The “others” – Greece’s forgotten refugee population

Story by Sophie Cannon ·

This post can also be found at

OINOFYTA, Greece – United Nations tents and isoboxes are scattered around the grounds, shoeless boys play soccer in dimly lit halls and seemingly happy murals decorate the walls of families on boats. But on close inspection, the people are actually painted as ghosts, lost at sea.

Inside the refurbished factory building-turned-camp, the daily lives of the refugees unfold. A communal kitchen anchors the space, hallways branching off into one-room living spaces and community rooms. This appears to be the image of the refugee crisis straight out of news reports, broadcast to the world since 2015. But this is not what the world has come to know as the Syrian crisis. These are the others – from countries including Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.

A mural painted by one of the child residents of the camp, depicting those who were lost on the journey from Afghanistan to Greece.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

The Oinofyta refugee camp, located about an hour north of Athens, is home to 500 refugees mainly from Afghanistan, with 5 percent from Iran and 5 percent from Pakistan. These refugees have fought through war-torn lands and sailed across the same seas, and yet, because of their nationality, they are often not given refugee status in Greece.

The UN classifies a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence.” However, even though there is ongoing war or conflict in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, the individuals who show up on the shores of Greece are not given that title. Instead they are defined as economic migrants and asylum seekers, all labels that can result in deportation back to their home countries.

“They are not from a country [where] there is peace,” said Ehsan Labib from the United Afghans Community in Greece. “The only difference between Syria and Afghanistan is the difference in the war. In Afghanistan there are suicide bombs, ISIS, the Taliban. There is not safety.”

Afghanistan is currently an unsafe country due to the presence of the Taliban, an Afghan terrorist group. Many of the Oinofyta residents have been personally targeted by the Taliban, condemned to death through letters they received from the group before they fled.

One of those residents who could not give her name due to the Taliban’s call for her death, has been hiding in the camp with her children. Her father was murdered by the Taliban and they have since put out a call for the death of his extended family.

“These people are in even more in danger because they are targeted individually,” said Lisa Campbell, executive director of Do Your Part and project manager of Oinofyta. “About 50 percent are being targeted individually. But if you are running from the Taliban and can’t feed your children, then you are not safe.”

The targeted woman cannot read or write and is currently trying to meet her brother in another European country, a process called reunification. The Afghans that arrived before May 20, 2016, still qualify for family reunification. Any who arrived after are not afforded that option due to the EU – Turkey deal of March 18 that same year.


There have been 229 Afghans who have come through Greece looking for asylum in 2015, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. However, the 500 residents of the Oinofyta camp, which opened in May of 2016, suggests there are far more than the government and UNHCR report.

“They are treated as second-class refugees,” Campbell said. “Nothing will get better until the UN grants them refugee status.”

Oinofyta is staffed by volunteers from Do Your Part, a non-profit organization that started as a response to Hurricane Katrina and now does humanitarian work all over the world.

“I knew nothing about how a refugee camp is supposed to run, so I built a community,” Campbell said.“We have 500 people now and have gone as high as 756. The camp is capped at 600 now, but I doubt it will get that high again.”

However, because of their non-Syrian status, refugees are stuck in the slow-moving process of asylum and many have been sent back to their home country, where danger awaits them.

In May 2016, Skype phone lines were created for a pre-registration process. Displaced people call into the Skype account and once answered by an Asylum Service Office, a number is handed out, like a ticket at a deli counter, to wait for an appointment for an asylum interview. Again, this process treats Syrians and non-Syrians differently.

“Syrians had their dates set and interviews within a month,” Campbell said. “The ‘others’ were eight, nine, 10 months away. Some are just now having their interviews. Not one Pakistani has gotten through the Skype lines until one month ago.”

Lisa Campbell at her desk in her air-conditioned isobox office. She holds daily office hours here, and it is the base of operations for the running of the camp. The walls are decorated with gifts from residents.
Photo by Hsiang-Yu Wu

Receiving a number is only the first step to becoming legal. The number grants the status of asylum seeker, not the refugee status that affords more benefits. The real test is passing the asylum seeker interview, held all over Greece at various embassies and government buildings. But first, waiting.

