On Tilos, where fewer than 500 people live (and they’re outnumbered by goats 45 to 1), locals have given shelter, jobs, and education to twelve families – and want them to stay.
They are the forgotten people – more than 60,000 refugees who have been languishing in camps in Greece after their dreams of finding a new life in Europe were thwarted.
The Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans are stuck in limbo, waiting to hear whether they will be granted asylum and allowed to settle in the European Union – or rejected and sent back to Turkey, from where they crossed in boats to Greece.
But amid the grim picture, a tiny island in the Aegean Sea is offering a glimmer of hope and possibly a lesson for how the rest of Greece – and indeed the whole of Europe – could tackle the continent’s refugee crisis.
Ever since the migration crisis erupted in 2015, the island has embraced asylum seekers. It is now home to a dozen Syrian families, about 70 people in total, many of them young children. That may not seem a large number in the scale of things – until you bear in mind that the entire population of Tilos is fewer than 500 people.
The islanders are keen to integrate the newcomers as much as possible and hope they will forge new lives amid the olive trees and ancient stone terraces of Tilos. And they think their acceptance of refugees could – and should – provide an example to the rest of Europe.
Tilos is an outcrop of limestone mountain peaks, pebble beaches, whitewashed churches, and goats – lots and lots of goats. A two-hour boat ride from Rhodes, it is part of the Dodecanese chain of islands and lies just a few miles off the coast of Turkey.
The Syrians live in a cluster of prefabricated cabins grouped around a shower block and a communal cooking area. It is hardly luxurious, but it is much cleaner and less institutional than the refugee facilities on other Greek islands such as Lesbos, where thousands of asylum seekers are crammed together behind wire fences. Here on Tilos, the people are free to come and go. Many of the adults have found jobs – in shops, restaurants, the local bakery, and as day laborers.
It helps that the camp, shaded by mature trees, is right in the heart of Livadia, the main port.
The camp on Tilos was established about a year ago by Solidarity Now, a Greek nongovernmental organization, with help from UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.The children attend Greek and English language classes from Monday to Friday and many can already converse comfortably in their adopted language.
The presence of the refugees has inspired plans to build a cheese factory on Tilos, to make cheese from the milk produced by the many goats that wander its herb-scented
While some of the refugees hope to be reunited with relatives already settled in Germany and other EU countries, the mayor, Maria Kamma, hopes the rest will remain and rebuild their lives on the island. “I’d like them to stay,” she says. “They’re human beings. It’s their right to live in humane conditions. Tilos is a place where we can support their dreams of a peaceful life.”
Source: Nick Squires, Correspondent, The CS Monitor