The Greek island of Tilos has hosted more than seven times its population in refugees… and has done so with dignity, respect and with its own limited resource.
Tuesday 15 August 2017
A tired middle-aged man, dressed for autumn even though it was a sweltering July afternoon, was quietly staring out at the clear blue sea. His old soldier's face had a frozen, immutable aspect to it, but you could still sense he was awash with emotion. With the sun mercilessly beating down on the nape of his neck, he was stoically yet carefully monitoring his five children chase one another on the almost deserted beach. Every now and then a thought escaped his lips – usually no more than a word or two. In these conditions, it was hard to remain of sound mind if one didn't have an occasional chat with oneself.
“I haven't slept for five years,” the man eventually told me. “Five years! Can you even imagine what that means?”
Mohsen is a former high-ranking officer in the Syrian government forces. He hails from the northern city of Hasaqa where the Kurds form the majority of the population… A city where, from the war's outbreak in the spring of 2011, the members of the Kurdish militia have often coordinated their manoeuvres with the officials in Damascus. This marriage of convenience somehow held out to the present day.
Mohsen used to command 400 men. For a long time, he had managed to hold on to his hope that all-out war could be avoided. His hopes withstood even the fact that after the first few weeks of the mostly peaceful demonstrations against the Bashar al Assad regime, his superiors ordered him to start jailing the protesters en masse.
The demonstrations in the Kurdish-majority region were not as intensive as those in other parts of Syria. About a year into the riots, when the country had already plummeted into the abyss of war, his superiors ordered Mohsen to relinquish his command to the Kurdish units.
It was not the first direct order this proud Syrian patriot refused to carry out. The crux of his argument was that Syria was Syrian, not Sunni, Shi'a, Kurdish or Christian. Since he was very popular with his soldiers and revered by many of his superior officers, the authorities chose not to jail him. Instead, they transferred and demoted him. He knew what was coming next.
“I no longer have a future, but my children do”
Pressure was slowly put on Mohsen's family. The mukhabarat, the country's security and intelligence service, followed his every move and monitored his every word. Eventually, they imprisoned his brother. Then he was given another impossible order: his unit was to open fire on the protesters.
This was when the international fighters looking for a holy war had already started reaching Syria through the Turkish border. And with them, intelligence officers and arms dealers. Mohsen rounded up his soldiers and told them he was deserting. His men were free to either join him or comply with the orders from Damascus. Some of them decided to join him. At the end of 2012, he struck off for Iraqi Kurdistan, accompanied by his family and a number of his former troops.
He managed to get a job in Dohuk, but the Syrian intelligence was hot on his trail. He was considered a traitor, and the war soon splashed over the Syrian border to the north of Iraq.
In June 2014, after the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS or ISIS) took Mosul, the extremist Sunni militia began conquering the Kurdish territories. As ISIS neared Dohuk, the outlook became increasingly grim. Despite his dreams of the Syrian war ending, Mohsen finally resigned himself to a refugee's fate.
He took his family to Turkey, where he knew he was not safe on account of his status as a ‘traitor'. Still, he spent more than two years in the vicinity of Izmir, after deciding not to register as a refugee. When the Balkan route opened up, it was generally seen as everyone's golden chance to reach Europe. Yet Mohsen waited, hoping against hope the situation back home might still somehow improve.
When he learned that he had been stripped of all his assets in Hasaqa, he realised this was no longer an option.
After the EU and the Turkish government struck their bargain, things became much worse for the Syrian refugees in Turkey. Sadly, Mohsen was too late to strike off for Greece… Too late for his family to be granted permission to spend the rest of the war in Germany.
“I decided to try to reach Europe because of the children. I no longer have a future, but they do. It's my duty to do everything I can to help them on their way. Forty days we waited for a boat, and then the smugglers boarded us onto a small ship. There were so many of us… And it was very very cold. The captain was taking the ship around in circles. I knew something was not right. Maybe he was drunk? We changed our course countless times, and then we hit a huge rock. Eventually, we were rescued and transported to Greece,” Mohsen says, describing the scenes from eight months earlier.
