A hotelier, two migrants, a grave digger, a camp director, a protestor, and an elephant — perspectives on the refugee crisis in Lesbos, Greece
Update (11/7/2020): On Tuesday night, September 8, 2020, raging fires destroyed Camp Moria, leaving over 13,000 migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers without any form of shelter. This comes as the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the camp. Tensions are rising as the displacedcamp residents have overrun the local towns and businesses. Regardless of how the fires started, these people need help. Click here to learn how you can make a difference.
I. The Hotelier
It was a bright April day in Lesbos when the first boat landed on the shores of the Aphrodite Hotel. On that day, Aphrodite Vati Mariola, owner and namesake of the five-star resort, was too engrossed with running her business to notice the vessel’s approach. Mariola was making sure that the season opening for her family-run hotel would be smooth and enjoyable for her first guests of 2015. In preparation for what promised to be a busy season, Aphrodite, her husband, and their small staff had updated and prepared the hotel’s fifty-two rooms, preened its shimmering outdoor swimming pool, and tidied its long pebble beach that opens out into a private cove. Aegean escapism at its finest.
The season was almost fully booked, set to be one of the most profitable in the hotel’s history. Then, Mariola heard shouts coming from the beach.
Perched on the edge of Aphrodite’s shore was a rubber dinghy carrying a family of fifteen. Eleven adults and four children were huddled together on the boat, the youngest passenger only a year old. “I had no idea what a refugee was as the time — I’d hardy ever even heard the word,” Mariola later reflected. All she saw was a family in need. But these people were indeed refugees, a family of Syrians who had escaped through Turkey and smuggled themselves across the Aegean water gap into Greece. As the fifteen shell-shocked passengers clambered from boat onto the private beach, touching European soil for the first time, Aphrodite Vati Mariola was there to greet them. She was Europe’s one-woman welcome party.
“They were traumatized and scared to death,” Mariola said of the first group of refugees. “They didn’t know us, didn’t know how to swim, didn’t know where they were.” One of the passengers was an older man, and as Mariola and her family attempted to help him off the boat, they realized he was paralyzed from the waist down. Mariola’s father quickly opened two hotel rooms for the group and dug through the hotel restaurant for food while Mariola ran home to find a change of clothing for the wet and shivering passengers. She collected items from her own son’s and daughter’s wardrobes to clothe the children who washed onto her shore.
As the Syrian family recuperated and the hotel owners began to strategize their next steps, Mariola held the hands of two young Syrians dressed in her own children’s clothing. “I realized these could be my children,” she recalled.
The first boat was only the beginning. Over the course of the next two years, more than 500,000 asylum-seekers would traverse the precarious stretch of water between Turkey and Lesbos, overwhelming the island’s population of around 80,000. At the height of the crisis, nearly 60,000 migrants arrived on the shores of Greek islands on a daily basis. This extreme influx prompted hundreds of NGOs, thousands of volunteers, and millions of dollars to be poured into Lesbos in order to assist with the response. It’s difficult to grasp the impact of this prolonged emergency through its horrific facts and figures. “The numbers aren’t enough,” said Mariola. The true impact of this story, she said, is found in the characters of the crisis — the people who lived, responded to and recovered from these experiences in Lesbos.
Of the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers who landed in Lesbos, over 10,000 men, women, and children funneled through a single, private cove: the pebbled beach of the Aphrodite Hotel. Starting on that April day, Aphrodite’s family business became not just a guest house for travelers and tourists, but also an unofficial humanitarian transit center for migrants and refugees.
After Mariola and her family handled the immediate needs of the first of many families to wash upon their shores, they tried to contact the authorities for help, but another boat with 200 refugees had just landed elsewhere on the island and most officials were preoccupied with that response. Eventually, the authorities told them that a bus would come to the main area of Molyvos to pick up the refugee family.
Mariola and her mother couldn’t imagine forcing their new lodgers to make the uphill trek to the city center, so they loaded the group up in their cars and drove the coastal road to the center of the tourist hub. As she drove the family to the pickup point, Mariola couldn’t know how many times she would make this same transport in the months to come. She couldn’t know how many children would pass through her hotel’s doors wearing her own children’s clothing. She couldn’t know that her little pebble beach paradise was about to become the center of a prolonged international crisis. “All I knew was that I felt for this family,” she later said. “Where are these people going to go?”
