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Syrian refugees find safe haven but no secure future on Greek island

by Isabelle Gerretsen | @izzygerretsen | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 27 July 2018 06:00 GMT

Refugees who fled war in Syria have found a safe haven on the tiny Greek island of Tilos. But a lack of jobs is preventing them from settling there permanently

By Isabelle Gerretsen

TILOS, Greece, July 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On a balmy summer evening, Abdulkader Hamo smiled as he watched his young daughters dance in a school performance on the tiny Greek island of Tilos, far from their home in northern Syria.

With some 850 km (528 miles) separating them from the trauma of Syria's war, the girls laughed and played with their new classmates.

Back in Afrin, they would cry every day because of the air strikes, said Hamo, while he and his wife faced discrimination because they are Kurdish.

Last summer, they decided to flee Syria with their five children.

"I wanted to keep them safe," Hamo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "I didn't want my children to experience the same life as I did."

The family is one of five Syrian households living on Tilos as part of a resettlement scheme managed by Greek aid group Solidarity Now and the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).

Of the 60,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Greece, about 15,000 live on its islands, and a third of those are Syrian, according to the UNHCR.

The project on Tilos is exploring how refugees can contribute to the wellbeing of small communities like islands.

Tilos' residents have embraced the refugees, offering them food, shelter and work at their businesses during the summer.

But a lack of jobs for the rest of the year is deterring refugees from settling there permanently, as they need more economic security to build a new life for their families.


With a year-round population of only 550 people, the remote Dodecanese island in the Aegean Sea, 78 km from Rhodes, has a strong community spirit, said Anastasia Giannakopoulou, a social worker with Solidarity Now. 

Refugees started arriving on Tilos in 2014, as the exodus of Syrians from the Middle East gathered pace, and locals were "very positive and very eager to help", she said. 

Mayor Maria Kamma extended an open invitation and, in partnership with Solidarity Now, opened the Tilos Hospitality Centre for Vulnerable Refugees in March 2016.

The decision stemmed from a "spontaneous need to offer aid to people who had to pass through fire and war", Kamma told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There are currently 28 refugees - 11 adults and 17 children - living in prefabricated container homes at the centre. 

They attend language classes as well as counselling sessions, and spend their spare time swimming in Tilos' crystal-clear waters and hanging out in its sleepy villages.

The children have adjusted to their new lives better than the adults because they go to school, said Giannakopoulou. 

"They are happy because they are free and safe here," she added.

Hasan Alkhlaf, who arrived on Tilos in February, said the islanders had been incredibly welcoming but the language barrier made it difficult to integrate fully. 

"Every start is hard - but then you adjust thanks to the atmosphere and the local people," he said. 

The 20-year-old left his parents behind when he fled his hometown Idlib, in northwestern Syria, with his brother, sister and baby niece in October.

"I left because of war, murder and devastation. There is no life left in Syria," he said. 


Despite the welcome they have received, the refugees are becoming frustrated by the lack of steady jobs on Tilos. 

Hamo's children are content, but he is considering moving elsewhere. "There is no work here. It's not great for a family," he said.

Last summer, when thousands of tourists visited the island, all of the refugees found work with local businesses. 

Baker Michalis Panidis has hired one refugee between June and September each year, and firmly believes the new arrivals bring opportunities to Tilos, not just challenges. 

When refugees work on the island, they spend money at local shops and restaurants, Panidis said. 

"If we find good workers, I hope they will stay forever on Tilos," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

This summer, Ali, a former chef from Damascus who did not want to give his full name, is the one baking loaves each night. 

The tranquil atmosphere on Tilos is starkly different from the trauma he endured in the Syrian capital, where he was shot 13 times both by rebel forces and the army. He fled the war zone with his wife and their three young children in December. 

Ali likes his work at the bakery, but knows that in September, when the peak season ends, it will dry up. 

"The refugees are facing difficulties which the locals also face, living in a small place," Giannakopoulou said. 


Hotel owner Andreas Lardopoulos said "there is no proper future" for refugees on Tilos "because there are no jobs". 

His hotel is busy for only 60 to 90 days of the year, and many locals move to Rhodes and Kos in the winter for work. 

The authorities are committed to creating job openings for the refugees, Mayor Kamma said. 

The plan is to open a cheese factory next year using milk from local goats. 

It will employ 15 people, including six refugees, and sell cheeses in Tilos and other parts of Greece, she said.

Kamma hopes the new business will "create conditions for refugees to stay permanently on the island".

"This is a really sustainable and profitable business which can withstand the passing of time and grow by adding more refugees in future," she said. 

Alkhlaf, who is working in the kitchen of a local restaurant this summer, said he could not envisage a long-term future for his family on Tilos without the prospect of a permanent job.

"When you learn the language, get a job and residency, then you are settled," he said. 

"I'm here to start a new life until the war is over. If things are sorted out, I will go back to Syria." (Reporting by Isabelle Gerretsen, Editing by Megan Rowling and Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/)

The Thomson Reuters Foundation is reporting on resilience as part of its work on zilient.org, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience, in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation.

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