By Marissa Michaels
MYTILINI, Greece –– Rich aromas pervade Nan, a restaurant in Lesbos’ port city of Mytilini, distinguished by its blend of traditional Greek foods and the cuisines of the refugees that work there.
Nan’s multicultural menu changes daily, updated with a board of specials, including their $5 Nantails. Much of its international customer base, many of whom are aid workers or students, return to Nan often, listening to Abba playing on the stereo.
Four Greek women founded Nan in 2018 with the goal of being an environmentally friendly example of how local Greek businesses can successfully employ refugees, as long as they are willing to deal with some resistance along the way.
One of the four women who founded Nan, Evyenia Tziaka explained, “Our aim is to make food the means to change the perceptions of refugees and to help them integrate.”
By showing local people that refugees too can work with Greeks and contribute to society, the founders hope that locals will be more accepting of the thousands of refugees that are in Lesbos at any moment.
Another founder, Lena Altinoglou, echoed this sentiment. “A prime aim of the restaurant is to set an example, a paradigm that exclusion only makes things worse, that 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.”
Hafiz Abdul Wariz, a Pakistani employee at Nan said in a video made by Oxfam, “Here you don’t have a difference between local people and refugees. Everybody is working together, eating and celebrating all the time. And everybody makes a new family. That is Nan.”
But more and more, it looks like Nan is the exception, not the rule. Though citizens of Mytilini welcomed refugees with open arms when the first large wave entered Lesbos in 2015, since then, locals have grown resistant to the refugee influx.
Once European countries closed their borders in 2016, it became clear that many refugees were here to stay. With unemployment on the island of Lesbos already very high, locals did not want more people coming in to take jobs.
Altinoglou said of Nan’s critics, “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.”
According to Tziaka, last summer Nan put tables outside, which almost everyone does illegally in Mytilini. Soon after, someone in the neighborhood called the police who demanded that Nan pay a 250 euro fine, a perceived attack on its mission.
Altinoglou explained, “I think that we had very negative critics, usually on social media, but that was only something we were expecting, knowing that there is a fatigue in local society because of seven year now crisis.”
She understands the local mindset, but stressed the need for creativity in the face of the refugee crisis in Greece, whose unemployment rate hovers around 18%. “Usually it’s shortsighted people who cannot think outside of the box. They usually think that if we all unite and send them away, the problem will end there. We will not have the problem,” she explained.
Altinoglou knows that refugees are here to stay. By showing local people that refugees too can work and contribute to society, the founders hope that locals will become more accepting.
But aside from criticism from locals, Nan faces concerns over employee reliability and training. Nan is a non-profit restaurant and the founders are purely volunteers. To make a living, Altinoglou works as a teacher, Tziaka and her husband live off of their pensions. All they hope for is to make Nan sustainable, to teach the workers how to run a business so they can do more for themselves.
As Altinoglou said, “They are not accustomed to the European way of doing things, they are not accustomed to regulations that have to do with restaurants and operating in the food departments.” In order to integrate refugee employees who are unfamiliar with Greek and English as well as European business, Nan leads workshops to train cooking staff.
While they work with temporary permits, employees receive assistance in their asylum processes as well.
Even so, many employees end up leaving the restaurant once their asylum is granted, which leaves Nan with vacancies.
“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.
Sometimes, employees will wait until the last minute to announce their exit for fear of being fired beforehand, complicating the replacement process.
But even through issues with employees, Nan maintains high food standards. Committed to making Nan environmentally sustainable, the founders constructed the restaurant out of recycled materials and opened in March 2018. Despite extra costs, they try hard to keep their plastic use to a minimum. Moreover, Nan buys its produce from local farmers and ensures that their recipes are nutritious and healthy.
Because of their ability to do this while setting a positive example, Altinoglou is content with Nan’s progress. “Goals are always ambitious and of course in one year, you can never reach the goals. But I think that we have established the first one which is having local people and refugees working together and finding common ground to cooperate and communicate and to interact,” she said.
Altinoglou summed up the importance of Nan. “Businesses which hire refugees, if they don’t do it just to get low-paid employees, are contributing to an opening to possibilities of coexistence.”