Munir, a 53-year-old truck driver from Deir ez-Sor, Syria, is a courageous man. After his 16-year-old son, Khaled, was killed when a bomb fell and destroyed his home, and another bomb destroyed his truck-trailer in fighting between government forces and ISIS, he decided to flee from Syria with his wife and two daughters, both of whom are in wheel chairs due to chronic illnesses.
“I got here thanks to Allah,” he told me when I met him at the hotel run by Caritas Greece, some miles outside the port-city of Mytilene, on the eve of the Pope Francis’ visit to the island. Like other refugees that arrived by precarious boats on the shores of this island—500,000 in the past year—he, too, had to pay smugglers to get him from his home city to the Turkish border—$600 per person and then another $300 per person to other smugglers to get them to the beach where they could take a boat. The Turkish police sent them back to Syria on his first attempt, but he managed to get to the beach another way, and then with the help of friends in Turkey he raised more money to catch a boat to Lesbos.
He arrived in Lesbos two months ago, and like all new arrivals was taken to Moria refugee camp, now a detention center, where the pope will visit tomorrow. Since his family is in a particularly vulnerable situation because of the two girls (ages 22 and 11), he was transferred to the Caritas Hotel, where some 210 other vulnerable persons are housed today.
He had hoped to go to Germany where another son lives so his daughters could get the necessary medical care, but the March 20 agreement between the European Union and Turkey has dimmed his hopes. Like other refugees here, he doesn’t know what will happen. “I just want to find a country for my daughters, they are sick, they need medicines. I hope we can go to Germany or the United States, but I don’t know what will happen to us.”
Like almost all of the refugees that I spoke to at the Caritas Hotel, Munir too hopes to return to Syria one day, “maybe in five years, when there is peace,” he said. For the moment the hotel is his home, as it is to many other families from Syria, some families from Iraq and one family from Afghanistan.
Tonia Patrikiadou, one of the Greek staff at the hotel, explained that all the 210 refugees staying at the hotel are “vulnerable people”; 90 of them are children, but there are also women alone with children, families with children under 8 and pregnant women (two children were born recently). Another woman is expecting twins in the near future. Persons with disabilities and sick people (one with cancer) are also given a home here, as are women who have been victims of the smugglers who brought them to Lesbos.
All those at the hotel consider themselves “lucky” to have arrived before March 20, and many are in placement schemes, hoping to find a European country to accept them. But the procedures are slow, and the result is uncertain, especially for a person like Munir and his two daughters that have special needs.
Tonia explained that Caritas Greece runs the hotel but gets badly needed funding and support from Caritas Germany and Caritas Switzerland. The 17 members of staff and five social assistants at the hotel work closely with some of the 70 N.G.O.’s on the island, as well as with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Refugee Boat Foundation from the Netherlands, since many of these organizations have medical teams or other skills that are needed.
Given than almost half of the guests are children (90 out of 210), the staff has enlisted other N.G.O.’s to provide assistance to them. For example, a Jesuit Refugee Service volunteer, Len Echo, from Liverpool, England, who has lived in the island for 32 years and is married to a Greek woman, teaches English to the refugee children to help prepare them for the future.
The hotel staff arrange transport to enable the refugees to visit the city of Mytilene. They also organize workshops for the children, many of whom have experienced traumas, including watching their friends die in the war. The staff provide training sessions for mothers, to help them with parenting, and have arranged for yoga lessons on two days per week.
When Caritas Greece took over the hotel, more than 1,000 people a day were arriving in the country. Now the number has decreased dramatically, but some still arrive. But those who arrive now risk deportation, but for the 210 in the hotel who arrived before March 20, three options are open to them: find placement in a country that will accept them, seek family reunion a country where another family member already lives or seek asylum in Greece. Whatever avenue they choose, it will take time as the present system is slow. “Nobody knows when they can move on,” Tonia said.
“We have a crisis situation. The refugees need assistance and solidarity. It’s a crisis not only here on the island but in the whole of Greece. We need a humanitarian agreement, solidarity between all countries in Europe so that they open their doors to these people,” Tonia stated.