“You can wait for six months, sometimes nine months,” Labib said. “Then they give the answer and if the result is positive, the next thing they give you is permits and paperwork. If the result is negative, they give you two chances. You have to apply once again, and if you don’t in about two months or 60 days, you must leave this country.”

Some gain asylum and some are unfortunately sent back to camps or worse, to their home country. Oinofyta camp resident Elias, 25, and his brother, 21, both from Afghanistan, sought asylum and were afforded different answers.

“I came with my brother and he is still on Lesbos,” he said through a translator. “When he went to asylum review, they sent him back to Lesbos and me here. I was sick so they let me stay because I had a knife wound. I asked to stay here, in Greece.”

Unlike Elias, when it comes to asylum location preference, many want to be anywhere but Greece. They pay smugglers to help them and their families cross the many borders between their home country, Greece and their final destination.

“Any place is better than here. For living, for studying, everything,” said Salim, 25, a resident from Afghanistan in the Oinofyta camp. “I came by foot, by car, by boat, from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Iran and Turkey to Greece. We stayed in the mountains, the deserts, any place. It cost about 9,000 euro (about $10,000) to the smugglers, I sold my car.”

Even if all goes well and refugees receive a number, go to their interview and get approved for asylum, unlike the structural programs in place for Syrian refugees in other countries, there are no services available to Afghans or others.

“Once you’ve been granted asylum, there are programs for integration,” Campbell said. “Greece doesn’t have that process in place yet. They don’t qualify, according to the UN, for relocation and they can only apply for asylum in Greece. They pay smugglers to get them out.”

Because of this, many of the residents of Oinofyta have given up in trying to get out of the camp and Greece as a whole, and unless they use a smuggler to get them out of the country, when the camp eventually closes they will have nowhere to go. Campbell predicts the camp will close within the next year or so, saying that on average, only about 1 percent of residents get resettled.

This is coming all too soon for many of the residents, as they arrived less than one year ago from the most dangerous and exhausting journeys of their lives. When resident Parsa Qavami, 46, from Iran, came to the shores of Greece, his journey was not an easy one. Originally trying to get to Italy, Qavami ended up on the shores of Greece and found himself in prison there.

Parsa Qavami, pictured in front of the camp. His family was left behind and they plan on following when he finds a more permanent refuge. He is one of the few Iranians in residence at Oinofyta.
Photo by Bradley Fargo

“We spent eight or nine days in the police station,” Qavami said. “One day we were taken to the hospital for blood tests and then 35 people were set free. Myself and four friends were then sent to the central jail. I still don’t know why I was in jail for six months.”

He described the jail as unbearable. “We were forced to eat breakfast during lunch, lunch was at 4, and dinner at 11 to 12 so we wouldn’t be hungry when we woke up,” he said. “When we would say we were sick, we wrote it down but they were lying and they wouldn’t give it to the doctors. Because of the jail, I ended up with a stomach issue…I had developed a growth on my liver. I don’t know how I got it but they told me it was from contact with dogs, but I had never touched a dog so I don’t know. It was maybe because of the drinking water in the prison.”

Once a self-employed backgammon set maker and award-winning body builder, Qavami is one of the few Iranians at the camp, and with his focus on his family back home, he has little time for grievances or friendships.

“I try to not make friends or talk to anyone,” he said. “The majority comes here to stay. Here, for some people is like paradise but for me and with the way I think and the life I had, it’s not.”

As a part of this community, both Campbell and Labib try and make the lives of the Afghans in Greece as productive as possible. In Oinofyta, there is a fully staffed tailor shop, a hair salon, a workshop and a garden. In the United Afghan Community in Greece, Labib makes it his goal to show just how educated and helpful the Afghan refugees can be, if given the chance.

