IDOMENI, GREECE —
Locals in northern Greece are divided about the flood of war refugees. Some say asylum-seekers cause chaos and steal. Others express deep sympathy for their plight, including staff at a five-star hotel in Thessaloniki, which last week boarded some refugees.
You expect fine service at a five-star hotel, but if you’re a penniless refugee you don’t expect to stay; if you can scrape some coins together, maybe you might slip into the Fugitive Motel.
Last week, a group of 55 disheveled, exhausted Syrian and Iraqi asylum-seekers – children included – stayed for a few days at the Mediterranean Palace Hotel, a landmark establishment in Thessaloniki, northern Greece.
Their stay came after enduring weeks of misery, hunger and illness at the makeshift refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border at Idomeni, hoping to be allowed to travel farther north into the European Union.
Eleni Gourbatsi, 35, is a receptionist at the hotel and was heartbroken when they arrived.
“They were very tired, they were hungry, they were exhausted, you could see that in their eyes and all over their body," Gourbatsi said. "And when they came down after they took a shower they were different people”
The refugees were accommodated at the hotel overlooking the city’s historic sea-passenger terminal by a local Greek NGO as a way-station after they had applied to enter the European Union relocation scheme. They stayed at the hotel as transport was being arranged for them to Athens.
For the refugees the hotel provided a respite. It gave them a chance to catch their breath and wash the few clothes they had with them. Some didn’t even have a change of clothes.
And one child was ill. Hotel staff arranged a visit to a private hospital, which waived subsequently any charges for the months-old baby, who was suffering from a severe respiratory infection; which has reached epidemic proportions among refugee kids at Idomeni.
The refugees had a major emotional impact on hotel staff, prompting a gentleness and protectiveness that not even money can buy. The concierge could frequently be spotted slipping candies to the kids. Staff donated clothes, bought diapers and medicine.
And during their stay the refugees could be seen to unwind. The children, quiet and subdued at first, were soon giggling. One Iraqi boy couldn’t contain himself to explain to everyone he met how he’d seen the sea and gone swimming in the hotel pool.
When the refugees left, some hotel staff wept.
But not all locals in northern Greece are as sympathetic.
Soupli Xanthoula is a sub-mayor at Idomeni and says the villagers were patient at first but are now frustrated. She claims some refugees have been stealing, and the villagers – mainly farmers – are worried because the camp keeps on spreading. Refugees are tramping across farm fields, damaging them.
But Eleni Gourbatsi says locals should remain sympathetic.
“I am very sad for all of this situation that is happening," Gourbatsi said. "Seeing them and facing them it was really like, ‘This is true and I see that now.’ Seeing them here it makes you feel like, ‘What is going on in the world, who is sending them away from their homes?’ I want to meet them and I want to say, ‘Who are you and why?’ ”
But with 44,000 refugees now trapped in Greece and authorities predicting there will be 100,000 by the end of March, the sympathy many Greeks feel will start being stretched.