II. The Migrants
The area outside the Moria refugee camp smelled of sewage, sweat, and souvlaki. Groups of migrants who live in the camp sat in metal chairs around plastic tables in the makeshift cafes and eateries that are scattered around the gates of the large complex.
Moria is the largest refugee camp on Lesbos. It was originally intended to support 2,000 migrants, but today the camp is occupied by over 13,000 people. The area within the fenced-in, barbed wire perimeter of the Moria camp can no longer contain the swelling masses, with many people being forced out into a the “Olive Grove” — a secondary, NGO-operated location directly next to Moria filled with deteriorating tents and strewn trash.
The conditions inside the camp are better, but barely. Giant intermodal-style living containers are stacked on top of one another, and the roar created by the human noise is so loud that it’s audible from miles away. On one concrete perimeter wall, one can make out the remnants of a graffiti message, unsuccessfully scrubbed away: “Welcome to Prison Moria.”
Ahmed and Bahaa sat side by side in one of the tent cafes directly beside the main entrance to Moria. The two young Egyptian men spoke the Egyptian dialect of Arabic to each other, but the tarp-covered eatery was filled with the sounds of many other languages: the Congolese spoke French, the Afghans spoke Dari, and the Syrians conversed in small groups in the Levantine Arabic dialect. Bahaa, who is 18 years old, was wearing a burgundy baseball cap and flip flops. His friend Ahmed, who is 17 years old and registered in the camp as an unaccompanied minor, chatted happily as he charged his phone in an extension cord that hung from the rafters above.
Ahmed and Bahaa both fled their communities in rural Egypt in search of better opportunities and increased safety. According to Ahmed, he was involved in a personal dispute in his home community that led to threats on his life. His family decided it was for the best for the teenager to flee to Europe in order to secure his safety and to find better life opportunities. Ahmed flew to Turkey, and shortly thereafter found himself on a small boat weighed down by the weight of forty-eight passengers of mixed origin — Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis, and more. The smugglers facilitating these trips — underground groups of vagabonds notorious for their foul play — pack as many people onto each boat as possible, maximizing their profit and extorting thousands of dollars from each occupant.
Not too long after Ahmed arrived at Moria, Bahaa found himself in the same boat, both literally and figuratively. Only Bahaa’s boat was even more crowded — he sat shoulder to shoulder in a retrofitted dinghy with fifty-seven other migrants. In Bahaa’s account, he escaped political persecution in Egypt. His uncle was a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and due to the political turmoil surrounding the Brotherhood and President Al-Sisi’s actions against its members, Bahaa’s family encouraged him to chase the European dream of safety and financial opportunity.
After their perilous journeys across the sea, a journey that has claimed the lives of thousands of other migrants in sunken boats, Ahmed and Bahaa both made it to Lesbos, where they were immediately registered, fingerprinted, and sent to the Moria refugee camp.
Bahaa and Ahmed are two of the fifty Egyptians registered and living at Moria. Inevitably, they met each other, as many of the groups in the camp stick to ethnic divisions, especially due to the language barriers. “Everyone talks to everyone,” said Bahaa as he gestured to the chatting groups in the makeshift cafe. “But Egyptians stick with Egyptians, Syrians stick with Syrians, you know how it is.”
Despite barriers between groups, everyone in Moria faces the same camp conditions. “The food they give us is rotten,” said Bahaa. “I cracked open an egg the other day and a black ooze came out.” There are only three bathroom stations in the entire camp, according to Bahaa and Ahmed, and they are constantly broken down. The tents and living containers don’t protect from the cold of the winter. Children gather around fires of burning trash to stay warm in the night.
These conditions take a mental toll on the occupants of Moria. “I feel trapped,” said Bahaa. “They wouldn’t even treat their animals like this.” When Bahaa and Ahmed go into town, they see Lesbos natives caring for their dogs, pampering their pets with a level affection unknown to many in the camps.
For now, all Bahaa and Ahmed can do is hold up hope for their pending asylum applications, which would allow them to leave the camp and find work in Athens, or somewhere else in Europe. “I’m still thankful, though,” said Ahmed. “I made it across the sea, I made it to Moria. I know that so many others died trying to get here.”
