Refugees seek solace in homes of their own

The Almahmod family in the living room and kitchen of their Thessaloniki apartment. From left to right: Hazam Almahmod, 8-year-old Soad, 5-month-old Maria, mother Dersim Alhasan, 5-year-old Yara, 1-year-old twins Slava and Lava and 10-year-old Salma. 
Photo by Bridget Peery
Story by Paxtyn Merten and Gwendolyn Schanker

In a quiet, residential neighborhood in the hills above downtown Thessaloniki, Lamis Shosha and her four children live in a four-room apartment. All but one of them sleep in a single room, which contains three beds, while the other takes the couch in the living room. Though the apartment is small, they have enough space to host cheerful dinner parties for their friends and neighbors.

A 20-minute drive away, Hazam Almahmod and his wife, Dersim Alhasan, live with their six daughters in a similar-sized apartment on a rundown street in Kalamaria, a municipality east of Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki. There is one full-sized bed that fills most of the apartment’s single bedroom. Not all of them fit on it and so must sleep on the floor.

“The house is not good,” Almahmod said through a translator, as he sits outside on this pleasant May evening. “The people in this building are racist and they hate refugees.”

Temporary housing arrangements like these are now common for refugees from Syria due to Greece’s nationwide push toward moving people out of camps and into apartments. Nearly 28,000 of the estimated 50,000 Syrian refugees currently in mainland Greece have been placed into alternative housing situations since January 2017, according to a report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. The UNHCR aims to provide support to refugees around the world through settlement and integration initiatives.


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SIDEBAR STORY: With the continuing refugee crisis, volunteers have begun flooding Greece to come to their aid. This influx, which is against the wishes of the Greek government, has prompted limitations on how long aid workers can stay in the country. >>Click photo to read more.<<

The number of refugee camps in Greece has subsequently decreased from 52 to 35 in the last few months. Though quality of the apartments varies widely, government officials and organization leaders hope the effort to relocate refugees will help them integrate into Greek society and provide them with opportunities to live autonomously and peacefully in their new homes.

“We will diminish the number of people placed in camps and increase the number placed in apartments, which is the right thing to do,” said Lefteris Papagiannakis, vice mayor of the municipality of Athens whose job it is to oversee refugee housing in the city. There are no available statistics for how many apartments are available for Syrian refugees across the country, but Athens alone has 1,000, he said. “Hopefully someday there will be no camps.”

According to Leonidas Makris, advisor to the mayor of Thessaloniki, the city was one of the first to shelter refugees. Now, several other municipalities are participating in this effort. Yannis Boutaris, Thessaloniki’s mayor, said moving refugees to apartments around Greece can help them become more integrated into its society.  

“We must embrace the whole population and convince them to stay in Greece,” Boutaris said. “They are not animals. They are people. They have the same needs as you and me.”

Despite the positive intentions of the push for relocation, the process presents many challenges, not least of which is the dramatic difference in living situations from family to family. This can depend on the family’s size and the organization that works to put them into alternative housing.

Shosha says of her apartment, “here is heaven,” whereas Almahmod says he would rather be in Syria than living in conditions where the furniture is dirty, the neighbors are unfriendly and his children have no space to play. He also said his children are unable to attend the local elementary school, which is due to a combination of factors including lack of space and a hesitancy by locals to accept refugee children.

“I’d prefer to die in Syria and not to stay here,” Almahmod said through a translator, “especially in this building.”

For both families, these living spaces are not home. They are in temporary housing as they wait for their number to come up for relocation to another European country – a process that has become increasingly more difficult due to stricter borders and fewer opportunities for asylum.

Refugees can be granted asylum in European Union member countries through two methods: by applying for asylum as an entire family, which grants citizenship rights in the given country, or by applying for reunification with a family member who is already in a European Union country. When applying for asylum, refugees can list up to four countries they want to go to. If they are denied asylum in one of these, or deny the country in which they are offered asylum, they can remain in Greece.

Many European countries have cut back on the number of refugees they will let through, such as Germany, which went from taking in 4,000 asylum seekers per month to fewer than 2,000. Refugees have no concept of when or if their pleas for asylum elsewhere will be accepted.

“Any country I will go,” Almahmod said, cigarette in hand, as his children played monkey-in-the-middle on the nearby pavement. “I want to go to a new country and build a new life.”