“We have two goals,” Labib said. “We want to show this country that these refugees that come here, they were doctors, they were engineers, they were teachers. The second thing we want to do is to make opportunities for these Afghans so they can do something here, in Greece.”

Regardless of whether the 500 residents of Oinofyta or the thousands of Afghans in the country decide to stay in Greece or apply for asylum in another European country, Labib makes it clear that the only way to really help the refugees is to stop separating them  into categories.

“Thousands is thousands. If the Europeans countries want to help the refugees, they must not make a difference between Syria and Afghanistan,” Labib said. “When we give bread to someone who is hungry, we must give for two. Right now, the Afghan refugees and the Syrian refugees, both of them are hungry, and we cannot give bread to one and not to the other one.”


New Holocaust museum will preserve lost Jewish identity and history in Thessaloniki

Story by Sophie Cannon ·

*This story also lives at our main site at* 

THESSALONIKI, Greece – From the street level, it is a nondescript gray building guarded by a single security booth. Inside however, there is a blend of rich Jewish culture, where an orthodox rabbi leads services to a crowd of Sephardic Jews ranging in age from an infant to a 95-year-old woman humming along to his chants. Wine imported from Israel flows freely around the dining room.

This is the Jewish Community Center of Thessaloniki, where the melodic sounds of Hebrew echo through the crowded room of about 70, bumping into Greek, Spanish and Yiddish along the way. In addition to some travelers from Israel, invited to attend the weekly Friday night ritual, it’s a typical turnout for Shabbat (or Sabbath) dinner in the small but still alive-as-ever Jewish community of Thessaloniki.

Once called “The Jerusalem of the Balkans,” the second largest Greek city of Thessaloniki is trying to rebuild its Jewish identity on the very land where it was destroyed 70 years ago. At the railway station where 50,000 Thessaloniki citizens once boarded cattle cars to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, the new Holocaust Museum of Greece is set to begin construction at the end of this year, and will be open to the public in late 2019.

On June 15, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will visit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Nicos Anastasiades, the president of Cyprus, in an annual meeting. Mayoral adviser Leonidas Makris said they will likely make a statement of support for the new museum at the meeting, to take place in Thessaloniki.

“The museum will narrate the history of the Jews in Thessaloniki, their significance to the life and prosperity of the city and their fate during the war,” said Meira Kowalsky, a partner at Efrat-Kowalsky Architects, based in Tel Aviv, Israel, one of the construction companies contracted to build the museum. “We hope that it will enhance dialogue and tolerance between communities based on a better knowledge and respect of the past.

At the western entrance of the city, the old railway station will be transformed into a six-floor, circular building, spanning more than 75,340 square feet. In addition to the museum, there is a proposed education center set to be adjacent to the old rail station – though information on dimensions, scope and cost won’t be public until later this year.

The powerful symbolism of the location is one of the most important aspects of the space as it’s the exact station where 95 percent of the city’s Jewish resident were deported to death camps at the start of Nazi occupation in Greece.

The site for the new Holocaust Museum of Greece, built at the old train station through which the Jewish population was deported to concentration camps during the war.
Photo by Sydne Mass

The museum has secured funding from two different donors: 10 million euros (or $11.2 million) from the German government and the same amount from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, a private Greek philanthropic organization that funds projects geared toward arts, culture, education and social welfare.

In addition to the monetary sponsors, the Greek parliament is in agreement across party lines that there is a need for the museum, with support from the leading Syriza party as well as from the official opposition party, New Democracy.

“This is a dream we have had since 2013, with the mayor as well,” said Larry Sefiha, vice president of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, an elected board of local Jewish leaders. “We had a plan of making this museum, a good collaboration with the mayor [Yiannis Boutaris] and a design. We have assurance from the prime minister [Alexis Tsipras] and the head [president] of the Hellenic Republic [Prokopis Pavlopoulos] and also the head of the opposition party as well.”

