“Last year we had hospitality... ‘let’s help you, let’s see what make you feel comfortable.’ This time I think will be the opposite.” TK, a restaurant manager that asked to remain anonymous, is one of the many business owners and workers of the Greek islands that rely on tourism to stay financially afloat. The European refugees crisis has challenged what the local people and business owners of the islands believe, and has put to a test their ethics and moral as human beings.
As TK’s quote suggests, it seems that there is a love-hate relationship between the Greeks and refugees who have been co-habitating on islands like Leros, starting in September 2015. Based on interviews conducted with TK and a volunteer from an NGO working with refugees in Greece, who we will call “EC”, it can be concluded that the influx of refugees into Europe, specifically Greece, has caused social conflicts between local populations and the incoming people to arise.
The interview conducted with EC was not a planned interview, it just happened by chance. On the morning of July 8th, our group of 9 students from the International Field Program (IFP) received information, from the Mayor of Leros, that there was a refugee camp in a town called Lakki. After the meeting with the Mayor, we divided in groups to find the camp. It is in this search that my partner and I found a restaurant called “L” in the Lakki area. Upon stopping at this restaurant to get directions to the camp, we came across two male adults sitting at one of the tables. When the two men overheard us asking about the camp, they immediately requested that we sit and join their conversation, as they were talking about the refugees crisis. More than an interview this was a conversation between different persons involved in the problematic- a greek citizen, an NGO worker, and two students researching the refugees crisis.
The words of the restaurant manager reflect a sentiment that the IFP team found in all the visited islands. This sentiment can be roughly described as brotherhood and solidarity, within the community but especially with the refugees themselves. Although, we see that this sentiment is apparently eroding with the pass of time. Initially it was historic ties that reinforced the relationship between Greeks and Syrians, who make up the majority of refugees in Greece. One of the of the most important events, affirming this connection, was the Turkish-Greek Conflict between the years of 1919 and 1923. As a result of the conflict many Greeks fled to Syria as refugees. Up until today, many Greeks still remember the help they received in the past from Syria and the deep historical ties that unite both nations. Then what is causing the Greek Islanders to be less receptive to the incoming Syrians now?
Considering the accounts of the business owners and workers that the IFP team interviewed, it seems there are three primary aspects contributing to the decline of this sentiment of “brotherhood and solidarity” that the Greek people wish to convey to the refugees. First, the financial crisis. Second, the negative effect on tourism that the presence of refugees provokes, and lastly the cultural differences between the refugees and “the west.”
The refugees crisis hit Greece at the worst possible moment. As TK mentioned in the interview, it has caused some unexpected results. First, Greeks are not wholly willing to help refugees with open arms anymore. Last year, when refugees first started coming to the islands, people tried to help as much as they could. Yet, the motivation disappeared quickly as both the people and infrastructure of the Greek Islands were not prepared to host so many people running from war and its effects. Another negative outcome is that business owners, smugglers, and even NGO volunteers on the Islands take advantage of the refugees' desperation, charging exaggerated amounts of money for services or products. According to TK, this can be somehow justified because of how the economic crisis and the decrease of tourism income hit Greek businesses. Finally, because of the small size of some of the islands, the local people have more contact with refugees, this situation creates some cultural misunderstandings mainly regarding religion.
The struggle to support refugees is palpable in every word that TK and the other business owners of the Greek islands told to the IFP team. Circumstances are not in favor of refugees nor of the Greeks. Syrians and refugees coming from other non-Western countries, are not going to change their religion or customs to fit into Western standards, and businessmen from the islands are still relying on the inflow of tourists to subsist in a weakened economy. Will brotherhood and solidarity persist? Or is the worst part of human nature going to take the reins from now on?
For the full transcript of the interview, please click here.
Written by: Kenneth Cortez