III. The Grave Digger
In late October of 2015, Moustafa Dawa stood in front of the open doors of a refrigerated shipping container containing the tangled limbs of forty-six stacked human corpses. The bodies were all of migrants recovered from the Aegean Sea, where many boats filled with asylum-seekers from Turkey sunk on the way to Lesbos. By 2019, over 30,000 migrants had perished while crossing the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.
Dawa, an Egyptian born academic who had recently arrived in Lesbos to offer volunteer translation services in a refugee camp, stared at the contents of the shipping container in shock.
“In that moment, I died inside,” he later said. “I felt like I wasn’t human.”
Due to the massive increase of Muslim deaths as a result of sinking, refugee-filled boats, the Muslim area of the municipal Saint Panteleimon cemetery in Lesbos had reached its maximum capacity. With nowhere to lay the bodies to rest, many corpses remained in refrigerated storage for weeks or even months. This backup not only led to further bodily decomposition and disrespect, but also violated the sacred Muslim funerary law of completing burial twenty-four hours after death.
Dawa had originally visited the moratorium in provide translation services to a Syrian refugee who was searching for the body of his sister who had disappeared while crossing the Aegean. However, with the sight of the tangled corpses burned into his memory, Dawa resolved to take action.
There were no humanitarian groups working to solve the burial problem, as many were focused on the plights of the living over the dead. But Dawa was determined. “Humanity is dead if people are left in a refrigerator for 30 days,” he said. Dawa gathered some friends and fellow volunteers and the group met with city officials in Mytilene, including deputy mayor George Katzonos.
Within a week, with help from Katzonos, a sun-drenched plot of land speckled with olive trees was secured as a burial site for Muslims lost in Lesbos. In the first eight days, fifty-seven bodies were finally laid to rest in the new Muslim cemetery, buried in strict accordance to Muslim law.
Dawa worked as a one man funerary service. He cleaned the bodies, wrapped them in customary cloths, dug the graves, recited the proper verses and buried the dead all by himself. He sometimes buried ten bodies in a single day, working nonstop straight through the night. It was lonely, soul-crushing work. “This isn’t something any human should have to be faced with,” said Dawa, “but someone has to do it.”
The first bodies entombed in Dawa’s olive grove cemetery belonged to a single family: a mother, father, daughter and son whose boat had sunk on the way to Lesbos. Their bodies washed ashore a day later. Dawa laid them to rest in the center of the grove, with the children in the arms of their parents, locked in an eternal embrace.
IV. The Hotelier
Though most sinking boats usually ended in mass fatalities, others were staging grounds for demonstrations of Greek compassion. Private citizens consistently sprang into action to save asylum-seekers from sinking, sunk, or unseaworthy boats that were spotted sailing to Lesbos’s shores.
Aphrodite Vati Mariola recalled that even the most anti-refugee residents of her hotel would jump up from their pool chairs to help the refugees that landed on the hotel beach. It’s one thing to bemoan the refugee crisis and the problems refugees bring to Greece from afar, said Mariola, “but when you confront suffering face-to-face, it’s different.”
By the end of 2015, up to eight boats filled with refugees arrived on the hotel’s beach daily. With fifty asylum-seekers usually crammed onto boats intended for twenty, Hotel Aphrodite rallied to assist the nearly 400 people that came ashore each day. Of course, the business was severely affected by this monopolization of resources. In 2014, the hotel booked 9,104 overnight stays. By 2016, due to the immense pressures of the refugees on the hotel’s beach and the image the crisis projected across the world, hotel occupancy was down more than 75% with only 2,000 overnight stays. This tourism crash affected businesses throughout Lesbos, which has always relied on a steady stream of visitors.
Though the hotel owners had expected government aid in dealing with the desperate people pouring into their property, they were surprised to find that political debate and bureaucratic regulations prevented much outside assistance.
“We were totally on our own,” said Mariola. She recalled a time when two government officers had visited the hotel as a courtesy call to make sure everything was running smoothly. In the middle of their visit, Mariola spotted a boat on the horizon indicating an incoming group of refugees. She pointed the boat out to the officers. “They whispered to each other and then turned to me a told me they had to leave before the boat came.” Greek law mandated the government representatives were prohibited from intervening in a refugee-related situation, so the officers left before their position became complicated, Mariola reported.
