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After Months Embracing Migrants, Greek Islanders Worry They Will Be Overwhelmed

Lesbos handyman Michaelis Bapukash says he was inspired to give migrants shoes because his grandfather made the identical sea crossing from Turkey to Lesbos in a forced population exchange in 1922.
Lesbos handyman Michaelis Bapukash says he was inspired to give migrants shoes because his grandfather made the identical sea crossing from Turkey to Lesbos in a forced population exchange in 1922.

MORIA, Greece -- At the height of the refugee crisis last autumn, migrants plucked tomatoes and zucchinis out of farmer Vaggelis Grigoriou’s vegetable patch. They sawed branches off heritage olive trees for firewood and turned stolen farming tarps into tents, says retired builder Giorgios Kolaras.

“They even cut the pomegranates from the trees before they were ripe,” says handyman Michaelis Bapukash.

The people of Moria, a quaint farming village a 15-minute walk from the registration center for migrants who cross from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos, regarded these transgressions with gentle understanding.

“They never caused real trouble,” Bapukash says. “They did it out of hunger.”

But at the village’s main watering hole, residents are beginning to wonder whether their hospitality has gone too far. As European countries block migrants’ travel to wealthier nations, Moria’s residents fear they may be saddled with thousands of stateless people marooned in their olive groves.

“It will be the law of the jungle. And eventually we will be forced out,” says Litsa Chroni. She runs a kafeneion, a uniquely Greek institution serving coffee, ouzo, and small plates of seafood and vegetables.

Chroni named Kafeneion Giota after her mother-in-law, but it is a haven for the town’s men. In early March, four wooden backgammon boards were stacked in a corner, and customers carried a worn green felt board to tables for card games accompanied by slices of grilled octopus.

When only a trickle of migrants reached the island, the Greek government built a registration center in a decommissioned military base near Moria. In the summer and fall of 2015, the trickle became a torrent; sometimes, more than 200 crowded rubber dinghies landed daily on the pebbly beaches of Lesbos. Greek antismuggling laws prohibited migrants from riding public transportation, and so they walked through Moria village to reach the registration center.

For a long time, they were greeted by the residents of Moria with open arms. Chroni, taking a cigarette break before the busy evening hours, says that in the summer she paid the water bill for an improvised public shower for migrants, run by connecting a hose from a kitchen faucet to the sidewalk. She provided shampoo, as well, and invited women into her home to bathe in privacy.

PHOTO GALLERY: The Migrants Next Door (click to expand)

Bapukash, the handyman, drinks coffee in the fading light outside. He says he was inspired to give migrants shoes because his grandfather made the identical sea crossing from Turkey to Lesbos in a forced population exchange in 1922.

When a local carpenter lost his hand in a work accident, it was widely said to be divine retribution for his attack on Syrian migrants resting in the shade of one of the village’s two churches, Kafeneion Giota customer Panagiotis Bourekas, 65, recalls. The carpenter could not be reached for comment.

Still, the disorder was dizzying. The Moria center, declared a so-called frontline "hotspot" by the European Union, was quickly overcrowded with lines of migrants waiting days to be issued papers. Chroni’s husband, Theodor Trakellis, ordinarily a traffic cop, said he was assigned to police the reception center. Photographs from the time show Greek police using tear gas and batons to maintain order.

“It was like hell,” Trakellis says. “So many people were waiting and we were so few.”

These days, the village is calm. Fewer migrants risked the crossing from Turkey over the winter, although about 1,000 migrants continue to arrive daily. UN buses carry them to the Moria registration center, saving them the walk through the village. There are about 5,000 beds for migrants at five sites around the island, says Marios Andriotis, a spokesman for the Lesbos municipality. In addition, dozens of volunteers including Americans, Britons, and Germans run a 77-tent encampment just outside the Moria registration center, where migrants get dry clothes, spots in waterproof tents, and three meals a day.

