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Greeks share what little they have with refugees and migrants

Fatima Rezai's journey to Greece took 40 days and 40 nights. From Afghanistan's Ghazni province she and her family trekked to Iran, then Turkey, took a boat to Samos, Greece, and then another to Piraeus.

Now, the only journey Fatima takes is the one from her refugee camp in Hellinikon, site of Athens' old airport, to the downtown Caritas soup kitchen, where she can get a hot meal. The borders to Germany, their final destination, are closed. Greece may be what she ends up calling home.

The Greeks "are hospitable people, warm people," Fatima, 18, says through an interpreter, as she eats spaghetti with meat sauce and gestures to her lips, to show a smile.

But she doesn't know, really, if she will ever get to Germany, where she hopes to finish school. She, like 48,000 other refugees and migrants stranded in Greece, are waiting to hear whether Europe will let them move on to promised new lives, or send them back the way they came.

For the refugees' accidental hosts, the Greeks, there is a growing realization that the thousands of men, women and children fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq may be sharing their country for an indeterminate amount of time.

But acts of kindness, large and small, from ordinary Greeks play alongside the daily television scenes of the grim, muddy village of Idomeni on the Greek border with Macedonia, where about 11,000 refugees huddle in tents waiting for Europe to reopen its frontier — a prospect that now appears unlikely.

Help has come in forms as varied as donating diapers and wading into the waters of Greek islands to pull ashore grateful women and children crossing from Turkey in rickety boats.

Villagers near Idomeni have opened their homes to families. Thousands of Athenians responded to a collection drive with medicine, blankets and food. Ordinary Greeks drive to one of the makeshift camps sprouting up in Athens and around the country and dole out toys and balloons to children.

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Despite the concern about the effect of the refugees on tourism in the Greek islands, or over whether they will stay longer than they planned in Greece, there has been little of the anger that has greeted them in countries such as Germany.

Perhaps that is because Greeks, after six years of austerity and struggling with the continent's highest unemployment rate, understand desperation.

"The opposition to migrants used to be: They're taking our jobs," says Janice Tsialtas, who volunteers in the Caritas soup kitchen once every two weeks. "Well, now there are no jobs. What we see is babies walking around in the mud."

After Macedonia shut down its border with Greece last month, the country has been struggling to deal with an unstoppable stream of refugees and migrants coming from Turkey.

This month, European and Turkish officials held a summit meeting in Brussels and agreed that migrants or refugees arriving in Greece will be liable for deportation to Turkey if they don't apply for asylum or if their claims are rejected.

Under the deal, Turkey will receive billions of dollars in support to keep refugees and migrants.

But implementation, dependent on thousands of European experts coming in to help Greece, remains uncertain, even as refugees continue to arrive on Greek islands and are ferried to the mainland, where dozens of camps have been hurriedly set up.

The Associated Press reported that 875 new refugees arrived at four of Greece's Aegean islands close to the Turkish coast on Sunday and a ferry carrying 1,169 migrants arrived Sunday at a port west of Athens.

At the soup kitchen in a downtrodden neighborhood of central Athens, the aroma of Bolognese sauce wafts through the building from the first-floor dining room, where trays with green bowls of steaming pasta, bread and a quarter of lemon are served, eaten and whisked away by volunteers. Children mill around; men lean in to listen to conversations. Fatima passes her leftover meal to her mother, who finishes it off, and takes a querulous toddler on her lap to calm him with a piece of bread.

Tsialtas, 70, has volunteered at the soup kitchen for nine years, taking a two-hour bus ride from her village outside Athens. Seven years ago, most of the people seeking assistance and food were young men from Iraq and Iran; now it is mainly families from Afghanistan and Syria. More Greeks than ever are asking her where they can volunteer and bring food, she says.

The line for the meal starts forming at 10:30 a.m. — women in brightly colored head scarfs with children in well-walked strollers. They line up on the narrow sidewalk, sometimes sitting outside the entrance to the Hotel Lozanni next door, named for the town of Lausanne, Switzerland, and the 1923 treaty that forced an exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey.

That's another reminder of Greece's refugee history: The country had to absorb 1.2 million ethnic Greeks from Turkey, one of the largest influxes of refugees in history at the time.