Once again, the Aphrodite Hotel responded without outside help. Three rooms in the hotel were devoted solely to storing clothing of all sizes to distribute to the shivering asylum-seekers who washed ashore. Much of the clothing was collected from local gift shops that donated the stocks of souvenirs that were going unsold due to the decrease in tourism. When NGOs started to arrive to assist Hotel Aphrodite and media began to cover Mariola’s story, people from around the world started to send boxes full of clothing to the hotel to distribute to the freezing people.
Not every migrant was a refugee though, said Mariola. Mariola started to notice a trend relating to the people arriving on her shores as time went on. “It was not just people fleeing war,” she explained. “This route that was being set up is being taken advantage of.” Mariola mentioned the many migrants who join the crowds of refugees in hopes of finding what Mariola calls “the false offering of the European Dream.” These people, though often victims of other difficult situations, take advantage of the refugee exile “as a means of getting to Europe in an easier manner,” says Mariola.
Many people also worry about a different variety of stowaway who can be hiding among the refugees: terrorists. Politicians across the globe, like America’s Donald Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, cite the influx of Islamic refugees as a source for increased terrorism. When famed American interviewer Anderson Cooper came to Hotel Aphrodite to speak with Mariola, this issue was at the forefront of his questioning: “Aren’t you afraid you’re letting in terrorists?” he asked.
Mariola and her family see this concern, but Mariola has a different take on the situation. “It all depends on how we treat them,” said Mariola. “If someone with anti-western thoughts comes to my shore and I kick them off, they reinforce their feelings about the West.”
Aphrodite Vati Mariola, mother and now an usher of thousands of refugees, answered Anderson Cooper with steely resolve. “If I treat them with kindness, things might be different,” she said.
V. The Camp Director
Across the island from Moria is another refugee camp called Kara Tepe, a camp that claims its mission is to “embody kindness.” Unlike the disorganized, trash-filled living spaces in Moria, Kara Tepe is a beacon of cleanliness, organization, and color — elaborate murals featuring images of positivity cover almost every flat surface in sight.
Kara Tepe is often used as a camp to house the most vulnerable of Lesbos’s asylum-seekers: disabled survivors, pregnant women, and unaccompanied minors are among those given priority access to living in Kara Tepe. A family transferred from Moria to Kara Tepe might be most shocked by, among many other things, the lack of fences. While Moria’s perimeter and interior are lined with barbed wire and metal fencing, at Kara Tepe there is not a fence in sight.
“We want to give them back some dignity. Normality,” boomed Stavros Mirogiannis, the director of the camp. “For us, this is a big deal.”
Stavros Mirogiannis stood near the entrance of the camp. He wore a green Teflon shirt, matching pants and aviator sunglasses akin to a 1970s drill sergeant. In one hand, he held a cup of coffee, a pack of cigarettes, and a flip cell phone. In the other, he grasped a full-sized walkie-talkie and ear buds. He orated with passion and volume, speaking in a somewhat staggered English that is so confident it conceals his grammatical mistakes.
“We have a flag that in our minds flies. It has five words: freedom, democracy, respect, dignity, hospitality,” said Mirogiannis. “We don’t want people to feel like lumps, take your life in your hands! Don’t dream of the red carpet somewhere else!”
Kara Tepe lives true to this mantra, not only providing “residents” (not “refugees”) with services and hospitality, but also challenging them to educate themselves, volunteer throughout the camp and, eventually, move on. In Mirogiannis’s words, they fight the tragic mentality of defeatism.
“Freedom, democracy, respect, dignity, hospitality,” Mirogiannis repeats with unwavering commitment. “We move this ferry with 1,200 passengers with those five words.”
VI. The Migrants
Though Ahmed is an unaccompanied minor, he was not transferred to Kara Tepe. Instead, in June of 2018, he was moved to a government owned home in Mytilene that houses a group of minors miles away from the roar of Moria. Though this was a vast improvement for Ahmed, he still dreamed of something more.
Ahmed and Bahaa have big plans, dreaming of the day they get the green light to move beyond Lesbos to find good work and new lives. Bahaa had his eyes on France, hoping to study French and reach Paris to find meaningful work in the famed city. But he isn’t attached. “I’ll go anywhere where there’s work. Anywhere that they’ll take me,” Bahaa said.
