The first thing we saw when we entered the room was the cake, sitting on the floor. A beautifully decorated cake, worthy of a pastry shop display….sitting on the floor of a tiny, disheveled room with bunk beds, a tiny sink and a small dresser. This is how we met Hiyam and her son, Laeth.
Last week’s shooting schedule began in Athens, but ended at the Refugee Center in Thermopyles, in Central Greece. Thermopyles is located about 15 kilometers outside the city of Lamia, and is the site of the historic battle between the allied Greek tribes and the Persian army under Xerxes.
Hallway at Thermopyles Refugee Center
The refugees are housed in an abandoned resort, re-purposed just over a year ago as refugee housing, as Zaphiri explains in one of his posts. From the looks of it, some light touch-up was done, small convection ovens and other equipment were brought in for the communal kitchen and bunk beds were placed in the small rooms. Other than that, the general state of dilapidation Is still quite evident.
It’s in these conditions that the refugees live, often 5 or 6 to a single small room. Certainly better than tents – but for many, only just.
Hallway at Thermopyles Refugee Center
We were walking these hallways, looking for someone willing to be interviewed, and having little luck. One of the biggest reasons for this is that many refugees still have family back where they came from and are trying to protect them from retribution. This is particularly true of people from Syria, several people asked directly if their faces would be seen back home and there was no way we could promise otherwise. So we lost a few interviews simply because people are afraid of being discovered and of the consequences to their loved ones.
After several refusals we encountered a woman standing in her doorway who immediately invited us in. This was Hiyam. Here’s a picture of Hiyam and Laeth in the room they share.
Hiyam and her son, Laeth
Hiyam and Laeth told us they had come from Adla, in Iraq, via Idlib, across the northern mountains to Turkey, then across Turkey – largely on foot – into Greece. From the Greek-Turkish border they headed north towards Germany, again on foot, where they have family. They made it as far as Serbia before being deported back to Greece, and have been here ever since. After about 6 months in Athens, they were relocated north to Thermopyles,
Hiyam is a baker and a hairdresser. Laeth was going to school and also working as a barber. When the war came to their hometown, Adla, it exacted a terrible toll on her family – her parents, her husband, and four brothers were all killed. She showed us their pictures; then she showed me a picture of her husband’s body after the attack that killed him. It’s not a picture one gets over easily.
After this, she and Laeth fled to Idlib for safety. However, there was nothing for them in Idlib, so they decided to try to make it to Europe, where Hiyam has relatives in Germany. They hiked over the mountains into Turkey, crossed Turkey into Greece – largely on foot – and made it all the way to Serbia before being caught. After some months back in Greece they gave up trying to get to Germany and applied to stay in Greece. However, with no jobs in Greece, with no resources of their own, and without significant help to start their new lives, the road in front of them is uncertain, to say the least. Hiyam said several things that I will remember long after this month is Greece is over: among them, she said, ‘we’ve seen everything there is to see. We’ve seen hunger, cold, misery. We’ve been ill-treated and abused. Things you can’t imagine – we’ve lived through them. After all that, all I want is to start a new life. A house, a job, and somewhere for my son to finish his education, that’s all we’re looking for.’
We’ve seen hunger, cold, misery. We’ve been ill-treated and abused. Things you can’t imagine – we’ve lived through them.
After our interview, once the cameras had stopped rolling, Hiyam and Laeth cut each of us an enormous piece of their cake, which turned out as delicious as it was decorative.
It was a pleasure to return to Thermopyles after my initial scout, this time for four days of shooting.
In 2016, when there was a mad rush to the northern border as it was closing, Giorgos Palamiotis, a journalist, managed to set up the Thermopyles camp in 48 hours, with the approval of the prefecture of Central Greece.
Aris, co-adminstrator with Giorgo of the camp gave us an interview. Aris thought he had seen in a lot in his life, but he admitted he learned a lot more being at Thermopyles: primarily that the refugees are people just like us who since leaving their homes are carrying their own painful stories. He also told us how the local community embraced the refugees the first six months, before the international aid came in.
