By Jack Allen
MORIA, Greece — The lunchtime rush is not a good time to interview Kostas Dripadis at his restaurant across the road from Moria refugee camp. “It’s the busiest time of the day – we have migrants, NGO workers and the camp administration all visiting to order food,” he explained.
Dripadis set up Maria’s Shop in 2015 just after the former army barracks of Moria was repurposed as a transfer camp for refugees arriving on the island of Lesbos, Greece. Serving about 250 people a day, his business is one of many in the area that has benefitted from the influx of migrants and workers to the camp.
Like many of the structures across the road, Maria’s Shop was fashioned quickly out of temporary materials: Dripadis operates out of a burger van, while his customers seek shade from the summer sun under tarpaulin sheets.
Despite the transient appearance of his business, Maria’s Shop has outlived many of the other businesses in the area.
At the peak of the influx of migrants, the fields around the camp were home to 16 businesses selling mobile phone cards, toiletries and food to inhabitants of the camp, Dripadis explained. Now, just two small businesses remain.
“People know where to go – where they won’t get food poisoning, where they’ll get good service, and where the prices are good enough,” he said. “Depending on the season, though, I can be really busy, or pretty quiet. It all depends on how many are in the camp at the time.”
The food, advertised in English, Greek and Arabic, is sold just above cost, said Dripadis. “I’m serving to refugees, so I’m forced to keep the prices as low as possible. Otherwise they can’t afford anything.”
“We sell a little bit of everything,” said Dripadis. Falafel is popular with migrants from the Middle East, he explains, while the Greek administration and NGO workers from Europe and North America choose hotdogs, wraps and souvlaki – Greek kebabs.
For Alain Vimpi, who arrived in Moria two weeks ago, the restaurant is a place to escape the banality of life in Moria.
“It’s obvious why people come here,” said Vimpi. “You can’t buy things like Coke or good food inside the camp.” He described the meals provided in the camp as “consisting of tiny bits of beans, meat, rice, and some vegetables.”
“They are morsels of food,” he said. “They’re barely edible.”
Preferring to leave his “cramped” accommodation, Vimpi comes to the restaurant to call his wife and child who he left when fleeing from Congo. “There is almost nothing to do in the camps, except wait around to hear news on your application for asylum,” he explained.
He fears that he may never be able to bring his family to Europe. “I have no money, and the planes, visas and processes to bring them here are ridiculously expensive,” he explained.
At present, officials forecast a processing time of almost a year and a half for asylum applications. Currently, non-urgent transfers of refugees to the Greek mainland have been suspended due to Greece’s upcoming general election – a move which is likely to prolong Vimpi’s stay in Moria.
The atmosphere inside the camps is “difficult,” Vimpi explained – a sentiment shared by Dripadis, who says that migrants inside the camp describe food lines of up to two hours.
One report by the BBC quoted a doctor from the charity MSF who described Moria as “the worst refugee camp on earth.” The charity provided medical assistance inside the camp until it closed down in March 2016; MSF said remaining in the camp would facilitate “a mass expulsion operation” that was “not acceptable” for the organization.
Although originally envisioned as a transfer camp, the average stay in Moria is now around seven months. The official capacity of the camp is 3,300, but almost 5,600 people are currently in the camp – and the authorities say that the summer influx could cause the camp’s population to quickly reach 7,000.
The tense atmosphere in the camps occasionally manifests itself in the restaurant, too: that afternoon, one migrant attempted to steal a beer from the restaurant’s fridge. With the assistance of international aid workers, Dripadis ejected the migrant from the restaurant.
As he was being led away, the migrant screamed, “I kill you!” to Dripadis. Unperturbed, he returned to his grill and began to prepare more sandwiches for aid workers.
“You have to understand – this is the best they’ve got,” he explained. “Nobody likes it in the camp, of course, but even here is better than where they are coming from – so this kind of thing is understandable.”