By Michele Kambas
MYRSINI, Greece, Aug 18 – A small house close to the beach in western Greece is replete with a small rose garden, flowers in a vase, a thatched roof and a kennel, all created by its newly arrived refugee occupants.
It may sound ideal, but for all the cosiness, they say it will never be a home.
And here’s why. A sign scrawled in green paint on a piece of plywood propped against the window shutter says: “My son is very happy in Germany. We hope to share that happiness”.
Before fighting drove Ahmad Berajikli away from Aleppo, in Syria, he had a rose garden there too, and a dog and a family – hence some of the home-from-home comforts he has created.
But half of his family are now in Germany while the other half are in Greece, victims of the vicious war devastating his country and a Europe still deeply divided on how to handle the biggest humanitarian challenge in generations.
“My son, brother, sister and father are in Germany. Why am I here?” he asks.
After squatting in a tent for weeks near Athens, Berajikli, his wife and his other son were moved along with about 340 other Syrian refugees to an abandoned holiday resort in the western Peloponnese.
For five months, they have been living at LM Village, a beachside resort 280 km (174 miles) west of Athens which fell into disuse six years ago amid disagreements between its administrators.
The idea came from Nampil-iosif Morant, the Syrian-born mayor of the Andravida-Kyllini municipality, who suggested accommodating some refugees as a stop-gap to get them out of overcrowded camps. He thought it would be a temporary fix.
There is a Greek proverb, however, that nothing is more permanent than the temporary.
“I thought that Europe would stand by, would show a lot more support to Greece than what I have seen so far,” said Morant, a doctor who moved to Greece in 1991 and was elected mayor in 2014.
“I expected Europe to help solve the crisis. Not shut down borders.”
Since border shutdowns in the Balkans earlier this year, about 57,000 migrants and refugees have been stuck in Greece, straining a country suffering the worst economic crisis in generations.
Morant, a 54-year old married to a Greek and who considers both Greece and Syria as his home, said it was difficult not to be moved by the plight of refugees.
“Granted, I am from Syria. But I think it would be very difficult for anyone to say ‘I don’t care’, if they saw the squalor these people lived in at the camps.”
GIVE LOVE, TAKE LOVE
As Morant walked through the village one recent afternoon, Syrians rushed over to him in greeting. He got the same warm treatment from Greeks hours earlier.
“They are very open minded,” Morant says of locals. “When you give love, you take love. I have never felt like a foreigner here.”
More than a third of the new residents of LM Village are children.
Amira, a mother of six in her early thirties, had two toddlers in tow hugging her legs as she showed a visitor a children’s room, a baby’s playpen in the corner stuffed with blankets, and a row of soft toys on a ridge above a curtain rod.
“My husband is in Germany, for two years,” she says in broken English. “I don’t want to stay here.”
Most of the 100-plus children, and a few adults, are already taking some Greek and English lessons.
An 11-year old boy converses with Yiorgos Aggelopoulos, the main administrator of the camp, in rapid Greek, before switching to English. He corrects the English of his 13 year old sister; “You speak ‘little’ English, not ‘small’ English,” he said. He has been learning both languages for three months.
With his thatched roof and a small vegetable patch of string beans, bell peppers, corn and tomatoes, Berajikli, 37, appears restless as he sips on a large cup of Arabic coffee and takes a long drag of a cigarette.
There is a small vase of freshly picked white sand lilies on the table. The kennel is made of white sheets of recycled plastic, and a fishing rod is propped up against the wall. The sea lapping the golden beach lying less than 100 metres (yards) away is clogged with weeds. Nobody is on the seafront.
“People are good here, they are good people,” he says of Greeks. “They say ‘as-salaam alaykum’,” he said, the Arabic greeting for ‘peace be unto you’.
Piero, a dog Berajikli says adopted his family, stretches languidly on the porch in the sweltering midday heat, then flops down again to sleep.
“He is a good friend,” he says of the family’s new companion. “Maybe I can take him to Germany too.”