The Jewish history of Thessaloniki runs deep within the historical framework of the city, despite the small Jewish footprint in Thessaloniki today. Sefiha said the city’s Jewish population is a fraction of what it once was.

“The community used to be vivid and vibrant,” Safiha said. “The majority of the population was about 70,000 of 150,000 total residents. Before the Holocaust, there were 50,000 after some moved out of Greece for economic reasons and after the war until today there are about 1,500.”

Nazis occupied Greece in 1941, decimating the Jewish community. The majority of the population was sent to Poland by train. The lucky few who were not caught by the Nazis hid in the mountains of Greece, awaiting news that the war had ended.

With a Jewish population slowly returning to the city, the next step is rebuilding the past and providing education for future generations. In addition to documenting the atrocities of the Holocaust, the goal of the museum is to educate and drive home the lessons learned from it.

“We want to not only depict the Holocaust as an event, but to educate and combat anti-Semitism, racist and any ‘anti-’ feelings,” said Marcel Hassid, administrator and employee at the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki. “To not only learn about the event itself but the underlying situation and its tie into the current situation is very important.”

That sentiment is vital in combating anti-Semitism around the world, and here in Thessaloniki as well. According to an Anti-Defamation League 2015 report, Greece’s anti-Semitic rating is at 67 percent, based on survey responses from a random selection of the population. This is compared to a 10 percent rating of the Americas. The majority of the population, 90 percent as of 2015, is Greek Orthodox.

Pamphlets from the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki in Greek, Hebrew and English to accommodate the many visiting Israeli and American tourists.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

“Greece comes in as one of the highest in anti-Semitism on paper,” said Erika Perahia-Zemour, curator and employee of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, which is dedicated to documenting Jewish life in Thessaloniki before the Holocaust and also serving as a small memorial. “It is because of the very power in the church, the influence of the church.”

While the rating is high compared to the U.S. and many other countries, mayoral adviser Makris said the anti-Semitism here in Greece is different and not generally expressed as violence as it is in other places.

“It is true that there are reports of high anti-Semitism in Greece. Our culture is more outspoken, not embarrassed or politically correct about our feelings,” Makris said. “If you take a survey of the average Greek about how they feel about the Jews, it is going to be negative. However, almost 1 million Jews are coming from Israel for holidays but no violent attacks have ever happened and it happens every day in Britain. Greeks speak loudly but do not react violently.”

While funding for the museum has been secured as of early this year, according to Makris, the project still has a way to go before breaking ground. The building permit is still entangled in the slow bureaucracy Greeks have become accustomed to.

“In Greece we go too slow, but this was big history. Ninety-six percent of the community is a lot to lose,” said Lili Antzel, guide and employee at the Monistir Synagogue, which is the only synagogue currently open in Thessaloniki. “It will be positive if it happens, though. People know the Europe side of history. The things about the Germans and France and Poland, but they don’t know about the Thessaloniki Jews.”

The Jewish population of Greece was largely Sephardic Orthodox, and originally came from places such as Morocco, Spain and the Middle East. The community spoke Ladino, a mix of Hebrew and Spanish, causing a majority of their history to be lost in translation. Ladino has practically gone extinct.

“They spoke Ladino until the day they left, so the language barrier prevents us from knowing a lot,” Antzel said. “We do know that they had schools, teaching Kabbalah (a Jewish mystic interpretation of the Bible) and other things. Prominent rabbis from all over came during the 16th to 18th century. It was always a multicultural city.”

The Jewish community of learned individuals, scholars and business people was wiped out, not once but twice – first when a fire in 1917 destroyed the city center of Thessaloniki, which housed most of the Jewish people, and again during Nazi occupation.

Most of the 1,500 Jewish people living in Thessaloniki are still Sephardic and Orthodox in practice.

“We are 1,000 members, 20 percent are Thessaloniki survivors and their descendants and the rest are people that came back after the war,” said Perahia-Zemour of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. “I’m not sure the community will continue. Numbers are diminishing. We hope we will hold like we did after the war.”