Mohsen was talking to me on the small Southern Aegean island of Tilos, which he now calls his home. “Here on Tilos all I wanted was to get some rest,” he smiles. “But now I would very much like to stay. These people have treated me like a human being. I had already forgotten what that even means. I feel welcome, safe and useful here – seeing how I can take care of the kids while my wife goes off to work… I can simply say that I'm living again. And I have begun to enjoy a good night's sleep. After five years. I am so grateful for all that.”
Tilos Hospitality Centre
Along with his wife and five children Mohsen resides at the Tilos Hospitality Centre, a tidy refugee settlement in the seaside village of Livadia. This sleepy yet somehow still lively village is proof positive of what can be achieved when humanity triumphs over fear, prejudice, xenophobia, racism, and politics.
The centre, which is made up of 10 comfortable residential units housing 46 Syrian refugees, is decidedly not a refugee camp. It is an open, free and dignified residential area providing shelter for people whose lives have been completely wrecked by the war. It is a place of hope and – the importance of this cannot be overstated – of activity.
Many refugees, especially the women, had little trouble finding work on the island. At the time of our visit, coinciding with the height of the tourism season, not a soul on the island was unemployed. Quite the contrary: many of the locals are working 18-hour shifts.
Tourism is Tilos' main source of income, so the summer months have to be milked for all their worth. The refugees are paid perfectly respectable wages in the hotels, restaurants, bistros and at the local bakery. Legal help has also been made available to them, while the Tilos Hospitality Centre is constantly visited by volunteers from all over Europe. The centre is both a study in the humane integration of war-torn souls and an antithesis to the sum of the EU's (anti-)refugee and (anti-)immigrant policies.
This commendably complex approach is far from accidental; the islet of Tilos is a paragon of progressiveness in other respects as well. In a few months, Tilos is set to become the first Mediterranean island to boast energy self-sufficiency. One hundred percent of its power will be drawn from renewable sources like the sun and the wind. This warm green refuge has thus become the meeting place of two key issues affecting our present and future: migration and renewable energy. Most of the dominant Syrian-war narratives have proven all too oblivious to the fact that climate change has been a major factor contributing to the conflict's escalation, especially by driving the impoverished rural masses to leave their drought-scarred land and move to the cities.
On Tilos, the local community is functioning like one giant cooperative: interdependent, highly responsible, free of ideology and propelled by humanism. Tilos was, in 2008, the location of the first gay marriage in Greece. From as far back as 1993, hunting has been completely outlawed on the island, which is in its entirety protected by the EU's Natura 2000 programme.
Tilos is the future as it might have and could have been across Europe, had other places not succumbed to xenophobia and fear. Simplicity so complex it boggles the mind.
“Doing what is normal and what is right”
The island is located only 17km from the Turkish coast. Outside the tourist season, it is inhabited by only 823 people (and approximately 10,000 free-ranging goats). Between 2013 and 2016, more than 6,000 refugees landed here. Most of the incomers had been dumped by the smugglers on the smaller beaches – they had simply been left there to die, since the cliffs and the rocks made it impossible to leave.
The local activists, led by the mayor Maria Kamma-Alfieri, soon cracked the smugglers' pattern. They started following the Tilos-bound boats to be able to gather the shocked, traumatised and often severely dehydrated refugees from the remote beaches. Nearly every resident of the island with a boat or a small ship had taken to the sea, saving hundreds and hundreds of lives.
At first, the rescued refugees were housed at the local orthodox church, only to be transferred to a deserted barracks. Almost no help was coming from outside, so the living conditions were rather poor, while the incomers only grew in number. Yet the people of Tilos refused to give up. They decided they would do everything in their power to help.
