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Long Read: The Paradise Camp

Syrian refugees sent to a seaside resort were told they were going to the best refugee camp in Greece. Six months on, people’s patience with a holiday no one wanted is wearing thin.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
A young Syrian boy joins his friends in the sea outside the refugee camp in a converted holiday village in Western Greece. Daniel Howden

As the sun sinks over the Ionian Sea, it throws spiky shadows from the palm trees over the water slide at the L.M. holiday village. A barbecue is lit in front of one of the identical little houses, and some boys have started to kick a ball around on the mini soccer pitch.

Mothers wrapped in head scarves steer strollers along the circuit from the volleyball court to the beachfront while a gaggle of young children tear around the place with a scruffy dog named Rocky.

The L.M. resort is similar to, yet unlike, any of the hundreds of others elsewhere in Greece.

Next to the tattered sign at the entrance is a shiny billboard boasting of the Greek army’s renovation of the site. Rusted railings have fallen into the empty swimming pool, and chickens peck the grass around the ruined beach bar, which was looted when L.M. closed down nearly six years ago in an arcane dispute over its ownership.

It was around that time that things began to go wrong for most of the village’s current residents, some 248 Syrian refugees whose country was plunged into civil war in the same year.

When they arrived in March, the former holiday village was hailed as the best refugee camp in Greece. The Syrians who found themselves here were told they had been extraordinarily lucky.

The shuttered holiday village on a lovely strip of coast in Western Greece is part of the only municipality in the country that volunteered to take in refugees. It is also the only one to elect an immigrant mayor, Nabil-Josef Morad, a Syrian doctor, born in the city of Homs, who long ago married a Greek and settled here.

A slight and dapper man whose phone rings constantly, the mayor is happy to talk about himself as a “bridge” between the Syrians and Greeks.

Despite his local election victory, Greece’s neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, has strong support in the municipality. The nearby village of Nea Manolada became notorious after immigrant strawberry pickers were shot and wounded by a farmer after protesting unpaid wages.

At public meetings before L.M. reopened as a camp, he assured locals that only a small number of refugees would come, all would be Syrian, and almost all would be families. The army was brought in to restore power and water to the dilapidated complex and deliver food.

“Some people did think we were letting in thieves and murderers,” Morad admits. “When we stuck to our promises, everyone relaxed.”

The L.M. holiday village in Kyllini in Western Greece is now home to nearly 250 Syrian refugees. (Daniel Howden)

The L.M. holiday village in Kyllini in Western Greece is now home to nearly 250 Syrian refugees. (Daniel Howden)

In March, nearly 350 Syrians were collected from Piraeus where thousands of refugees and migrants had gathered in tents. The mayor clearly enjoyed the burst of international attention that followed.

“They were telling us we had the perfect refugee camp,” he says with a smile.

Doubts creep into his conversation when the mayor admits that he thought the camp would only be needed until September. “We all thought the crisis would be over in three or four months. Now we don’t know,” he says.

The Greek asylum service has warned refugees at L.M. that they face at least a six- to eight-month wait for resettlement. Around 100 of its early residents won places in an E.U. relocation scheme. Among those who remain, there are sharp divisions between residents reconciled to a longer stay, and those adamant that they must leave immediately.

The realists have planted vegetables and started a small library, while others have vandalized some facilities and boycotted language lessons from volunteers.

Fares al-Hamdan, a father of six, has emerged as an informal leader of the refugees. A businessman and university lecturer from outside the Syrian capital, Damascus, he remembers the March morning on the dockside in Piraeus when he got word that coaches were being filled with Syrian families to take them to a “better place.”

The two families he was traveling with split, as some were suspicious and “thought the camp would be like a prison,” says Fares.

The split was not easy, as the group had formed a strong bond during a torrid sea passage to the island of Chios in a leaky dinghy, with the Turkish coast guard firing warning shots over their heads.

“I can tell you about this now, but I cannot describe the fear. Now we sit here, and that fear is filtered one million times,” he says.

