By Marissa Michaels

ATHENS — When she arrived in Greece as a refugee, Veeda Rahmani did not expect to still be here three and a half years later. Unemployed, Rahmani and her mother are unable to join family in Canada as they had hoped

In Afghanistan, Rahmani taught Farsi to post-graduates. Here, she cannot find work. Though she searches for jobs, Rahmani believes her English is not yet good enough to find employment. “No jobs for refugees,” she said simply.

She is not alone.

Greece’s Ministry of Migration Policy, which was recently absorbed into the Ministry of Citizen Protection, does not keep statistics on how many refugees work in Greece, but several interviews suggest that hardly any refugees have jobs.

But the problem extends beyond refugees. Greece has an unemployment rate of 18%, including 40% for youth and around 45% for registered migrants.

Since migrants like Rahmani are here to stay, Greece has a novel obstacle – how to integrate thousands of people into a country that does not have jobs for its own citizens.

About one million migrants travelled from Turkey to Greece in 2015, usually passing through on their way to more prosperous countries like Germany, where there were jobs and where Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that refugees were welcome.

Soon though, along with a rise of far-right populist leaders, most European countries closed their borders and in March 2016, the EU struck a deal with Turkey that drastically altered Greece’s refugee situation. Under the new rule, migrants must request asylum in the first European country in which they land, preventing them from leaving Greece to go to Germany or other stable countries.

Moria Camp, the infamous first reception center for migrants in Greece, and the neighboring Olive Grove camp. Photo by Thomas Salotti.

Refugees stuck here more often find themselves scapegoats for Greece’s problems than beneficiaries of asylum. As evidenced by violence against migrants, some Greeks see refugees as a threat to their economy and way of life, often resulting in inhumane treatment and an unwillingness to hire them. As a result, refugees struggle to become economically independent and European Union money is inefficiently funneled into migrant camps.

The dearth of migrant employment is particularly apparent on the island of Lesbos, where most refugees enter Greece. The reasons for this were explained by one founder of Nan, a non-profit restaurant in Mytilini, Lesbos that makes an effort to integrate refugee employees.

Ovileyah Mirah, a refugee, prepares the day’s special dishes at Nan, included imam and chicken korma. Photo by Marissa Michaels.

Founder Lena Altinoglou said, “Every movement that they might stay here for good creates frictions.” She explained that refugee employment scares many because it is a sign that migrants might be in Greece permanently, taking jobs away from locals. Refusing to employ refugees is just one way to force them off the island.

Altinoglou attributes criticism of Nan on social media to fatigue from the economic crisis. She said, “They think that this is encouraging people to stay here and there is a group of locals who would not like this kind of development.”

A 2017 survey taken in Athens reported that 54% of people said they did not think refugees could be absorbed by Greece. These attitudes have remained, but because European borders are closed, there is no alternative to integration.

Where Lesbos residents were once lauded for their aid to migrants passing through, they now fear a future where coexistence is necessary.

There is even concern that if migrants integrate, they might take over the island’s culture. Aphrodite Vati, owner of Aphrodite Hotel in Molivos said, “There’s a lot of fear associated with incorporating the refugees into the local community because that makes it a forever situation, that this is it.” One way to address the fear of integration is for locals to not hire refugees, discouraging their settlement in Lesbos.

For some locals, this is imperative. Vati is concerned about a demographic shift on the island. With only 87,000 residents in Lesbos and at times 10,000 migrants staying there, she feels that migrants might have an undue influence on society. “You have the danger of the local community losing their own character,” Vati said.

Aside from the fear of a morphing character, Vati explained that the local community felt left behind during the refugee crisis, creating tension with the refugees who received aid.

A presentation that Vati created for visitors notes that locals had to put their lives on hold to help refugees. The PowerPoint read, “When a boat would arrive at the Aphrodite Hotel beach, we would have to drop whatever we were doing, stop serving out guests and run down to the beach to guide the boat to arrive safely,” highlighting how the influx affected her business and daily life. After a few years, these selfless acts left many locals flustered and unwilling to help refugees by hiring them.

A painting of a Muslim woman in front of Mytilini’s Statue of Liberty. Photo by Marissa Michaels.