In the end, they managed to defeat both – the state and the EU bureaucrats. A year ago, the Tilos Hospitality Centre, housing exclusively Syrian families, opened its doors in Livadia. For the locals, this aim was self-explanatory, a product of their basic decency and genuine desire to help. For those of us who have spent the better part of a decade chronicling the refugees' tragedy, it was a quite a shock. This alone tells a lot about how things stand.
“We're simply doing what is normal and what is right,” shrugged Elena Pissa, a driving force behind the centre. “We are normal human beings. We know what to do, that's all. But unfortunately, you're also quite right: in this racist and selfish world, what we've done here on Tilos is unusual – exceptional even. And that's a scary thought, isn't it?”
I got talking to Elena over a cup of ice-cold cappuccino. I could sense she was a deeply tired woman. She had long forgotten what a holiday felt like.
From morning to late afternoon, she takes care of her wards. She helps refugees in every way possible: she takes care of the paperwork, calls up the relevant officials, arranges emergency medical appointments, forms legal strategies with lawyers, finds work, mediates in their family disputes, coaches her colleagues and keeps up everyone's morale. When she is finished with her duties at the refugees' settlement, she relocates to her tourist shop in the village, where she remains until 11 at night.
Her business is not exactly thriving. It has not been the best of seasons for Tilos, but Elena is holding on, having to provide for herself and her 11-year-old son. This activist with a degree in management from Athens hasn't even been to the beach this year. By focusing so hard on the needs of others, she has been neglecting her own. Elena has little time for compromises. Now is simply not the time. Greece has found itself on the frontline of the battle for what remains of Europe's basic human decency, and Elena is a crack commando of the grassroots' special forces.
Wills and ways
“So what's so special about Tilos?” I asked the mayor; Maria Kamma-Aliferi, who had taken over the helm after the sudden death of her legendarily progressive predecessor Tasos Aliferi. Maria has been serving as the mayor for the last six years. She has never ran in an election. Around here, it is deemed enough that she has the people's support and a college education.
“The thing about Tilos it's probably how the people here are keen to embrace innovation. Like renewable energy sources. On many other islands or even in the mainland cities, the reactions would have been mostly negative. But here we're very serious about the environment. Its protection is our basic aim. If the community is an open one, free of prejudice and taboos, then everything is so much easier. I guess this is why we see our achievements as something completely normal. We are working towards our objectives step by step, carefully planning our moves in advance. The key is always focusing on the good of the community. You can't just force on people something they do not want. Once they established the refugees were not a threat, they quickly opened up. In time, they realised the refugees' presence could even prove beneficial to the future of our island. Much the same can be said of our renewable energy project.”
According to the mayor, Tilos has never suffered much from xenophobia. As recently as 15 years ago, the small island had been almost deserted, its young people moving away en masse. The local school used to be empty then, while it now takes care of the needs of 80 children… A number sure to experience a significant boost in the autumn, when the refugee youngsters are set to join in.
“The island was close to being dead,” the mayor recalls. “But then our solidarity came to the fore. When the first refugees started coming in, our small community immediately accepted them in our midst. The first hospitality centre was built by the local volunteers. We made all of it ourselves.”
According to Maria Kamma-Aliferi, the most important thing was for the island's residents to come face to face with the people, particularly the children, who had undergone unspeakable horrors. “When we looked into the little ones' eyes, we could see naked fear. The smugglers simply dropped these poor boys and girls on a bunch of rocks. They were shaking like leaves. How can you remain neutral and unperturbed when you see a freezing crying baby no more than twenty days old? These people's only crime is to have survived,” she notes.
The island may be facing numerous problems, mostly of the financial and infrastructural variety. But the locals are firmly set on pursuing their hospitable policies. They have long stopped counting on help from Athens – not only because of the state's long stumble on the brink of bankruptcy but also because of its traditional neglect of its more remote islands and regions.
The mayor seemed hopeful the Greek state might at least aid the islanders with respect to the refugees, since the island's council is planning the opening of a dairy processing company as a joint venture between four local and four refugee families. The entire project is estimated at around €150,000, and any scrap of help from Athens would be welcome.
