And the last one who felt its tale says, ‘An elephant is like as a rope!’ They were all wrong.”

To understand the refugee crisis, said Mariola, you can’t just listen to one perspective or touch one part of the elephant. You can’t just hear what the government has to say, or the local media, or the asylum-seekers, or the locals, or the volunteers. “You have to find the different pieces of the elephant,” said Mariola. “You have to put them all together.”