In Your Own Words: The Plight of Middle Eastern Refugees in Greece

By Mattea Cumoletti '12


It was only day two in the office, and the shrill Skype ring-back was already playing in my dreams. Incessant and irritating, the tone accompanied the comings and goings of the Greek Forum of Refugees (GFR) office, which was on the third floor of a nondescript building in a graffitied alleyway tucked into the bustling Athens neighborhood of Exarchia. This anarchist-friendly corner of the city was the choice for the small community-based organization to set up shop after the last office was vandalized and the GFR president attacked in an anti-migrant hate crime, all because of their efforts to protect refugee and asylum-seekers’ rights in Greece. In the summer of 2016, I joined them as a peace fellow through a partnership facilitated by The Advocacy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nongovernmental organization (NGO), and I spent 10 weeks working in the heart of the European refugee crisis.

Skype was one of the recent government initiatives in response to this crisis. Facing exponentially increasing numbers, the Greek Asylum Service required an initial Skype interview to schedule an in-person appointment for people seeking asylum. This supposedly novel management tool had become an unmitigated disaster by the time I arrived in the summer, creating a massive bottleneck of unregistered refugees, who often waited months to hear the coveted “ping” of a Skype connection.

I knew well that Greece has been a transit country for scores of men, women and children fleeing conflict from the Middle East, and the whole world has watched the numbers spike with broken hearts over the past year as the perilous journey across the Mediterranean claimed thousands of lives. In February 2016, when surrounding European countries closed their borders to the influx of refugees, Greece became a forced destination country. When I was there this summer, nearly 60,000 refugees, mostly Syrian and Afghan, were stuck, as the EU implemented deals and programs essentially meant to staunch the flow of people seeking security in Europe. The new EU-Turkey Deal not only threatened to send those deemed unworthy of protection back across the sea, but it left Greece scrambling to put longer-term humanitarian measures in place, as it became more difficult for refugees to make it to Germany or other Northern European countries.

Serendipity brought me to GFR, a network of refugees and Greek locals which was begun by the incredible Yonous Muhammadi, a former Afghan refugee and activist who had become an integral part of local Greek politics, fighting against racism, xenophobia and promoting refugee integration. His work earned him the prestigious Alison des Forges Human Rights Watch Award this year. The GFR had recently become an implementing partner with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees through a Community Worker program, in which our members worked in the camps as liaisons, mediators and interpreters between the camp residents, Greek police and army and various international NGOs and service providers. The small but dedicated staff of the GFR run a multitude of programs, and I jumped right in to manage the communications and advocacy, writing press releases, controlling social media and working with an inter-agency NGO advocacy group to publish a policy brief for the Greek government.

There are many refugee camps in and around Athens, and throughout the summer, some of the GFR team and I visited seven camps to talk to the residents, report on camp conditions and help spread important information. One of the largest camps in Athens is at the site of the former 2004 Olympic Stadium and international airport, called Elliniko. Thousands of people were living in tents on the soccer field, under the constant beating heat of the sun, while others camped out in the hallways of the stadium. Some of the camps were much worse off than others—at the time of our visit, Malakasa had been established for months without electricity or clean running water. One camp, Oinofyta, is managed by an American woman from a small NGO, and the residents self-organized to create a community garden, a governing council, an incredible school and even a chicken coop. There were informal camps too—I was there when the army evacuated the hundreds of families who had settled under a bridge and in warehouses at Piraeus Port, which is where ferries full of tourists come and go. They used a bulldozer to crush the tents and belongings of those who hadn’t taken the warnings of forced relocation seriously. The image that always stuck in my mind from the camp visits were of children wearing shoes that were always too big or too small—no one seemed to have the right size.

Every person I met was trying to get to reunite with family in Germany or get to another northern European country where refugees were supposedly more well-accepted; no one wanted to stay in Greece. With the borders closed and the process for asylum and relocation unbearably slow, many people used smugglers to leave Athens. The refugee experience in Greece is often one of uncertainty, despair and boredom—despite the activities and efforts of many committed NGOs, and entrepreneurial resilience within communities, refugees have no legal right to work formally, and some turn to negative coping mechanisms, such as drug use and sex work, which I saw all too often this summer.

Despite seeing firsthand the difficulties of the lives of refugees in Greece, I am grateful that I was able to connect with so many amazing people and learn their stories. One of the highlights of my time in Athens was being interviewed by producers from the NPR podcast, “This American Life,” who had come to the GFR earlier in the year to report for an episode about the refugee crisis in Greece.

Outside of my GFR work, I carried out research through the Feinstein International Center on the financial journey of refugees. I conducted long interviews with many refugees and learned the incredible details of their lives and journeys, while drinking tea with them inside the tents that they had made their homes. My research team spanned four countries, and since my return to the U.S., we have been working on several publications. The work inspired me to branch out and research and produce my own podcast on entrepreneurship in protracted refugee situations for my current capstone, and I hope to continue to work in this field after I graduate this year.

By the end of my summer, rather than listening to the drone of Skype, I was painting the walls of a newer, bigger GFR office space in the same friendly neighborhood. Their work is starting to garner more recognition, as well as support from influential donors, and I’m grateful to have been just a small part of that. This experience has helped me shape my academic and career path, and I wouldn’t have arrived at this opportunity without building on the passion for human rights and social justice that was instilled in me during my time at Holy Cross.  ■