“Our problems need to be viewed as a challenge. We have made our choice, so there is no question of changing course. Regardless of how small the island is, we've already managed to take care of thousands of refugees. If only some of our larger [regions] could muster up the will – think of all that could be accomplished. I can only hope that some of them might yet be inspired by what's happening here,” she urges.
In the late morning heat, a huge and fairly slobbery mongrel dog was chasing a saggy punctured ball thrown by the refugee children. Little boys and girls were darting off all over the place, the dog was happily barking… But both sounds were drowned out by the sound of the cicadas.
Abu Kareem from Daraa, who was eight and bizarrely confident, picked up a guitar and started playing something remotely resembling a tune. His older sister Hiba gave him a pointed glance and quickly confiscated the instrument, taking it up herself to play a traditional Greek melody. An elderly Syrian refugee lady was hanging laundry. A delicious smell wafted over from a nearby kitchen. All over the clean and comfortable settlement, even those refugees who worked the night shift were slowly waking up.
As for the sleepyhead children, they were being roused from their slumber by a Belgian volunteer named Sofie De Bois. Summer school was about to kick off, providing Greek and English classes to the refugees and Arabic lessons to the activists. Sofie, a 24-year-old student, runs a series of fairly improvised psycho-therapeutic workshops. They consist of drawing classes, chess, guitar and electric piano lessons, some pretty wild looking yoga, something resembling a jazz ensemble – and a lot of happy noise-making needing no justification whatsoever. After finishing up, Sofie then spends her evenings and nights waiting tables in one of the cafeterias.
The local activists were seated around a huge wooden table in the shade. Most of them have been actively saving lives for the past few years. A number were currently employed by the Solidarity Now project financed by the UNHCR. Their contracts are good until the end of 2017. They are hoping they will get renewed, but lately they have started to worry.
Over the past two months, the Greek authorities – spurred on by the EU – have chased the NGOs from most of the islands. From 1 August 2017, the Greek government took over the control of the so-called refugee ‘hotspots‘, which are prisons in everything but name.
This, at least, is the official plan. For the migrants and refugees trapped in Greece, this is catastrophic news. The Greek authorities have neither the personnel nor the finances to take care of the country's 50,000 refugees, most of whom got stuck here after the closing of the so-called Balkan refugee route, stranded between their destination somewhere in central or northern Europe and the increasingly unstable Turkey.
The ‘residential centres' on the islands are currently holding more than 10,000 people. Most of them have been there for more than six months. An additional 2,200 can be found on the mainland. The state has turned this precarious situation into a business opportunity, as the funds Brussels used to allocate to the NGOs will now be rerouted straight to Athens. But for the Tilos Hospitality Centre, the pernicious new arrangement will not come into effect until the new year at least.
When the ground quakes
Maysoon al-Deri, 30, also comes from Daraa – a city in the southeast of Syria, where the insurgency against Bashar al-Assad was first sparked. It was a spark that soon triggered a civil war, which then exploded into a global conflict of sorts, given how many countries are currently involved in the conflict.
The war didn't need long to claim the home of this mother of five young children, ranging from the ages of two to ten. In spite of her house being destroyed, Maysoon remained in the war-torn city until 20 February 2016, when she set off for the Turkish border. A large portion of her journey was through ISIS-controlled territory. For the first time in her life, Maysoon put on a burqa – purely for safety reasons. She didn't take it off for almost two months. This is how long she, her husband and their children had to wait to cross the Syrian-Turkish border. When they finally reached Turkey, the pathway to Europe had already been welded shut. After the deal involving €6 billion had been struck, the Turkish authorities began to implement heightened security measures to restrict the refugees' movements. They also cracked down on some of the smuggling ‘ networks.
The family managed to contact a smuggler who, on second attempt, got them to the Greek island of Lesbos. For the first time, actual shots were fired at them – not by ISIS but by the Turkish coast guard. They then spent four months in the infamous residential centre of Moria, in essence the modern version of a concentration camp. “It was a very warlike experience,” Maysoon recounts of her experience there. “We have horrible memories! The situation there was inhumane, simply inhumane!”
