Greek island bears the brunt of the world's migrant crisis

SAMOS, Greece - On the slope of a hill on Samos, the Greek island known for its ancient ruins, colorful fishing villages and sweet muscat wine, sits a crammed migrant camp and sprawling tent city that many consider the most overcrowded and desperate refugee camp in Europe.

Giannis Meletiou, a 60-year-old lawyer, lives at the foot of the hill. The other day, he hopped in his Jeep and drove a couple hundred yards up a narrow winding road lined with crowded tents. He waved at children, who lit up when they recognized him because he often prepares them sandwiches.

Then he drove past the migrant camp, topped with barbed wire and spilling out people, and rumbled past trees that migrants had stripped of their branches and chopped to their trunks for firewood.

He reached his family's old property, in a field with a view of the sea and snowcapped mountains, and stood above a shin-high rectangle of stone. It was all that remained of the home where his parents took refuge during World War II. The migrants had taken the wooden walls, the windows, the doors and the roof. “Everything,” he said with a shrug.

About 6,800 asylum-seekers are jammed into the camp and fighting the elements in the olive groves and pine woods of the hill. Below is a quaint port town that is home to about 6,200 locals like Meletiou.

Together, the locals and asylum-seekers bear the shared brunt of forces beyond their control - Greek government dysfunction, the cold shoulder of the European Union, the chaos in the Middle East and the geopolitical calculations of Turkey.

And many here fear that this verdant tourist destination - famous as the birthplace of goddess Hera and philosopher Epicurus - is a preview of the future if the continent doesn't get its act together.

Many in town, like Meletiou, are sympathetic to the migrants' plight, even as more arrived this summer by boat from Turkey. The town's mayor, Georgios Stantzos, is an avid scuba diver who volunteered to rescue asylum-seekers and recover drowned bodies at the height of the crisis in 2015.

Recently, though, Stantzos was caught on a cellphone video lashing out at migrants loitering around the main square. He apologized, but in an interview, he argued that the video failed to show an angry demonstration of migrants descending on the square during a children's Christmas celebration shortly before his outburst.

“I react so that the citizens don't,” he said, adding that he had pleaded with the Greek government for help as the camp erupted in riots that threatened to scare tourists away on an island that can't live without them.

But he had come to the “common-sense” conclusion that the government was “sacrificing” his island and others, including Lesbos, where police last week fired tear gas on disgruntled migrants marching to town to protest their wretched conditions.

Outside Samos City Hall, by the curving promenade spotted with gyro restaurants, cafes and tourism companies, asylum- seekers walked with their children and fished in the port. Others came here to video chat with their families because they didn't want them to see their living conditions and get upset.

“I don't want them to worry,” said Claude Fotso, 31, from Cameroon, who has been living in the olive grove for three months.

The camp was built originally to hold 648 people. It is now packed with more than 3,000. Hardly anyone has seen a doctor.

Inside, on a recent day, Syrian teenagers applied masking tape over the slashes in their tent, left by thieves stealing cellphones in the night. An Afghan woman, wearing an “It's All Greek To Me” T-shirt, cleaned pots with half a sponge and a drop of shampoo.

Those who live in the camp have it better than those in tents on the hillside.

“Lots of people have come, I have been here the longest,” said Ashaq Hossein, 25, who avoided the crowded camp when he arrived 21/2 years ago and set up on the hillside.

Sick of rats and mudslides, Hossein, from Afghanistan, built elevated living quarters consisting of metal pipes for stilts, a tarp-wrapped cage for walls and a section of wrought iron fencing for a door. His papers, dated Aug. 3, 2017, were brittle from folding and unfolding.

As authorities prioritized the processing of some nationalities, like Syrians, others seemed forgotten. A loudspeaker above the camp called out names to report for interviews to leave the island. “I've lost hope that they will say my name,” Hossein said.

All around him, asylum- seekers seized on a break in the cold weather to wash their clothes, bathe their shivering children and fill containers with drinking water.

Men gathered wood. They pushed strollers and shopping carts full of tree limbs and then chopped firewood for hours. Women used olive tree branches to brush doorsteps.

There are nearly 2,000 children on the hill, including 351 unaccompanied minors. About 580 of the children on the island are infants and toddlers. Only about 40 children attend a formal school.

Stantzos, the mayor, said the Greek government promised him the camp in Samos would close and won his grudging support for a new camp for 1,500 migrants, which many have characterized as a detention center, about 3 miles inland.

But then he heard on the television that the camp would be built to hold 7,000 migrants. He suspected the number could reach 15,000.

“I feel betrayed,” he said.

The new site is folded between hills near the birthplace of ancient mathematician Pythagoras. Excavators dug a vast flat field surrounded by concrete walls, fencing and barbed wire.

In the neighboring village, Andreas Fourniotis, 71, said he feared migrants would climb over the hill and arrive at his doorstep.

“The whole village is worrying about this,” he said.

The migrants on Samos said they just want to get off the island.

As night fell, the hill grew cold again. Haidar Kazamahai, who had arrived two days earlier from Iraq, tried to keep his 1-year-old son warm next to a neighbor's campfire and explained, in a daze, that authorities gave him nothing but four blankets and instructions to make do.

“I have a 21/2-year-old girl,” he said. “And my little boy.”

Down the road, Mara Shahir, 67, a doctor from Syria, taught some boys how to ignite a campfire with a plastic bag. “In the future, they'll know how to keep warm,” he said.

After months on the island, Shahir and most of his family received a sought-after spot on a nine-hour ferry ride to take the next steps in their application process on the mainland. There, many were transferred to Ritsona, a camp with better conditions, outside Athens.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine