Fleeing War, Syrians And Afghans Stream Onto Tiny Greek Island
The Greek island of Kos, near the coast of Turkey, is a popular tourist retreat, but it has also become the latest destination for huge numbers of refugees and migrants going to Europe.
Teachers Nizar and Nasser plotted their escape from the Syrian city of Damascus during coffee breaks at school. They both came from religious minorities threatened by the Islamic State. Worn down by the constant shelling they decided to try to seek asylum in Europe and quickly secure visas for their families, who hid with relatives.
A week ago, the men kissed their wives goodbye, traveled through Turkey and packed onto an inflatable raft with dozens of other people to cross roughly three miles of the Aegean Sea to reach Kos.
When they arrived, they found thousands of Syrian and Afghan refugees, along with other migrants, camped in tents pitched along the seaside promenade in the island's port town, which is also called Kos. They slept on sidewalks, in parks, outside beach bars and souvenir shops.
"I was shocked, very shocked that this was Europe," says 33-year-old Nizar. "There was no help."
More than 124,000 people have come by sea to the Greek islands this year, seven times more than during the same period last year. All the islands have been overwhelmed, but Kos, the birthplace of the ancient father of medicine, Hippocrates, has been the most unprepared.
Nizar and Nasser slept on benches outside a stadium that had been converted into a registration center. Syrians and Iraqis were all camped outside, waiting for police to give them their temporary residency papers. As they waited, three little Syrian boys bathed with bottled water, their mother scrubbing shampoo into their hair.
"Now I am so tired," Nizar says. "I've looked for a room ... I didn't find anything. Nobody help here — not police, not government here, to give food or even a brochure for the island."
Many of the migrants aren't even sure where they are, said Ali al-Jowardi, a 20-year-old electrical engineering student from eastern Iraq. He and his younger brother arrived a week ago on a boat packed with 140 people. They're now sleeping on garbage bags laid out on a patch of grass near the stadium.
On Tuesday, police herded about a thousand migrants, including Jowardi and his brother, into the stadium — and locked the door.
"It was like a jail," Jowardi says. "No food, no drink, no toilets. So it was a horrible — not just bad — horrible situation."
He pointed to a young man with curly hair and a bandaged foot, sleeping under a tree.
"When we were in the stadium, we jumped [over] the wall to get food and drink," he says, "and one of my friends, he injured his foot and head."
The police are overwhelmed and have struggled to calm restless people waiting for papers. The police sprayed one group with fire extinguishers; one officer was seen slapping migrants while brandishing a knife. The island's mayor, Giorgos Kiritsis, who has said the sight of so many homeless migrants is scaring away tourists, spent months bickering with the national government over who was responsible. Local volunteers providing meals ran out of money.
Aid workers are trying to help. A team from Doctors Without Borders has been using a beat-up old building far out of town called the Captain Elias hotel. It used to be a hotel, but it went bust years ago and has been repossessed by a bank.
In May, the Captain Elias was already overcrowded. People were camped outside under dead palm trees. Inside, more people slept side by side on dirty blankets and on mattresses salvaged from the trash. There was no electricity, no water and no working toilets.
"The first thing we had to fix was water and sanitation," says Constance Theisen of Doctors Without Borders. "There's still a ways to go. We want to increase the number of toilets and showers, and we want to build a kitchen for the people to cook."
The building can hold a maximum of 100 people; Theisen says there are now more than 500 people. Those not staying inside live in huts made from salvaged wood and the leaves of dead palm trees.
Nearly everyone here is Afghan or Pakistani. They won't be at the front of the line for temporary residency papers. Syrians, they say, seem to get preferential treatment.
"Waiting time for the people here is still 20 days on the island for sure," Theisen says. She says that causes resentment.
A young Afghan man who gave his name as Karim said Afghanistan is a war zone, too. "Why should one war be more important than another?"
The European Union says it will pay for the relocation of about 32,000 Syrians and Eritreans into northern European countries, some of which have resisted.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, a longtime Greek politician who's now the European Union's commissioner for migration, said in Brussels on Friday that almost 50,000 migrants arrived in Greece in July, compared to less than 6,000 last July. He says he's working with the Greek government to deal with this crisis as soon as possible.
"We know the situation is not easy," he says. "We know the great pressure on the country and the difficulties faced in addressing it."
The European Commission has already approved about $500 million in aid and is considering offering even more money.
The Greek government also sent a giant passenger ferry with sleeping room for a couple of thousand people to serve as a registration center and shelter. It arrived on Friday and is being prepared.
In the meantime, those refugees and migrants who have received their temporary residency papers head to Athens. For Nizar and Nasser, the schoolteachers who traveled from Damascus together, it's just one stop on a long journey that they hope will end in Stockholm, where Nasser's son lives.
"But I won't forget Kos, and I mean that in a bad way," Nizar says. "I wished it had been better here."
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