Twins Slava and Lava Almahmod play outside of their Thessaloniki apartment.
Photo by Bridget Peery

A long, dangerous journey

Refugee families share similar stories about their journeys from Syria to Greece, but their experiences are unique in place and time. For Almahmod’s family, the journey spans nearly five years.

After living peacefully in Hasakah, Syria, as a construction worker, Almahmod decided to flee the country in September 2012 after he lost two cousins in the fight against ISIS. He hoped to protect his pregnant wife and his then-three children and avoid fighting in the war. The family fled first to a camp in Kurdistan, Iraq, where Alhasan gave birth to twins Lava and Slava, now nearly 2 years old, by cesarean section. But the doctor in Kurdistan sewed up her incision without removing a pair of surgical scissors, so Alhasan spent an extra month in the hospital recovering from the trauma of that while Almahmod traveled back and forth from the camp to visit her.

When ISIS reached the border of Kurdistan, the now-seven person family was forced to relocate out of fear for their lives. They paid money to a smuggler to take them to Turkey, where they registered for asylum and waited at the coastal city of Izmir for several days before continuing their journey.

Izmir is a common destination for refugees attempting to enter Europe through Greece. This was also the case for Khaled Alfnesh, 37, a Syrian refugee who now lives with his wife and four children at the Softex refugee camp located on the outskirts of Thessaloniki. Residents there live in two-room steel containers known as isoboxes that are 20 feet long by 8 feet wide and 8.6 feet high.

The family left Syria for Turkey in February 2016. Alfnesh paid around $9,500 to be smuggled to the border of Syria, and then originally paid another $750 to be led across the border through the mountains and to the coast of Turkey. Alfnesh said the smugglers kept asking for more money throughout the journey, threatening to summon the police if they did not comply.

When he finally made it to Izmir, he paid yet another $3,500 to a smuggler in order to travel to Greece by boat. However, due to rough waters, the Alfnesh family was forced to wait several days before they could cross the Aegean Sea.

“The waves were high that day and the trip was very dangerous,” Alfnesh said through a translator. He is sitting with three of his children on blue cushions, which double as beds, on the floor of the isobox. Other than the pads, a stack of grey blankets and a red tapestry on one wall, the room is empty.

The boat, he was told, had a capacity of 30 people, but 70 refugees boarded it that night. After one hour on the water, they stalled every 15 minutes for the rest of the four-mile journey because the engine was failing. Sometime during their three-and-a-half-hour ride, Alfnesh realized his son, Moumn, was missing. He was trapped under a woman in the horde.

“I thought that he was with his mother and his mother thought that he was with me,” Alfnesh said. After they found him, he remembers thinking, “I thought that he already died … almighty Allah wanted him to stay alive and I was so happy for that.”

Now, Alfnesh and his family live at the Softex camp. He is thankful that his family is together and that his children are able to attend an on-site informal school, where they learn English and Greek. Still, the camp is a transition point, not a destination.

“No, I’m not happy but it’s better,” Alfnesh said. “The homeland [Syria] is precious, and foreignness is hard, but it’s better than nothing.”

The Alfnesh family in their isobox in the Softex camp of Thessaloniki. From front to back: Khaled Alfnesh, 37, two-year-old Maria, 10-year-old Mustafa, nine-year-old Mohammed, four-year-old Moumn and mother Sumaya Khedr, 32. 
Photo by Sydne Mass

From camps to apartments

Softex is located in an industrial neighborhood several miles away from downtown Thessaloniki. The landscape is stark: white containers are stacked 20 in a row and numbered like apartments, while blue portable bathrooms are the only spot of color. Softex is known for being unsafe at night, but on a rainy afternoon in late May, children are out playing and riding donated bikes on the dusty ground.

The camp is surrounded by abandoned fields where months ago there used to be tents. When the camp was erected in May 2016, it was inhabited by nearly 2,000 refugees. Now, only 450 remain.

Almahmod and his family also lived at Softex before they were relocated to their apartment in Kalamaria. He tells stories of thieves, violent men and military-issue meals.

“They bring very bad food. Even animals don’t eat it,” Almahmod said. “We didn’t feel humiliated in Syria or Iraq but here in Greece we felt so humiliated in the camp.”

