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Refugee Conditions In Greece Are About To Get Much, Much Worse

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 10/03/2016 Alexandra Ma

PIRAEUS, Greece -- Piraeus, the port near Athens well known to tourists for its ferries to Greece’s picturesque islands in the Aegean Sea, has in the past month turned into one of the country’s largest makeshift shelters for different kinds of travelers: migrants and refugees.

In the past weeks, they have taken over four passenger waiting areas at the port as temporary accommodation. In just a few days, 5,000 people were taking shelter there.

The port’s temporary residents are some of the 132,000 migrants and refugees who have arrived in Greece since the beginning of this year. Most want to continue their journey from violence-ridden or poverty-stricken countries in Africa and the Middle East and to find refuge in northern Europe. They have arrived in Piraeus on ferries from the Greek islands, and plan to continue to the Greek-Macedonian border crossing in Idomeni.

When HuffPost Greece visited the port on March 4, we saw people of all ages crammed in the passenger areas -- families with children, pregnant women, seniors and people on wheelchairs or with crutches.

Blankets spread on the floors served as cushions or as tables for food. Young people hunched together to charge their phones. A few women were waiting their turn to wash their clothes at the public sinks. Groups of children played outside or devoured ice pops next to a man who prayed facing Mecca.

A constant stream of arrivals & departures

The number of migrants and refugees arriving in Piraeus varies by the hour, depending on the arrival of ferries bringing over thousands who had landed on the islands in previous days as well as the departure of buses carrying migrants and refugees to shelters in the capital or the Greek-Macedonian border.

The port’s temporary residents are largely made up of Syrians and Iraqis. Prior to completely closing its border Wednesday, Macedonia had tightened regulations last month to keep out all refugees but Syrians and Iraqis, a handful of which were permitted to cross each day.

Most Syrians and Iraqis who arrive in the port expect to leave for the border immediately. In reality, many end up stuck there waiting for transportation north -- and the bottleneck looks set to worsen.

On Wednesday, following a two-day summit between Turkey and the European Union that sought to develop a plan to stem the influx of migrants and refugees into Europe, Balkan countries completely shut their borders for travelers without valid EU visas, including Iraqis and Syrians.

Last month’s border restrictions had already left 35,945 migrants and refugees stranded in Greece. That number will now almost certainly rise. 

Christina and her loaves of bread

While Greek authorities have tried to control the number of people arriving in Piraeus, including by limiting the number of seats on the ferries from the islands to the port, thousands of people remain on the port’s premises. 

Dozens of volunteers are scrambling each day to cover the travelers’ basic needs -- food, clothing and medical aid.

Volunteers hand out soup and pasta in the tent behind the passenger waiting areas, which is reserved for food distribution.

One of the volunteers in the tent, Christina, owns a bakery in central Athens and regularly brings hot loaves of bread to the port. She asked that her last name not be used.

“I’ve done this job for nearly 30 years now, and I asked the boys at the shop: ‘If I supply the raw materials, will you give a hand to take them to the refugees in Piraeus?’ They agreed, so here we are,” she explained.

Christina is upset at the situation in Piraeus. “Every day, there are food products of good quality that we can't preserve. I asked the church in our area to come and take them. Can you believe that they didn't?" she said. "I came here now, but I am looking for another organization to give to on a regular basis.” 

“What if there isn’t enough food one day?" 

Norman Hering, a U.S. citizen living in Denmark, also volunteers on the site. He has been in Greece for the past three weeks with the aid organization Aid Caravan. The group offers two meals a day to the migrants and refugees: mainly soups and vegetables and a breakfast of tea, milk for children, biscuits and dry nuts.

“We’ve managed so far, but I always think: What if tomorrow, it is not enough?” Hering said. “But I don’t think that moment will come, because the volunteers here don’t stop coming, not for a minute. Some only bring stuff and leave, others want to stay and help."

"We always need hands," he continued. "Sometimes there is not even time to learn the names of those who help us. But what I see moves me,” he said, smiling. 

Hering explained why he left the U.S. “I am old enough to know that we are responsible for a lot of wars. We have bombed many people. Everything is connected. Even what goes on in Syria. Even if Donald Trump doesn't get elected as president, there are many people who support him. How can I go back to that?”

Setting up a medical center with what is available

Volunteers and aid organizations have also set up a medical center in one of the passenger waiting areas. Dozens of people waited outside March 4, lining up to see the medical staff.

A woman with a crutch was crying. Her children were sitting next to her. She had just been told that she’d be transferred to the hospital, but she didn’t want to go. Like so many of the other refugees, she was afraid she’d miss the buses headed for the border.