Aris is grateful to be able to help in what he considers a historical moment and takes pleasure in the thought that some day one of the children might return to visit and think of him and the others working there. He especially remembers Patata, who always asked for potato chips, who became the camp mascot and has sent him a photo and voice message from Finland, s’agapo poli, I love you. He will also never forget when one family, mourning a death back home, invited him to take part in their memorial.
Natasha, a civil engineer who was out of work because of the Greek financial crisis, was asked to supervise the restoration of the two abandoned buildings and decided to stay there after she finished her job. Among her many tasks is to ensure the children make it on to the buses that take them to school. On their first day of school she followed them into class to help them overcome their fears.
It is the humanity that these people show in their daily work that impressed me the most, that even when they yell, as Greeks do often, they do it with love.The refugees we talked with had only good words to say about them.
Kosta Bakoyanni, the head of the region of central Greece in our interview with him explained that Greeks are familiar with immigration as nearly every family has members abroad or their grandparents were refugees themselves.
In the sulfur hot springs that are near by, children were having fun jumping and playing in the water. The locals believe that it’s only safe to stay in for 15 minutes, either because of the chemicals, or the heat. When the kids stay in longer, out of concern, the adults yell at them to get out, but the children don’t leave, as they don’t understand the language and the source of the concern.
Happy Caravan, an NGO from Holland founded by a Syrian who left early in the war and now is a Dutch citizen, has turned the old restaurant into school giving English lessons to 25 scarfed woman who pride themselves for being able to use English in the local market. They also teach men and children.
The most striking moment was meeting Hiyam, who greeted us with a beautifully decorated cake that she had amazingly made in her room. She had been a baker, pastry chef and hairdresser in Iraq when a missile hit her home and killed her husband, brother and parents. Though she was willing to share her story with us, it was very hard emotionally on her and her 17 year-old son Laeth to revisit the past. Hearing her story and seeing their pictures of charred bodies brought home to me the magnitude of pain these people carry.
As moving as our first day’s shoot was at Tavros, it was just a foreshadowing of the amazing time we spent in Thermopyles, our first camp visit. Thermopyles is outside the city of Lamia, several hours north of Athens. It was well known as a hot spring resort, but had fallen into disrepair several years back and had been shut down. When the crisis hit, the borders were closed and it was clear that many refugees would be staying in Greece for longer periods. Journalist Yiorgos Palamiotis proposed that it be turned into a camp and within 48 hours, Yiorgos Bakoyiannis, head of the local prefecture had approved it and refugees were headed there. Here is a clip from our interview with Mr. Bakoyannis where he describes the local response to the influx of refugees.
I have visited refugee camps in many countries and this is the first one I would ever have wanted to stay in. The natural setting is stunning, under an almost mystical mountain. It’s very easy to imagine the Spartans there in their immortal battle against the forces of Xerxes. The camp itself is filled with pine trees and it’s green and cool, a healing environment. Beyond that there are no fences anywhere! Here, Aris Sohos, co-administrator of the camp, tells how it is different from other camps.
Our time at Thermopyles brought home for me yet again a basic rule of documentary filmmaking and journalism in general: Don’t rush and don’t push too hard. Take your time to get to know people and to let them find their comfort with you. No matter how ambitious your schedule or how pressed for time you might be, just to rush in with your cameras and start shooting will only alienate people. Fortunately, Zaphiri had been to the camp on a scouting trip and spent time to get to know most of the staff, so there was already trust there. As the days went on, more and more refugees came up to us to tell their stories.
Here are short clips from two of our people, Saddam and Omar, both from Syria.
The last morning we were in Thermopyles, I managed to spend an hour alone, as the camp was sleeping. With so much time on their hands and no work outside their contributions to keeping the camp clean and to cooking and cleaning their own rooms, the refugees tend to stay up late and sleep late. At the entrance to the camp is an abandoned and derelict gas station and snack bar.