Almahmod’s third child, Yara, was a baby when the family left Syria and is now 5 years old. Almahmod said Yara doesn’t know the meaning of “wall” because she has spent most of her life in tents.

“When someone has a baby he becomes so happy, but when we have a baby we get upset because he will grow up in camps or streets,” Almahmod said. “We get sad for the baby. What is there to say more than that?”

Despite the fact that they now live in an apartment, conditions for Almahmod’s family are not much better. The family moved into the flat in Kalamaria three months ago after the pipes in their first apartment burst from the freezing winter.

The four rooms that make up his family’s flat are grimy, and half of a side room is piled to the ceiling with items left behind by the landlord or a previous renter. Salma, who is the oldest of the children at age 10, points to the pile, plugs her nose and signals disgust.

“Here is jail,” Almahmod said, “but as well in the camp I was not comfortable.”

What makes matters worse in their current housing, however, is that the neighbors are wholly unwelcoming to the young Syrian family. As the children throw balls and chase each other in the small, grassy area outside the apartment, one elder neighbor walks partially down the stairs and yells at them in Greek. Almahmod said this is a frequent occurrence: Neighbors are often rude in telling them to be quieter or to make their children stop running around.

“They hate refugees, they hate children and they hate everything,” he said of his neighbors. “One day when our children were playing here, the police came. What did we do for having 16 policemen? Are we terrorists or have we committed a crime?”

Almahmod has been complaining to SolidarityNow, the organization that posts him in his apartment, for the past month and a half to be moved into a new living situation. He said if the organization doesn’t move him soon, he will head back to the camp.

Shosha, who lives much closer to downtown Thessaloniki, has had a different experience and is content living in the apartment until her family can be relocated to another European Union country – hopefully Germany. The unit, down three flights of stairs from street level, is spacious, with one bedroom and a living room pre-furnished with comfortable couches and chairs. She loves having her own private space, a luxury that wasn’t afforded in the camps.

“We are independent, alone,” Shosha said, “and it is not raining on our head. We have a private kitchen and bathroom.”

The family also likes their neighbors, who are kind to them and often communicate with them despite the language barrier. Through laughter, Shosha and her two daughters, Joudi, 11, and Rama, 17, say that they often make a lot of noise in the small apartment, especially when they have company. Once, the director of the building came to tell them they could not have visitors past 10 p.m. But they laugh again and say they don’t follow that rule, yet their relationships with their neighbors are still very friendly.

Joudi Dooba, 11, in the kitchen of her family’s apartment in Thessaloniki.
Photo by Sydne Mass

The housing process

The process to be placed into apartments is not standardized. Discrepancies between the apartment quality, location and additional services provided are largely based on what organization the individuals happen to work with.

“Projects are being implemented by NGOs and international organizations in a non-organized way, meaning different organizations have different plans but those plans are not connected,”  Papagiannakis said. “There is no national strategy, no international strategy.”

Himaya, the organization that houses Shosha and her children, supports refugees in 16 apartments and only houses families who are referred to them by volunteers, friends or other organizations. Himaya’s co-founder, Maria Rosa of Malaga, Spain, said the organization has housed 190 people since it was founded in May 2016.

Translated to “protect” in Arabic, Himaya spends an average of 1,000 euro – the equivalent of about $1,125 – per month for each flat, including rent, food, utilities, wifi and any other expenses that arise. Their funding comes entirely from donations by individuals and small companies and organizations in Spain.

Rosa and the two other Spanish women who founded the organization are receptive to the residents living in Himaya-sponsored apartments. Though they operate out of Spain, Rosa said they are connected with the residents and other partnering organizations on WhatsApp, an international texting and calling application for smartphones, from 8 a.m. until midnight most days.

“We know every day what is happening in the flat,” Rosa said in a video chat interview from her house in Spain. “We work very closely with volunteers who are there, who are connected like a fisherman with the sea.”

SolidarityNow, an organization with centers in Athens and Thessaloniki, also has an accommodation program that works to move refugees into independent apartments and buildings that host multiple families. These efforts are funded by the UNHCR, which also assigns refugee families to them for relocation.