“If you’re in a plane and you have a child with you…if the oxygen masks come out…you’re supposed to put it on yourself and then your child… because if you pass out in your effort to help someone else, you’re gonna be no help to anyone whatsoever,” she said. “And so, what we’re asking for is, give us an oxygen mask so we can help ourselves deal with the fact that we’ve lost our business, lost our money.” In other words, before locals help the refugees, they must help themselves.

In 2015, Vati suffered huge business losses with multiple refugee boats arriving on her hotel’s beach each day. Her hotel occupancy went down 68.03% from 2014 to 2016. Vati explained, “There’s still people coming here thinking we’re crawling in refugees.”

In 2016, The Guardian reported in Lesbos, “Hotel pre-booking is down 45%-50% and cancellation rates are 20%.”

And as business suffered, help was nowhere to be found. According to Vati, the government provided businesses no assistance and aid organizations were “bypassing the local community altogether.”

The lack of attention to the communities negatively affected by the influx of refugees left them frustrated and turned many against migrants.

Marios Andriotis, Mytilini’s international relations senior advisor explained, “Locals think the island was mostly destroyed by the refugees after the crisis, tourism was destroyed by the refugee crisis, the image of the island internationally was damaged severely.”

Locals saw their businesses getting hit and their unemployment high and blamed it on refugees. For many, it is an easier prospect to ignore migrants altogether than to integrate the people that they think ruined their business.

Andriotis said, “Lack of information and fear of the unknown creates a situation that we are in now.”

Altinoglou added that cultural differences can make the prospect of employing refugees a daunting one. “They don’t know how hard it is, also for the locals, to find a common ground,” she said. Refugees speak different languages, eat foreign foods, pray to other gods. Under these circumstances, it can be difficult for locals and refugees to integrate and understand one another. Often, this gap in understanding and empathy leads to fear.

For this reason, Altinoglou encourages migrants to learn Greek and English if they want employment. “It is my belief… when you go to a host society, it is your obligation to learn the language, not theirs to learn your language. Because this also shows a willingness to be involved,” she said. “Even a very basic level of language competence makes a huge difference to people.”

The problem is that many refugees have no desire to take this step.

Elvira Krithari, editor in chief of a journalism startup called Solomon which hires refugees, said that because of their reluctance to stay in Greece, many refugees do not develop skills that would be necessary to live here.

“Because of their wish to go to other countries, they didn’t develop language skills, they didn’t try to, they didn’t have the willingness… to stay here and to be integrated into society,” Krithari said. “Not only skills, but they didn’t have any time to look, or they didn’t want to, or they didn’t care to worry about the bureaucracy and whatever it takes for someone to work here.”

A painting of a Muslim woman in front of Mytilini’s Statue of Liberty. Photo by Marissa Michaels.

And for restaurants like Nan, it is essential that employees have skills and legal status to work. For this reason, they provide workshops and resources for their staff to learn languages and get asylum. But even with these services, Nan has experienced trouble with refugees leaving on short notice, a problem that discourages others from hiring asylum seekers.

“A lot of people have come and left. When someone sees a position as a transit point, because they want to go to Germany or to other places, as soon as they get their asylum, they leave. And this is difficult for us because we spend a lot of time training and facilitating them to find the ways to make their life easy,” Altinoglou said.

If they are able, many refugees do try to meet family in other countries. Refugees are hesitant to settle down in Greece because the economic crisis makes it nearly impossible for them to find fulfilling, appropriate jobs.

Andriotis added, “There is this perception among asylum seekers that Greece is not the ideal place to stay and find a job. They want to just spend a few years in Greece and then move to another European country because they think it’s better.”

Rather than start the difficult job search and settle down, many migrants stay in camps in a process referred to as “institutionalization,” according to workers at refugee camps. Conditions there, with small allowances given each month, are better than life without government assistance for some, because of the difficult process of finding a job.

In their hesitance to employ refugees who might contribute to society, Greeks are instead paying for them in a more roundabout way. If the current attitudes around refugee employment persist, it looks as though this cycle just might continue.

To prevent this, Altinoglou encourages people to open their minds, abandon their resentment or frustration, and think of creative solutions to integrating refugees, like Nan. She said, “Exclusion only makes things worse…Things could be done in a different way, not excluding, but including and ‘exploiting’ the abilities of every person that is involved in this project.”