In the relative quiet, Moria returned to its rhythms. Olive farmers picked the last of their harvest from the trees while sheep grazed in the grass below. Men and women carried plastic bags bulging with xorta, a wild herb they pick and boil as a side dish, flavored with lemon and olive oil.

Patrons at Kafeneion Giota twirled prayer beads, a nod to the influence of the four centuries of Ottoman rule of Greece, and listened to the music of the late Stelios Kazantzidis, a national icon who described the pain of Greeks forced to move abroad for work in the 1950s and '60s.

Changing policy in other European countries threatens to upset that balance again, however. Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia this week closed their borders to migrants traveling to Western Europe. More than 40,000 migrants are now stranded in Greece, including about 4,000 on Lesbos. To avoid a bottleneck on the mainland, Athens has limited ferry tickets for migrants leaving Lesbos. Turkey’s European Union affairs minister, Volkan Bozkir, said on March 10 that under a deal proposed to EU leaders earlier in the week, Turkey would not take back migrants already on Greek islands.

WATCH: The Village On The Front Line Of The Migrant Crisis

The Village On The Front Line Of The Migrant Crisis
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The Lesbos municipality says it is preparing contingency plans in case migrants are stuck on the island.

“We have the capacity to accommodate 5,000 to 6,000 refugees,” says spokesman Andriotis. “It’s a very dangerous situation right now. We hope the refugees will be able to depart as soon as possible.”

At Kafeneion Giota, people are jittery.

Chroni, the owner who used to give migrants free showers, says she worried in a Twitter post about foreigners walking the village -- and was swiftly denounced.

“I got nasty replies saying, ‘Teach your children not to be racists,’” she says. “But my priority is to protect my kids.”

Neither Chroni nor her customers say they supported the anti-immigrant neo-fascist group Golden Dawn, although on Lesbos the party nearly doubled its share of the vote to 7.8 percent during national elections in September 2015.

We will not allow Greece or any other country to be turned into a warehouse of souls."
-- Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras

Trakellis, the traffic cop, says he feels abandoned by Europe.

“We accepted 25,000 people a day in the summer in our village, and there are whole countries complaining about accepting a few thousand,” he says.

Concerns in Moria echo those in Athens.

"We will not allow Greece or any other country to be turned into a warehouse of souls," Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said after meeting EU Council President Donald Tusk in late February.

While Trakellis shouts, retired builder Kolaras sits quietly at a table near the door, peeling a white turnip with a paring knife. His thumb is bandaged, injured from pruning an olive tree.

Kolaras, 67, says Greece’s economic crisis has reduced construction work in Moria and raised the costs of farming. A lack of jobs has banished a generation of the village’s people. Even the town’s clattering motorcycles are driven by white-haired riders. A local paper’s headlines alternated between reports of a migrant emergency and efforts to alleviate poverty among Greeks.

Pakistani peddler Amjad Ali honks a rubber horn and squeezes into the doorway, holding a black plastic crate bulging with flashlights, lanterns, rope, sponges, and work gloves. He was a migrant to the island seven years ago, before the influx. Chroni bought a flashlight and three knives.

“This guy -- we know him for many years, and we like him,” says Kolaras. “But it would be unfortunate to have more people like him. We are not a strong economy like Germany, and we don’t have jobs for ourselves."

Volunteers from the tent camp acknowledge a change in the mood.

“We were more of a transit camp. Now, people may be staying indefinitely,” says Daniel Song, a native of Sacramento, California, who sits at an outside table drinking beer; he says Giota has good WiFi.

Song’s drinking companions are two Iranians who will likely be stuck in Greece or deported because they are not eligible for asylum. They decline to speak to RFE/RL, saying they are trying to take a break from their predicament.

Kolaras finishes peeling his turnip and chats with three friends.

“I wish the war would end,” he says of the conflict in Syria, which hits the five-year mark next week and has fueled the refugee crisis, in addition to killing more than 250,000 people. “I wish the migrants could come here as tourists. It would be better for them, and for us.”

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