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When a luxury resort becomes a refugee camp

MYRSINI, GREECE — It looks like an Instagram-ready, picture-perfect vacation on the Greek coast: Children bury themselves in the sand, splash in the surf and call to their parents to watch them jump from a makeshift wooden raft.

But a few steps from the beach, past the salty Mediterranean breeze and shouts of laughter, swimming pools are muddy with debris. A blue and yellow water slide bakes in the sun, and matted weeds cling to the cobblestone path to the beach. A tired-looking woman in a red hijab and long, black pants mops one of the stucco beach villa porches.

It's a unique slice of life for refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. The LM Village resort, a four-hour drive from Athens along the Peloponnesian coast, was once a luxury beach getaway for Greek vacationers. During the economic crisis, it was abandoned and fell into disrepair until this March, when it began a new life as a refugee camp housing 350 Syrian people, mostly families with children. It’s more comfortable than most refugee accommodations in Greece, and people living here are relieved they’re not in soggy tents without proper sanitation.

At the same time, up to 12 people are crowded into each 2-bedroom villa. The camp is several miles from the nearest village, Myrsini, and nearly 200 miles from Athens. Without transportation, fresh food, or productive ways to spend their days — whether cooking, working or going to school — several refugees confide that the camp sometimes feels like a prison. It’s the paradox of refugee camps: They are both lifeline and purgatory, a frustrating delay on the path to more permanent lives with careers, education, neighborhoods and family.

The people in the resort, now officially the Kyllini refugee camp, are fleeing a civil war that has killed or wounded one in 10 Syrians. Most crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Greece, where they’ve been stranded since the Macedonian government closed its 200-mile border with Greece in March. Before that, beginning last summer, more than a million migrants passed through Greece, most on foot — a human river winding north to Germany in search of jobs and relatives who went ahead.

Now, border closings throughout Europe have dammed the flow of people and Greece has become a bottleneck, with more than 50,000 people sleeping in tents on the street or in official camps or, for the lucky few, in spare apartments, waiting for paperwork and screening that can take months or years to complete.

(Red pins represent mainland camps, yellow pins represent island camps and gray pins represent camps that are now closed.)

The austerity-stricken Greek government is struggling to process and care for the influx of people, and some locals have stepped up with creative ideas. The Kyllini camp is one example, and it shows the complexities and contrasts of the refugee crisis — the tension between security and humanitarian need, the difficulties in caring for vast numbers of displaced people and the potential for corruption when humanitarian relief involves large sums of money.

It’s also the story of one man whose winding path positioned him to do something no one else could.

The mayor

Nampil-iosif Morant pulls up to the camp’s main building in a shiny, black BMW and climbs out with several camp residents returning from a visit to town. He has salt-and-pepper hair and brown eyes that crinkle at the corners when he smiles, and his confident bearing projects an air of authority.

People filter out of the villas to hear the news from town, gathering around card tables in the cool of a mid-July evening to socialize, the smell of their cigarettes mingling with the salty ocean breeze. A young girl rides past on a blue bike and waves to Morant, calling him Daddy.

Morant, 54, is the mayor of the municipality of Andravida-Kyllini, which includes Myrsini. He’s also a native Syrian and the first foreign-born mayor elected in Greece. He moved here 27 years ago to set up a medical practice after marrying a Greek woman from this remote seaside region, whom he met in Bulgaria where he was studying medicine. He was elected mayor in 2014.

When the Macedonian border closed in March, Morant says, he watched news footage as a squalid informal tent camp near the border swelled to 14,000 people — most of them from his home country.

“It was raining and they were sleeping in the mud. It was very hard to see that, to see the children, and to say, it’s not my problem,” he says.

Morant thought of the old LM Village resort, with its 38 two-bedroom villas just a few miles from Myrsini. It had once catered to the Greek upper crust, but now stood empty and boarded up.

He knew some people would oppose bringing refugees to Myrsini, fearing rumors that they would rape or steal, so he called a town hall meeting where he explained his idea and begged villagers to trust him. When he promised to look specifically for Syrian families with children, most of the townspeople agreed.

At first, Syrian migrants didn’t want to come to Myrsini because it was out of the way, a four-hour detour to the west when they were trying to go north. Then, one night in a camp in Athens, a Syrian man was killed in a fight. The next morning, Morant was notified that seven busloads of people were on their way.

Morant had offered to house 300 refugees in the resort’s 38 villas. The Greek military sent 342. Morant waited for the buses with most of the village — some still skeptical and upset — nervously wondering whether they would in fact be filled with mostly women and children as he had promised.

“I saw the first bus coming, and I saw a lot of children inside, and OK” — he sighs and wipes his brow — “I relaxed,” he says. Children stepped hesitantly off the buses, and when villagers saw them, they instinctively gathered them in their arms and hugged them.