Despite the small community, there are still a few buildings in Thessaloniki devoted to serving the Jewish population and preserving its history.

A digital mock-up of the proposed new Holocaust Museum.
Photo courtesy of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki.

“There were 42 synagogues in Thessaloniki, and all were destroyed except this one, as it served as the Red Cross warehouse during the war,” Antzel said of the Monistir Synagogue. There are also two others, Yad Lezicaron, housed inside the same building as the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki office, currently undergoing renovations, and another inside Modeano, a home for aging Jewish people.

Inside the Monistir Synagogue, besides the pews, everything is as it was before the war, from the arc that holds the Torah to the three crystal chandeliers hanging above the red velvet seats. Hebrew, a language not often heard in Thessaloniki, is the common tongue here – making this place stand apart from the rest of the city as a frozen moment in time, when the Jewish people were the lifeblood of society.

“All the celebrations of the families happen here. Bar mitzvahs, weddings…,” Antzel explained. “The community helps a lot too. Now that the economy is not so good, we all help where we can. We have Israel programs, donations to the poor. We give what we have to help.”

Upon completion of the museum, the government and the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki hope it will not only help empower the community in the city, but also help those who have connections to the Jewish population of Thessaloniki find the answers to their questions.

“Once the construction begins, it may take two to three years to complete the building,” said Kowalski, of the architecture firm, which has built other Holocaust museums around the world. “The project in Thessaloniki is particularly important since it would be the first museum to tell the story of the Sephardic Jews in the Holocaust. Our design for the museum is contextual and refers to the architecture of the city of Thessaloniki.”

While the number of practicing Jews in the city is small, the stories left behind are an integral part of the second Jerusalem’s past.

“We are not the ‘others,’” Sefiha said. “It’s a part of the history of Greece and has always been a part of the history of Thessaloniki.”

Despite Lack of Change, Greeks Take to Streets in Protest

By Sophie Cannon, David Harbeck and Bradley Fargo

full story with photo slideshow and video can be viewed at

THESSALONIKI, Greece – At a four-way intersection on a usually busy Greek street in downtown Thessaloniki, traffic has stopped for what appears to be a job fair for the disillusioned. Workers from all sectors of the economy, equipped with painted signs and flags, chant their grievances toward the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace, a towering four-story mansion also known as the “Government House of Thessaloniki.”

A band of Coca-Cola workers stands behind a sign saying, “We don’t drink Coke anymore.” They face the accounting union group, also protesting the government, but for the lack of healthcare. A union of clothing store workers is opposite them, making up yet another piece to the jigsaw puzzle that was the 24-hour May 17 nationwide labor strike. The unrest stems from the upcoming May 18 vote in Parliament on new austerity measures that would cut pensions and raise taxes on Greek people.

“We protest whenever we have to. It’s a chance to show every day what is possible. It is something for every worker,” said Giorgkas, 34, a member of the Organization of Communist Internationalists in Greece, who attended three protests this week. “You have to support it in a country with such high unemployment, but people are not participating as much.”

While one group shakes the gates of the government building, a young woman spraypaints “resistance and worker control” in Greek on the building’s outer barrier. Amid the chaos, Dimitrios Giogkas stands in the center of the street, occasionally echoing the shouts of a protester leading a call-and-response chant.

In the past week in Thessaloniki, there have been two other protests at Kamara, a famous square in the heart of downtown, leading up to the labor strike. “Tomorrow night after the vote I will be here again,” said Giorgkas, who works in a local bookstore.

The European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have imposed strict austerity measures, such as budget cuts and pension caps, on Greece’s government in an attempt to rescue the country from its ongoing government debt crisis. The crisis began in 2010, with the country’s troubles stemming from the 2008 worldwide financial crisis.

A woman paints a banner for a demonstration in Kamara Square, Thessaloniki.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

People in Greece are beginning to feel hopeless as the economic environment is showing little signs of improvement. Unemployment is at 23.2 percent, the highest in Europe, according to EU statistics. Youth unemployment is at 48 percent. These statistics coupled with the all-around economic turmoil in Greece have bred a culture of frequent protests and strikes.