But first the pair must be granted asylum, a step that proved very difficult for most of their Egyptian friends. Egyptians, as opposed to Syrians and groups from other war-torn regions, have a harder time convincing the system of their asylum status. Migrants form countries where politics are more stable, like Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, often rely on specific situations to justify their illegal border crossings. “For most Egyptians, it’s rejection, appeal, rejection, appeal,” said Bahaa of the asylum application process.
Moria is a sort of limbo zone, filled with thousands of people waiting to hear back on their asylum applications and to be granted papers to continue on their journeys. Those who do not qualify live in fear of being sent back to the country from which they crossed into Greece. “There are people who give up everything to come here and end up getting deported,” Bahaa claimed. Bahaa heard of one person who was deported to Turkey and then sent directly to Syria, a fate he was unable to fathom.
Moria provides public lawyers to help applicants with their asylum cases, but Bahaa and Ahmed doubted the lawyers’ effectiveness. “The lawyers don’t do anything,” Bahaa claimed. “They told Ahmed he would be granted asylum in one month. That was six months ago.”
But the pair remained hopeful. One of their Egyptians friends just received their papers to ride the ferry to Athens, a good sign for future asylum proceedings. But many Egyptians are sent right back to Lesbos as soon as they dock, Bahaa claimed.
For now, Moria is home. And even in Moria, life goes on. Moria residents raise children, swim at Lesbos’s renowned beaches, run errands — riding a shuttle bus that transports people to downtown Mytilene — and even fall in love. Bahaa and Ahmed recalled a recent marriage celebration that occurred within Moria for two young Syrian refugees. It was not an official state wedding, but a religious ceremony held for the benefit of the couple. “They went to the head of the Syrian community in Moria to be married,” Bahaa reported. Of course, this wedding would not be recognized by the Greek government: no papers.
VII. The Protestor
On June 25, 2018, Anna Koukoulis stood in a group of around a dozen people outside the Aegean Ministry in high heels, lipstick, and sunglasses. She was there in support of Nick Trakellis, the president of the Moria village council who sat a few feet away from her on the stairs of the administrative building, demonstrating what he called a “hunger strike.” Holding two painted black, white and red signs reading “HUNGER STRIKE” and “SOS SAVE MORIA NOW”, Koukoulis was supporting Trakellis’s protest of the effect the residents of the Moria camp have had on the surrounding village and Lesbos as a whole.
Koukoulis, who had been among the people who helped refugees ashore in the early stages of the crisis, condemned the behavior of the asylum-seekers throughout Moria. Without papers to move on, over 7,000 refugees are trapped in Lesbos, and Koukoulis represents just one of the many residents perturbed by the actions and destruction allegedly caused by refugees.
“People swim naked at the beach and make a mess,” Koukoulis said. “We can’t go swimming because of them.”
Koukoulis cited many other behaviors and incidents involving the reproachful and sometimes criminal behavior of refugees in Lesbos. On June 24th, 2018, a fire started in an olive grove that burned four acres of private property. Koukoulis, along with many others, believed that an illegal fire started by asylum-seekers that was intended to barbecue pets stolen from Lesbos natives was to blame for the destruction.
From stealing food, to killing cats, to harassing local girls, to vandalizing Christian cemeteries and churches, Koukoulis stood with President Trakellis in calling for a response to migrant overcrowding in Moria. “There are no rules. There is no control,” Koukoulis stated as a car sped by the Ministry, honking in support.
“In 2015, we would run and help them,” she said. “We want to help them. They’re given cards, money, resources.” But this behavior, said Koukoulis, is unacceptable.
Though Koukoulis blamed the asylum-seekers for their behavior, she did not fault them with the situation. “The people don’t want to live in camps. They want their freedom.” Koukoulis argued that the Greek government, the EU, and Turkey must handle the overcrowded Moria camp and contain the situation. “We’ve called for help so many times. The government has promised many things.” So far, however, the Greek inhabitants of Moria and the rest of Lesbos have seen no follow through.
