Refugees find solace in Greece's agriculture during spring

Refugees find solace in Greece's agriculture during spring
After being forced to stay indoors inside refugee camps and reception centers all winter, spring is allowing refugees in Greece a breath of fresh air.
3 min read
18 April, 2018
Refugees are using spring as a chance to find work outdoors [Getty]

On a field deep in Greek farm country north of Athens, Syrian refugee Suzan is smiling over an onion patch. Far from minding the arduous labor, the knowledgeable herb picker is happy to be outdoors, surrounded by the springtime bloom after being trapped in refugee camps and reception centers all winter.

A Kurd from Syria’s embattled Afrin, she has joined an initiative that addresses two pressing concerns at once – what to do with thousands of idle refugees stuck in Greece and how to use abandoned farmland around the country.

Seventy kilometers north of Athens, in the farm village of Kaparelli, formerly skeptical locals and refugees are now cooperating for mutual benefit.

“The point is to not rely on others’ charity, help new arrivals overcome forced inaction and show to those who want to stay that there is a way out,” said 49-year-old Salman Dakdouk, one of the project organisers.

A Syrian long-term resident of Greece who goes by the nickname of “Kastro,” he has brought know-how from years of work on the island of Crete, one of Greece’s main centers of farm produce.

The Kaparelli project began a year ago with the assistance of locals who helped arrange land rental or allowed the use of their disused fields to revive dormant vines and olive groves. The refugees receive a salary for their work and local landowners hit hard by the Greek economic crisis also benefit. “We are currently helping out seven families [at the village,” Kastro said.

Suzan - a Kurdish refugee from Syria at an onion patch in the farm village of Kaparelli [Getty]

Among edible plants grown locally are parsley, rocket, onions and potatoes – fully organic according to Kastro. The 16-hectare holding also boasts sheep and chickens and is now waiting for cows to arrive.

Apart from being consumed locally, the produce is also bottled and sold at the Sunday street market of Exarchia, the anarchist-friendly Athens district that welcomes refugees. It also stocks the larder of Roots, Farm to Table, a collective restaurant where Suzan works alongside four other refugee families.

Combined with Greece’s mild climate and abundant sunshine, the know-how of Middle Eastern natives could open a vital outlet for recession-hit Greek farmers in the populous Muslim communities of northern Europe who yearn for flavors reminiscent of their home countries.

Some 50,000 people are stranded in Greece from the major refugee wave that hit Europe in 2015-2016, most of them Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. The workforce for the Kaparelli project is drawn from around 1,000 refugees who live in self-run reception centers in Athens.

Among them is Fahed Abo Aguz, originally from Aleppo, who lives near Stuttgart, Germany, but shuttles back and forth after developing a strong interest in the project.

Fahed said he met Kastro after his wife and children came through Athens en route to joining him in Germany. “The climate here is good and working hands easy to find,” the 30-year-old said. Fahed now wants to export produce grown at Kaparelli to oriental groceries in northern Europe. He sees an opening particularly for bulgur, which is popular in Middle Eastern cuisine.

“At the moment everything comes from Turkey. It’s a niche market. But it’s difficult for refugees to find financial backers,” he noted.