The scope of SolidarityNow is much larger than that of Himaya, as its housing and accommodation program consists of more than 200 individual apartments and three fully rented buildings, allowing them to house 1,200 to 1,500 refugees at a time. The program has assisted more than 3,000 since it began in May 2016. However, this increase comes at a cost. While all residents living in Himaya-sponsored apartments have access to Greek public schools and receive timely response to their needs, some residents of SolidarityNow-sponsored apartments said they do not benefit from either of these services.

“They do not bring my children to school, they don’t bring the food I need, they don’t support me well,” Almahmod said.

Harry Adraktas, a branch manager of SolidarityNow’s accommodation project, said some children within their housing have been able to attend schools but many could not due to hastily devised plans and lack of room at neighboring schools. He said the organization is currently mapping the number of children in each neighborhood to work out a plan with Greek public schools.

“We hope that, in terms of capacity, everyone who wants to attend Greek school will be able to,” Adraktas said. “We are collecting all the kids in our accommodation facilities and going to every local school to register them at least in terms of number so they are prepared to receive x number of kids for the next year. We have yet to see whether this will be successful next year.”

For now, many of the children cannot access schools and often depend on online tutorials. The exception are children at SolidarityNow’s structure in the Paiania suburb of Athens, which is entirely inhabited by refugees and has an onsite team of workers who host classes in the first-floor common area. Giannis Kontogiannakis, the building’s project manager, said children and adults can study subjects such as Greek, English, German, dance and art.

A photo of the Almohmad family from their time in the Softex camp.
Photo by Bridget Peery

Acclimating to society

The relocation effort is an important step toward making life in Greece more comfortable for refugees. However, providing alternative housing is not enough to ensure they can acclimate to Greek society.

“The issue is integration now,” said Panagiotis Paschalidis, a professor of journalism at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki who has researched media coverage of the refugee crisis. “It’s not only to relocate in a more decent, humane environment.”

Integration means facilitating enrollment of refugee children in local schools, helping adults find jobs and organizing events to facilitate interaction between Greek citizens and refugees.

According to a March 2016 poll conducted by Public Issue, an opinion poll firm in Greece, 70 percent of Greek citizens see refugees as a permanent part of society. But 70 percent also think the relocation of refugees into their neighborhoods will create a problem.

Paschalidis said in his Thessaloniki neighborhood, people originally supported integrating refugees, but once faced with permanent relocation they became more hesitant.

“There were activists [on behalf of refugees], but there also was this sentiment of, ‘Okay, a few months is sufficient,’” he said. “After the people became local, there was a sort of anxiety. ‘When will they leave? When will their children come to our schools?’”

He says this type of xenophobia – fear of people from other countries – may have been exacerbated by inflammatory media coverage as well as inattention from the Greek government regarding the issue of integration.

Georgina Alexopoulou, an executive officer in the Directorate of Social Integration at the Ministry of Migration Policy, said tentative plans to increase social integration of refugees through campaigns and events have been laid out, but are not yet ready to be implemented due to lack of funding from the European Integration Fund.

Expressing her opinion, Alexopoulou said accepting refugees into Greek society is inevitable because Greece is their first country of entry.

“Most [refugees] want to move to other countries but they’re stuck here,” she said. “When they’re here, we have to find a way to help them integrate.”

Some nonprofit organizations have already begun social integration programs. Didac Guillamet is the cofounder of the Open Cultural Center, which aims to empower refugee communities through cultural and educational programs.

Guillamet coordinates events that bring refugee families and Greek families together, such as group beach trips. He also organizes language courses and integrated sports teams.

“We try to do, with some frequency, some sort of social integration activities,” he said.

The urban accommodation effort is still in its early stages. But the goal, as Thessaloniki Mayor Boutaris said, is to make it possible for more refugees to find a true home in Greece, despite the fact that most are still hoping to move on. However, Shosha said with only the government’s help, she would never have found a pleasant place to live.

“Greece doesn’t give me this apartment. They put me in a tent,” Shosha said. “I have more insurance in other countries. How long can I live here? How long can they finance me?”

Refugee families do their own part in becoming integrated with Greek society. Alfnesh and Almahmod both named their youngest daughters Maria, a Christian name common in Greece.

“I go every week with someone from Greece to church. I also go to mosque. I called my daughter Maria, a traditional Greek name,” Almahmod said. “We love the world but the world hates us.”

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