Built in the early sixties, it took me back to my first trip to Greece with my family, when I was 9 years old. How alien and wonderful Greece and Europe was to me then, how many times I’ve visited it since and the people I’ve known. Standing under that timeless mountain, breathing the gentle pines, thinking of the ancient Greeks, and how time moves on, reflecting on the loss the refugees have suffered in our time, I was very much in the present moment while feeling history rolling out before me. I felt my small but true place in this human unfolding.
At the beginning of February I got a phone call from my friend Bill Megalos in Los Angeles, asking me if I would like to make a documentary with him, about the refugees in Greece. I’ve known Bill since 1989, when I worked as his assistant for four years. We’ve stayed close friends and have worked on a number of projects around the world. We had had our first contact with the refugee crisis in 2015 when we covered it in Lesvos, for the International Rescue Committee.
Being in Greece gave me an advantage. I said yes right away and started to prep by calling friends.
The first was Matoula Papadimitriou, senior investigator for the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights in Greece. She started feeding me with information: the number of refugees, where they are located, what the situation is today and pointed me to the three sites we decided to visit. They are City Plaza in Athens, Thermopyles, and Hotel Rovies in Evia.
I visited City Plaza, a squatted abandoned hotel in downtown Athens, first and got the green light.
The second resource was Vicky Liondou, a journalist who helped open the door to the camp in central Greece located in Thermopyles. She introduced us to Ioanni Mouzala, the Minister of Immigration Policy. At that point, I started to believe that we might actually pull off this project.
The third location, Hotel Rovies, I found on my own and went to visit.
We decided to bring as part of our team Michel Bolsey, a journalist friend of Bill’s who had lived in Lebanon, travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic. When Bill and Michel had booked their tickets, I started the scouting trip.
In Thermopyles, a camp administered by the prefecture of Central Greece, located in an old abandoned resort next to hot springs I found George Palamioti and Ari Soho running the show. On their desks were the nameplates Baba George, with a picture of a bear and Uncle Aris, with a picture of a dog, gifts of the 400 refugees living in the camp.
People were living 4-5 in a room in bunk beds, where they cooked their meals, passing their days in boredom waiting for their papers to move to the next country.
I drove next to Hotel Rovies, located in Rovies in northern Evia, a hotel that was rented by UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) to house Syrian families on programs for relocation and reunification. There I met Antoni Grigorako from Solidarity Now, the NGO that administered the hotel. Previously he had been a volunteer in Piraeus in 2015 and 2016, when there were more than 5,000 people living in the port. Together with Andrea Vasiliou, the owner of the hotel, he works around the clock helping 100 refugees have a close to normal life in a safe environment.
We immediately clicked and I saw what a great job they were doing over the next two days.
Driving back to Athens, with these prime locations in my pocket, I realized that I had taken on the task of being a producer for a big project and actually was delivering what I had promised to the rest of the team. I was excited to share my scout experiences in our first skype conference call where I met Michel, whom I liked immediately.
Christos Stefanou, a coordinator of the educational program of Eleonas, a large refugee camp in Athens, with 2,000 inhabitants pointed us to the Tavros elementary school. Some children from the camp attend this school. Vicky again proved her value when she got the permit for us to visit Tavros from the Ministry of Education. Doors continued to open that I could not have imagined when we started.
George Moschos, the deputy ombudsman for children’s rights, agreed to give us an interview, along with Philippe Leclerc, the representative of UNHCR in Greece.
The day after the team arrived in Athens in the middle of May, the telephone rang. It was Katerina Poutou, the head of Arsis, an association for the social support of youth. I had been trying to get in contact with her for two months. We rushed to her office where we had a three-hour meeting with her and her staff and they promised to help us.
Tomorrow our journey begins without us knowing where it will end.