The medical center’s pharmacist, Eleni Lourda, said she spends up to 12 hours per day in the facility. She’s seen a lot. “What can I tell you? We see 12-day-old babies come by here when we wouldn't let our children outside until they turn 40 days.”

The clinic got its start by collecting medication from community pharmacies, Lourda said. The Ministry of Health recently gave the clinic an ambulance to service the area, week after they requested one. Doctors volunteer in the clinic after their shifts at the hospital or in their private practices. Most of them bring whatever supplies they can. But even with help from aid organizations like Doctors of the World and the Red Cross, Lourda said, it’s difficult to keep the clinic running.

A baby bottle to go

The staff at the center work in difficult conditions, Lourda said. Many of the patients' issues would be relatively easy to treat under normal circumstances, but become difficult under the current ones.

Patients often don’t want to go to the hospital. The center lacks interpreters. There have been instances when the staff needed to convince women to let male doctors treat them.

Lourda remembered one particularly painful incident. A woman had given birth in a boat on the perilous journey across the Aegean Sea. The staff had to find a way for her to see the baby, who was kept in an incubator, so she could breastfeed the infant. When the woman left, although the caregivers gave her equipment for the baby, including boilers and bottle nipples, she took only a single bottle with her. A bottle for the road, and she was gone.

People, food and trash

Each of the four waiting stations accommodates hundreds of people, but each has only two people to clean it. There are few waste bins outside the waiting areas. The trash is piling up, and there aren’t enough chemical toilets to serve everyone.

Despite the large number of people and the widespread exhaustion, there haven't been any serious problems yet -- in stark contrast to Idomeni, where frustration over the border bottleneck has led to clashes and protests.

In Piraeus, men and women of the Greek Coast Guard oversee the situation in the morning. From noon until the next morning, a private security company takes over. Only one security agent is working that shift, however, and if something comes up, he or she has to inform the Coast Guard.

“The government is absent.”

The relief efforts at Piraeus are coordinated by the Piraeus Initiative for the support of Refugees and Migrants. As in other parts of the country where many refugees have arrived, the government's contribution to taking care of them is minimal. 

“All this time, those of us who have been here haven't seen anyone from the relevant ministries to come and document needs, nor have we been asked about anything that we might need,” said Foteini Servou, a member of the Piraeus Initiative. 

Servou said that the members of the initiative, who now number about a hundred, have been at the port for months. “The demands are huge,” she said. “We gather all we can, we talk to doctors, pharmacists, some interpreters who offer voluntary help. We can't predict the needs, which constantly emerge, but the good news is that people keep getting here to help.”

A love story as life goes on

But even in Piraeus, amid the chaos and uncertainty, love stories can be found.

Mohammed Ali is a tall 18-year-old boy from Afrin, a district in Syria’s north with a majority Kurdish population.

“My father and I took the decision to leave. It was impossible to stay in Syria any more,” Ali said. “Now, I am here with my parents and my two siblings. We’ve been waiting for five days now for a bus to take us to Idomeni, at the Greek-Macedonian border.” 

If the bus came now, though, Ali wouldn't leave.

“I am waiting for Nobahar, my girlfriend,” he said. “Before I left Syria, I proposed to her. We have been together since school; I couldn't leave her behind. But we got separated in Lesbos. I heard she is coming to Piraeus tomorrow.”

Piraeus isn’t an easy place to be, Ali said. “But at least you feel safe and people try to help us. They really try.”

“When I close my eyes I see Damascus.”

Bahan is 18 years old and just married her 21-year-old husband. Bahan asked us for information about the situation at the border. For a moment, she appeared worried, but then started smiling again.

“I believe that we will be ok, that we will get to Germany or the Netherlands,” she said. "I have plans to become a nurse. We need to find a house and be safe. In Syria and Turkey, anywhere we went, we were scared either of the bombs or the people who didn't want us there. I want to forget all that." 

Bahan doesn't want to forget Syria, though. “When I close my eyes I see Damascus, where I grew up. It was really beautiful, but you wouldn't be able to see it now.”

This story originally appeared on HuffPost Greece and has been translated into English and adapted for an American audience.  

Read more on Greece's refugee crisis:

The Harrowing Stories Of 5 Afghan Refugees Trapped In Greece

Greece Struggled With Migration Policy Even Before The Refugee Crisis

A Thousand Miles In Their Shoes

German Doctor Pens Moving Account Of Treating Refugees

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