But the refugees and migrants in this wave are still visitors in Greece, and Europe has struggled to deal with them. European Union leaders are arguing over who is entitled to international protection as a refugee and who is just seeking to escape poverty and should be sent back. The latest agreement with Turkey is already being challenged by human rights organizations concerned that it will run roughshod over due process for refugees fleeing war.

In the meantime, children in the mists of Idomeni leap over puddles in their newly supplied and brightly colored ponchos and their parents hoist banners asking for the borders to reopen.

Outside Athens, the Hellinikon camp, a complex made up of the abandoned airport and some disused Olympic Games venues, is now temporary home to more than 4,000 people, one of the biggest accommodation centers the Greeks have hurriedly pressed into service. Refugees line up for food distributed outside in the chilly winter day; children play on the stairs of an abandoned airplane ramp.

But it is Piraeus, Greece's large, ancient port, where the logjam of refugees is most apparent. Ferries chartered by the government disgorge men, women and children daily from the islands. With nowhere to go, they live in a multicolored city of tents on the port's piers. In the arrival hall, blankets are spread on the floor to provide some comfort against the concrete; a mother douses her child's hair with water in an impromptu bathing.

Leloudia Sidera lives in Drossia, a suburb of Athens on the other side of the capital from Piraeus. She has driven to Piraeus with a friend, Thalia Stavridi, to distribute gifts to children. They flock to her as soon as they see her handing out balloons, balls and candy.

"Yes, my love," she says patiently as the children clamor for the toys and grab what they can before running away.

"I am a poor woman but I have a heart as big as all Greece," says Sidera, a 62-year-old pensioner. "I go to my neighbor and I say to him, 'Do you have some soap I can take the children?' Then I go to the other neighbor and say, 'Do you have some lollies?' And then we put in some of our own money instead of having a birthday party for our children."

The combination of Europe's biggest refugee crisis since World War II and Greece's six-year financial crisis is stoking a sense among Greeks that the rest of Europe is letting them down. Inspectors from Europe and the International Monetary Fund are in town to argue over more cuts to pensions and how to raise more taxes before Greece can receive more bailout funds.

At Caritas, more Greeks are coming in for help than at the end of 2014 as the country struggles to bring down Europe's highest unemployment rate. Younger Greeks have emigrated to find work, retracing the steps of their parents, who moved to Australia, Canada and New Zealand as migrants in the wake of World War II.

Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas has said most of the people coming to Greece are refugees — two-thirds are Syrians — and not migrants, a definition that has played large in the European debate about whether or not to accept Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis or others. It is an issue largely not discussed in Greece.

With help, thousands of Greeks migrated to Australia, New Zealand and Canada in the 1950s and 1960s from a country devastated by invasion, occupation, famine and civil war. Some Greeks sought refuge in Syrian cities such as Aleppo, now largely destroyed by that country's five-year war. In the 1960s, tens of thousands of Greeks moved to Germany as guest workers.

Ourania Katsikari joined the ranks of the 1.2 million unemployed Greeks more than a year ago after being fired from her job as a human resources manager. She hasn't found another one. Her husband's business is struggling in Greece's sputtering economy. The couple have cut expenses to make ends meet. But this month Katsikari bought diapers, canned milk, cookies and cans of tuna and carried them to central Syntagma Square for a collection drive for refugees.

"Just seeing those poor children tears at my heart," said Katsikari, 57, whose parents moved to Australia as immigrants in the 1960s. "I see my granddaughter in their eyes and would hate to think that we could ever be put in this situation. I look at things through my parents' eyes and wonder if they were not given the chance, where would we be now?"

Fatima's family has paid about $4,000 per person for the 40-day journey from Afghanistan, and there is no money left. Paying to get to the border at Idomeni in case the frontier opens isn't an option, she says.

She's heard Germany can now be difficult, with attacks on refugees. Even so, she says, that is where she and her family hope to go, if the Europeans let them. That is where she can finish her schooling, she says.

"They're all in the same boat," says Tsialtas, the soup kitchen volunteer. "Nobody has a job, nobody has food and nobody has money."

Petrakis is a special correspondent.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 21, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Struggling Greeks aid migrants - A number of residents have shared what little they have with the newcomers from war-torn nations." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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