The refugees were tired and shell-shocked, and they needed everything from eyedrops to milk for infants, Morant says. He was the only one who could speak their language. “I was their doctor, mayor, friend, father, everything.”

The villagers also jumped in. “We had 200 people from the village. Everybody came with something,” from clothing to food to milk, Morant says.

The refugees

The first few days in the camp, children scrambled under beds or tables each time an airplane flew overhead, fearing bombs like those that devastated their neighborhoods in Syria. Now, four months later, they’re more relaxed, riding donated bicycles in the deserted cobblestone streets and playing on the beach in the evenings.

Farez Al-Hamdan, 47, an entrepreneur and father of eight, used to live in the countryside between Damascus and the Golan Heights. He and his brothers lived in four adjacent homes with their families surrounded by gardens and swimming pools. Now his family — 12 people including his mother and brother’s family — lives together in a cramped beach villa.

Another extended family lives next door, including a curly-haired, 5-year-old girl who lost her hearing in a bomb blast that crushed her home, killing her parents and three siblings. The girl doesn’t speak, but she makes quiet noises and squeals at a photo of herself.

The setting in the Kyllini camp may seem blissful, Al-Hamdan says, but camp living is not a paradise.

Being in an unfamiliar land, unable to move or work, with uncertainty about the future and a lot of time to think can take refugees to a dark place. “This place is very beautiful to spend the weekend, but we don’t feel it. Our minds are busy with heavier things than this.”

Al-Hamdan is a leader in the camp, representing residents to the mayor and the camp manager. Today, he’s dealing with the issue of food: there’s not enough, and it’s poor quality — a common complaint in camps across Greece.

The Greek military contracts with a catering company to feed the 250 people now in the camp, but the military rations are delivered just once every 10 days, pre-cooked, and they don't keep. Al-Hamdan, a former businessman and restaurateur, estimates the value of the food at about 500 euros per day — far less than the 2,000 euros a day he knows the catering company receives, and he accuses the company of pocketing the difference.

Al-Hamdan has asked the military to send raw ingredients instead so they can cook for themselves. Camp residents have kitchens, but no way to get to the village to purchase food. His requests have been ignored, and he says the people in the camp are victims of thieves.

“We are not stupid,” Al-Hamdan says. "We are not animals."

As we talk, a call to prayer rings through the camp. Al-Hamdan says a sheikh in the camp preaches each Friday on topics such as living a moral life, the relationship between God and man, and self-improvement. Al-Hamdan adds that he has great respect for people of all faiths, including Christianity, and recognizes that Greece is a Christian country.

The future

Inside the resort’s old poolside restaurant, crooked children’s drawings paper the bar and orange ribbons decorate the walls. A few small art tables sit where dining tables once likely stood, and shelves hold a collection of illustrated books, most of them in Greek. A shipment of donated books in Arabic has just arrived, and Al-Hamdan grins as he handles each book, picking out those best for teaching children in Arabic and in the new languages they’ll need to pick up.

For now, education is on hold for the children — a problem in refugee camps across Greece. Without teachers or books, kids fall behind in their schooling, increasing their disadvantage when they settle in new countries.

Volunteers help fill the gap, but they don’t have the resources or training to set up the type of full-time effort that would keep kids at grade level. The books will help, and right now, a Swiss family of three is spending their summer holiday at the camp staffing the kindergarten and helping residents learn English.

Life is on hold for the adults in the camp, too. No one is certain how long they’ll be there. Each family is at a different point in the asylum or resettlement process, which involves a series of interviews, and just getting a first interview can take months.

“In my country, every weekend we gathered and made tables of food,” Al-Hamdan says. “Now sometimes I have one leaf (of lettuce), one piece of bread. … This tells me I’m not a man, I’m not a human being. I’m a ‘refugee.’ I hate this word.

“I used to give, not to take. I used to do good deeds and take action, not listen to orders and instructions,” he says.

Sometimes Al-Hamdan feels so discouraged that he cries when he’s alone. But he also tries to help other families keep their spirits up.

“I ask them, please be calm, be quiet. We are waiting. We are not yet at the last step of our journey. Please be calm, smile, love. I hope one day our problems will be solved, and we will call each other and remember this moment and laugh. I’m sure this will happen. I’m optimistic.”

In the meantime, Mayor Morant has just brought news that the military again refused to send raw ingredients instead of pre-cooked food, saying they’ll continue to use the catering company because it serves other camps and is part of a larger system. It seems the entire camp has turned out to hear the news, crowding around the mayor’s car with questions, the frustration palpable not just from the camp residents, but from Morant, too.

Long the only Syrian living among Greeks, Morant jokes that now he has his own Syrian village in the Greek countryside.

“I can’t believe that I left Syria 27 years ago, I went to Bulgaria, I got married, I lived in Greece, I became the first non-native mayor in Greece — and I ended up with people from Syria,” he said. “You couldn’t have imagined it.”

Email: apond@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @allisonpond