Greek baker opens his house to refugee families in tent city

As a string of European countries closed their doors to refugees, a baker in a northern Greek village was opening his.

For the past week, Dimitris Spiridis — the grandson of refugees and a former migrant worker himself — has had three Syrian families living in his 180-square-meter (2,000-square-foot) house in Evropos. The six adults and six children are in addition to his own four children. He and his wife are sleeping on the living room sofas.

Some 40 kilometers (25 miles) away lies the sprawling tent city of Idomeni, on financially struggling Greece's border with Macedonia, where 14,000 refugees have been camped for weeks hoping Macedonian authorities will let them continue their long trek to Europe's prosperous heartland.

"I went there last Monday, and all I could see was mud, all I could hear was the crying of children, and everyone had a cough" after spending days outdoors in the rain and cold, Spiridis, 50, told The Associated Press.

Like many in the Kilkis area of northern Greece, Spiridis is descended from ethnic Greek refugees forced to leave Turkey after the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish war, and he has lived and worked in Germany and Switzerland. He said his father's stories of his grandfather's tribulations on the move through Turkey immediately resonated with him.

"He told me about the time when an inn opened its doors to our people and gave them a glass of water to drink," he said. "I responded automatically, and opened up my house" to the Syrians. "It didn't really take much thought, when I saw how things were."

So his 20-year-old son, Nikos, was sent to Idomeni with instructions to find a family and bring them home. In the end, three came.

The small yard of Spiridis' two-story house — a light-brown structure built 25 years ago that had an upper floor added on two years ago — rings with cries and barks as the refugee children and his own youngest, 5-year-old Minas, play with the family's black, 3-month-old puppy.

Inside, the women sit in the kitchen and the men in the living room. The common language is English, with one surprising exception: Zynat Mohmad, 33, a Kurd from Aleppo whom the family put up with her husband and three children, studied modern Greek in Syria and can talk to her hosts in their own language.

"We spent three weeks in the (Idomeni) camp," said Fadi Kamer Aldeen, a 40-year-old lawyer from Idlip who is staying in the house with his wife and three children — Abdulrahman, 10, Mohammad, 9, and Lujain, 6. "Now, we're here with this most hospitable family, getting some rest. We can live like human beings. This is a very kind family and the Greeks have helped refugees a lot."

His wife, Randa Abdulkafee, 30, said all her family wants is to reach a safe country.

"We couldn't stay longer in the harsh conditions of Idomeni," she said. "We are now waiting to see when the relocation process will start," that would see refugees in Greece resettled in other European Union members — although so far only 569 people have been taken in out of a total target of 160,000 from Greece and Italy.

"I don't mind which country we are sent to," she added. "Just as long as we can live in safety."

Together with the Aldeen family came their Syrian neighbors in the tent city, Ahmad Ahmad and his wife Souria, both 58.

"We didn't know each other before," Fadi Kamer Aldeen said. "Our tents were adjacent in Idomeni, and I asked Dimitris to take them in too."

Dozens of households in northern Greece are doing the same as the Spiridis family, as Greek authorities struggle to provide decent shelter for more than 50,000 refugees and migrants stuck in the country since the closure of the Macedonian border — the southern end of a domino effect through the Balkans caused by Austria imposing a cap on the refugees it will admit.

At the village of Idomeni itself, near the camp, the owner of the canteen at the railway station, where hundreds of small tents have been set up, says refugees keep coming to her home, mostly to take a bath.

"Sometimes, women come to spend the night," Paschalina Siopis said. Local mayor Christos Goudenoudis said many villagers have shown an interest in hosting refugees, "and we put them in touch with the United Nations refugee agency, because they know which refugees' needs are greatest."

In the local capital of Kilkis, the effort is more organized. Municipal authorities coordinate with volunteers and groups of citizens, and have drawn up a list of about 60 households prepared to take in refugees currently at the nearby Herso shelter.

"We register the families living at Herso, and see which have the greatest need of hospitality, mainly pregnant women or families with small children," said organizer Babis Makridis, who is also putting up refugees. "We even have families in the city of Thessaloniki who have taken people in."


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