Koukoulis hoped that President Trakellis’s hunger strike will prompt the Aegean powers to truly address the issue, to give the Lesbos she once knew back to her. Mostly, she wanted the beaches to be rid of underwear-clad refugees so she can swim in peace. “Lesbos was only supposed to be a stopover for them,” Koukoulis said, “and now they’re stuck here.”
VIII. The Grave Digger
As the sun set over the mountains on the western shore of Lesbos, Mustafa Dawa prayed before the nearly one hundred Muslim bodies buried in the shade of Greek olive trees. Dawa faced Mecca as he prayed, the same direction faced by each of the bodies buried underground. Since the time the first six bodies were buried in 2015, the cemetery has grown with the crisis.
Still, in June of 2018, Moustafa Dawa worked alone. When a Muslim person dies in one of the camps, Dawa is the only lifeline for a timely, ritually-proper burial. Though many NGOs collect funds claiming to offer the same funerary services in Lesbos, Moustafa knows these groups to be scams: corrupted organization capitalizing on the crisis to grub money. Moustafa Dawa is Lesbos’s only Muslim grave digger.
The plot of land nestled between the olive groves has still not been officially designated as a cemetery due to various bureaucratic hindrances, a threat that worries Dawa daily. “I never know if someone will show up one day and shut me down,” he said.
Many of the headstones marking each of the graves, headstones that Dawa also made himself, showed not names but numbers: “Unknown woman №134”; “Unknown infant №31”. The headstone of Infant Number 31 stands directly adjacent to another headstone belonging to Infant Number 36. Beneath the ground, the children were laid to rest in the same coffin, not because the cemetery is running out of space, but because Dawa felt he couldn’t separate the babies. “I just felt they shouldn’t be alone,” he said.
Each of these numbered graves marks a body that was never identified, waiting to be located by surviving family. Each number corresponds to a DNA profile maintained in a database, but there is no active system established to help connect a family member with the remains of their missing loved one.
Again, Dawa tried to fill in where the state did not, sometimes using his knowledge of the bodies — such as scars and age — to connect searching family members with the remains of their loved ones through his own means. This is one of the many roles and skills Dawa developed in a short time. In one year, Dawa saw himself move from Egypt to Greece, from family to solitude, and from a life of academia to a life of death.
“I feel like I can’t go on,” said Dawa. With the mental stress of his obligation taking a toll, Dawa finds himself drowning not in water, but in his duty, his worry. “I put too much pressure on myself,” he said. But Dawa trudges on, knowing that no one on the island has his knowledge — his familiarity with Muslim burial law, his respect for the dead, his mental record of each of the identified and unidentified bodies contained in every grave, beneath every headstone, under every lump of soil.
He worries about the future. He worries that if he leaves, there will be no one to carry on his work. He worries families will never find their loved ones. He worries a deceased Muslim will be left in a refrigerator for weeks. “I worry that if I die, the cemetery will die with me,” said Dawa.
IX. The Elephant
“People speak of Lesbos as the Island of Despair,” said Aphrodite Vati Mariola with a grand sweeping motion. But there’s so much more. “Lesbos is not just the refugee crisis,” she said.
“When the media speaks of Lesbos that way it brands us all with a tragic image,” Mariola said. How can we recover from the loss, both in tourism and beyond, if the media makes us look like a refugee infested island filled with racist residents? she asked. In her viral Facebook posts and other writings, Mariola argued that the media needs to present a more balanced view of the refugee crisis and of Lesbos. “We are asking for solidarity and support through actions, not only for the refugees, but also for the local communities affected by all this,” she said.
According to Mariola, when the media writes about Lesbos and when people speak about Lesbos, “they have to remember the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant.”
A group of blind men come across an Elephant. The first blind man reaches out and touches the trunk and exclaims, “The elephant is like a snake!” Another blind man reaches forward and inspects the Elephant’s leg. “An elephant is like a tree stump!” he decides. A third blind man runs his hands against the Elephant’s side and says, “An elephant is like a wall!” The last one, who has latched onto the Elephant’s tail, says with confidence, “An elephant is like as a rope!”
“They are all wrong,” said Mariola.
To understand the refugee crisis, she said, you can’t just listen to one perspective or touch one part of the elephant. You can’t just hear what the government has to say, or the local media, or the asylum-seekers, or the locals, or the volunteers. “You have to find the different pieces of the story,” said Mariola. “You have to put them all together.”