Last September, when the UNHCR authorised the family to relocate to Tilos, a glimmer of hope returned to their lives.
“When we got here, I was ill and absolutely exhausted. It took a long while before I regained some of my strength. The people here were helping me on every step of the way. I'll always be grateful,” she told us at the Hospitality Centre on the morning after a forceful earthquake had shaken Greece, including Tilos. Maysoon's head was covered with a headscarf, and it seemed she still hadn't completely woken up. She had slept straight through the earthquake, being rather used to heavy turbulence. Yet some of the refugees had been given quite a jolt. Many of the children were terrified that the war had caught up with them again.
Maysoon has spent the last 10 months here on Tilos. The small Aegean island has become her temporary home. Until the war in Syria simmers down, she refuses to budge. She is especially proud of having found work waiting tables at one of the local restaurants. Come autumn, the older contingent of her kids is set to enter school here. Her husband has also managed to find a semblance of peace.
“I've stopped dreaming of Germany or other European countries,” she smiled. “I know it's hard for refugees anywhere you go. Here, we have everything we need. We won't have it better anywhere else. The people here are so helpful, they took us in… things are very nice and warm and peaceful.” Maysoon told me she still sometimes catches herself gazing at the sea, wondering how it was possible all her children had survived the journey. “So many – so many have drowned,” she remarked. Just last year, some 5,500 people perished in the Mediterranean sea trying to reach Europe. This year, the tally currently stands at 2,500, making the death toll more than 30,000 since the turn of the millennium.
“I didn't think I could ever get rid of the fear… For a long time, I was so afraid someone might come after us. It's such a relief to be able to take a walk at one in the morning, after I've finished up at the restaurant… I walk along the beach and think, ‘It is so peaceful and quiet there by the sea. People respect me here,'” reflects Maysoon.
Maysoon's train of thought was broken by a burst of hysterical crying from her two-year-old son. A toy car made of steel got stuck to his lip. The problem was quickly solved, but the toddler's tears kept flowing. “He tries to eat everything he can get his hands on, everything,” the boy's mother smiles.
Before she came to Tilos, Maysoon al-Deri never had a job. “I'm so happy to be able to work here. This way I can feel free, strong and self-dependent. True, I get tired quite a lot, but it's a good feeling. I hope it lasts.”
The fact that many of the women have found employment while the men stay at home to tend to the children is a revolution in its own right. At first, there were some problems, Elena Pissa recalls, since it was necessary to break down the cultural barriers. But a little tenacity went a long way. In just a few months, integration fell into step with emancipation.
“For the first time in my life, I have a job! I'm cleaning apartments and preparing breakfast. It's not particularly hard work, and I'm having a good time doing it,” Waala al-Hariri smiled bashfully.
A whole new circle of hell
Waala, 28, is a mother of two. She reached Tilos last November after spending close to eight hard months on Lesbos. Along with her husband and two children she had fled the war, only to face a whole new circle of hell over here in Europe.
For a long time, she was simply unable to comprehend it. “There were 80 of us on the boat I arrived on. The smuggler was laughing, telling us we were taking a trip with the Death Tourist Agency. It was so horrible. Every time I think back on the journey, I start crying.”
As she was telling me this, Waala's sharp green eyes were cutting through me like twin laser beams. In Syria, she had to quit school just before graduation on account of getting married. Her ambition is to continue with her education and one day open a beauty salon. But not on Tilos, not here in Greece. Like many of the local refugees she and her family wish to push on towards Germany. The relatively ideal living conditions on Tilos are not enough to keep them here, since many of them are desperate to reunite with family members located somewhere to the north.
“To be frank,” Waala says, “what I really want is to return home… But the war is not going to be over for a long time. Our house was badly damaged in a bombing raid. All Syrians should be on their way back to rebuild their country, but I know this won't be possible for a long, long time.”