Most of the residents at the Kyllini refugee camp, in a shuttered holiday village in western Greece, hope to go to Germany. (Daniel Howden)

Most of the residents at the Kyllini refugee camp, in a shuttered holiday village in western Greece, hope to go to Germany. (Daniel Howden)

A soft-spoken patriarch, fluent in English and with the confidence of wealth and education, Fares was a natural interlocutor with the camp’s organizers.

When a local farmer appears at L.M. with a trailer of watermelons, it is Fares who manages the distribution. Residents are asked to present their house key and get ticked off a list. The 30 watermelons are divided among the 40 houses according to how many people are living in each, with some asked to share.

These are the details that decide whether conflicts arise.

“We try to live as one family, even though we are 70 families,” he says wearily. “But the men have no jobs, no work, so they start to gossip about each other. Every day we have a new problem because of people talking against each other.”

Most of these problems arrive at the door of George Angelopoulos, a volunteer from the nearby village of Myrsini who has become a de facto administrator. In many ways, he has been the victim of the assumption that, with food and shelter on hand, everything else would look after itself.

The food, which is provided by the army, is loathed. It arrives once a month from Athens in a refrigerated shipping container. When it’s reheated, the plastic trays melt and the contents are often inedible. It’s an expensive solution that reinforces residents’ lack of autonomy.

The nearest hospital is 31 miles (50km) away and, until recently was the only option even for minor injuries. More than half of the camp’s residents are children, many of whom have known only war. When a good samaritan donated bicycles, they broke hands and feet while learning to ride. Each accident meant an expensive taxi fare. The whole municipality has only three ambulances.

The slew of NGOs that are working in camps in the rest of Greece have been put off by L.M.’s small size, its distance from everywhere else and the assumption that it did not need anything.

Nadia Baltazzi, a Greek who volunteered with many of the same Syrians on the E2 dock in Piraeus, got in touch with Angelopoulos after they were moved to L.M.

“I asked him if he needed anything,” she says. “He answered that they needed everything.”

Despite having a family and a job in Switzerland, Baltazzi comes back so often that she jokes that her husband will divorce her. She has assembled a rotating team of international volunteers who try to fill the gaps.

“Everybody thinks this is the paradise camp, so people don’t think they need to help,” she says. “The only thing these people want is to move on, and we’re not giving them that, so why should they be grateful?”

For the residents at L.M., as well as the 58,000 other refugees and migrants stranded in Greece when the borders closed earlier this year, there are four ways out: reunification with family elsewhere in the E.U.; relocation to another E.U. member state; asylum in Greece; or smuggling themselves home.

Karama is one of the few to openly talk about going home. She fled Syria with her three children, leaving her husband behind in Damascus to care for his elderly parents.

As a mother with two teenage daughters and a 15-year-old son to look after, she feels vulnerable. She has accused the Syrian man who shared their L.M. house of smashing the bathroom door when one of her daughters was inside. The family is lodging in another house while they wait to be moved.

“No one is in charge here. Is it the army, or the mayor, or George or Nadia or Fares?” she asks, before answering herself: “This place is like a jungle and some people think they are lions.”

She insists that she would go back to Syria if she had the money to do it. A former employee at the central bank of Syria, Karama’s husband worked in a government ministry. The family was well off and she resents their sudden fall into poverty and the disruption to her children’s education.

“This is a nice place, but I come from a beautiful country … I didn’t give up my life, my husband, my business to come and live here.”

Ahmed Haj Bakur, 21, is one of only four single men in the camp. A student of economics from Aleppo, he fled Syria after the university told him he had to join the army.

He initially threw himself into life at L.M., setting up English and Arabic lessons for the children and helping one of the mothers with her family. But rumors started about the nature of his relationship with the children, and he was attacked in his room. Since then he has stopped teaching and spends most days alone.

The veteran of four failed attempts to smuggle himself overland out of Greece, he carries the hopes of the rest of his family back in Aleppo.

“They are waiting for me and I’m here, waiting,” Ahmed complains.

His phone was stolen during his last effort to escape Greece, which may cost him a cherished appointment with the Greek asylum service who only have his old number. Every day, he forlornly phones them in Athens hoping to speak to an official and update his contact details.

“I left Syria to study, to help my family, to find a future. Not to stay here eating and sleeping,” he says.

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