It is no longer surprising for there to be six-month delays for Greek people to receive their paychecks. According to Georgios Anastasiades, an economist and adjunct professor at the American College of Thessaloniki (ACT), Greece has lost 50 percent of its income since the crisis. This frustration has caused workers to take to the streets almost daily, an option that was once powerful and is now a last resort.

“People are striking but not with particularly radical intentions,” Anastasiades said. “In the past, they thought they could do something. We have strikes without demonstrations. It’s supposed to be a strong weapon, now it’s at the drop of a hat.”

Large labor strikes, like the one on May 17 that attracted 6,000 people in Thessaloniki and 12,000 in Athens, according to published reports, happen a few times a year. In the past week alone there have been strikes by bus and ferry drivers, air traffic controllers, hospital workers and journalists. In addition to multiple labor unions across numerous industries, the May 17 strikes also saw participation from large numbers of communists and anarchists.

A protester leads call-and-response chants in the streets of Thessaloniki.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

“Greece is going through the most difficult [part] of its post-World War II period with dramatic consequences in various fields of the country’s social and economic life,” said Panagiotis Avramopoulos, the former president of the Trade Unions Center of Thessaloniki and member of the City Council of Thessaloniki since 2002. “Greeks are suffering [from] dramatic changes in their lives caused by the severe austerity measures. This difficult environment generates the need to protest.”

Since the crisis began, the constant strikes and marches have done little to nothing in terms of policy change and instead have disappointed and infuriated the people of Greece. The birthplace of democracy is now failing them.

“Many people nowadays are disillusioned, disoriented, disheartened by the fact that despite the protests, the outcomes they seek don’t always materialize,” said Maria Kyriakidou, the chair of Humanities and Social Sciences at ACT. “In 2012 you could find half a million people outside Parliament protesting. You won’t see these numbers anymore.”

Riot police stand outside the Turkish Consulate on May 12.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

Despite different governments voted into power since 2010, no party has been able to reverse the negative economic trends in Greece. The current party in power is the far-left Syriza party, but many people disassociated from the party in 2016 after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras agreed to an austerity package that significantly increased taxes and cut public spending.

“We believe in what we are doing. We are not out here for fun,” said Kalamara Garyfallia, the president of the clothing store workers’ union. “Left wing, right wing, we don’t care. We march whenever there is a law against us.”

Garyfallia is just one of thousands of the working class in Greece dissatisfied with the government. No matter the party that is in power, she said, the outcome is the same and no real changes are made to improve the lives of workers.

“Everyday life has been affected,” Garyfallia said. “It’s hard to make ends meet.”

Ioanna Katsarou is one example of a worker struggling to put food on the table for her family. “In many ways, we don’t have [what we need] to eat, don’t have [what we need] to pay the rent. It’s my right to have something to live, not [just] to survive,” said Katsarou, a native of Thessaloniki who attended the protest on May 17 with her husband. “I want to eat, to feed my children. I will fight for it today.”

Katsarou is a member of the Communist Party in Greece, and says that the community of like-minded thinkers that surrounds her is part of what makes her feel safe during the protests.

“I am here with persons that I understand and that understand me, so I feel at home,” she said.

The mob mentality usually associated with large protests and social groups like the anarchists and communists can serve as a family for disillusioned people. Despite differences in ideology, age, class and gender, the community aspect of protests have been sewn into a social fabric and developed into a protest culture of its own.

Workers dressed in their construction uniforms lead the May 17 protest down the street, followed by 6,000 other protesters from various groups.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

“Over the last years, protests rarely accomplish the reverse of negative and unpleasant developments,” said Avramopoulos, the Thessaloniki City Council member. “In any case, peaceful protests remain the lifeblood of our democracy.”

Gwendolyn Schanker also contributed to this report.