This article originally appeared on VICE Greece.
Two years after the photo of Alan Kurdi (the Syrian boy who drowned trying to enter Greece) was circulated, global interest in the European migration crisis is at an all-time low. According to a Guardian report, since 2015, the Greek government—still in a deep financial depression caused by the global economic crash—has received more than $883 million in aid to help deal with the refugee crisis. However, the vast majority of migrants still live in poorly constructed, weather-exposed tents in overpopulated, remote camps.
And while governments across Europe have been failing to find a solution to the growing problem, in the last year, an unemployed Greek couple opened their home to a refugee family of three—providing them with food, shelter, safety, and company.
Stamatis, Katerina, and their two sons live in Nikaia—a suburb in the greater Athens area. In February 2016, they welcomed Awa, her husband, Setty, and their now two-year-old daughter, Maria, into their home. The decision was not an easy one. Stamatis and Katerina, like millions of other Greeks, have been victims of the country's economic difficulties.
Through a mutual friend, I arranged to meet with the two families to find out how that arrangement came about, and if it's working out for them.
As I entered their home, I was greeted by Maria, who welcomed me by clapping and cheering like any two-year-old would. But she's not like any other two-year-old—just months ago, her mother carried her through the desert for hundreds of miles, before crossing the Aegean Sea with her in a dilapidated boat. But today, Maria feels at home here in Greece. In this house, she blew out her first birthday candles, took her first steps, and said her first words—in Greek.
"Last year, we went to volunteer in the Port of Piraeus where a lot of refugees had gathered," Katerina told me. "They had started to close the borders to the rest of Europe, and the people stuck there were dropping like flies from illnesses. A friend called us and told us there was a mother with a baby in a bad state, and asked if we could host them for a while at our place. According to the doctor who examined her, Maria was just a day away from contracting full-blown pneumonia."
As Stamatis and Katerina are essentially unemployed, most people would understand if they had decided to turn the family away. Instead, they dug into their own experiences of facing sudden crisis to find the empathy they needed to do whatever they could to help.
"From October 2010 until now, I have worked a total of 17 months," said Katerina. "I was fired this past Christmas." A shoemaker by trade, Stamatis was blacklisted after becoming an active member of his local workers' union. Now, he can only find the occasional odd job on a day-to-day basis.
"I'm under a lot of pressure," he told me. "I thought I had the right to an early pension since I had a child, but it turns out I can only receive a reduced pension in 2023."
"That was the final slap in the face," Katerina added. "I cannot find a job anywhere, not as a maid, not handing out leaflets. But we all live together in these conditions. It's not easy because the space is very small. Especially in winter, when we couldn't go out on the balcony, we were living on top of each other."
Awa and Setty had initially planned to take their daughter to the makeshift migrant camp in Idomeni —near the Greek-Macedonian border—and then onward to Germany. But when the border with Macedonia was suddenly closed, the family was forced to remain in Greece and start the slow process of applying for refugee status here.
Setty, Awa, and Maria's journey began in 2015 in the small West African country of Gambia, which at that point was still under the same strict conservative rule it had been for 22 years.
As a young girl, Awa was forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), a procedure the World Health Organization describes as "the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons." In Gambia, 76 percent of women have been subjected to FGM—and although the practice was thankfully officially banned in Gambia recently, it's still very much engrained in the culture and enforced by a girl's family and community.
"I was seven years old when they cut me," Awa told me. "I was taken completely by surprise. They held my hands and feet, and they closed my eyes, and an old woman began to cut me with sharpened stone knives—there were no anesthetic or sterilization processes. It was awful."
Not wanting her daughter to suffer the same fate, Awa fled the country. "I had to find a way to protect her," Awa said. "I'll never forget what happened to me. Every time I have my period, I'm reminded of it. When I gave birth, the pain was unimaginable."
From Gambia, Awa, Setty, and Maria traveled more than 5,000 miles—from Guinea-Bissau to Morocco, before flying to Turkey and then taking a boat to Lesvos, Greece.
"We stayed in Turkey for about a week, until we found a boat," Awa said. "We paid $500 each to come to Greece. That was the hardest part of the trip—the boat filled with water. I was holding on to Maria tightly so she wouldn't fall. I was very scared. We could have died there."
On Lesvos, they lived in the Moria refugee camp, which experts estimate is holding twice the number of refugees its capacity allows. They soon moved to a makeshift camp in Piraeus, Greece's largest port city. At the time, the camp was home to 3,000 refugees. Due to the cramped conditions, the family was forced to sleep outside, with nothing but a blanket to protect them from the harsh winter. It was in Piraeus that they met Stamatis and Katerina.
"I was very lucky that I found these people," Awa said. "I don't know what we would do without them. We would all be out on the street, abandoned."
Unsurprisingly, at first, the arrangement took some adjusting to, and, like any family, they've had their fair share of disagreements. "When Awa first came home, she was very scared, like a deer in the headlights," Katerina said. "She would not put Maria down. It made sense when I thought about it. She found herself suddenly in a house filled with strangers. Now, she only trusts us to keep her daughter if she needs to go somewhere and can't take Maria with."
"Setty grew up in a different culture, and that means he feels differently about certain issues, especially relating to gender roles," Stamatis said. "He resisted in the beginning when we told him he should take care of Maria while Awa worked. But we had a chat, and eventually he understood. We discuss everything, like any family does."
Fortunately, Stamatis and Katerina have been able to turn to friends when things have gotten really difficult. "All our friends stood by us when we took the family in," he said. Spyros, a family friend, even collected donations from colleagues, which they used to buy food.
"Someone brings meat for the month, while someone else brings toys for the little one," Katerina explained. "We get some items, such as diapers, from the town council."
Even Luna, the family's dog, has developed a special bond with Maria, possibly because he too was rescued after years of abuse and abandonment. They are now an extended family, sharing in each other's cultures and living by a shared belief: What is mine is yours.
"Whenever one of us makes some money, we put it in a plastic basket on the kitchen table for us all to share," Katerina said. "Setty and Awa learned this, too. When Setty made his first wage of $44, he did something that moved me very much. He went to the basket and put in $22. This, he said, is my share of the money for the family."
"I laugh sometimes when I discuss things online, and people say, 'You take [refugees] home then'" Stamatis said. "I can't understand how when you look at Maria, or any other child, you don't simply see a child. It's impossible not to love them."
"Actually speaking to a refugee would be good for everyone," Katerina said. "If everyone took a family home for a month, they would understand that our differences are not so great."
"Once we sat on a bench in Syntagma with Maria, she was dancing, and I was feeding her a banana. A girl in her early 20s was sitting nearby and exclaimed, "How disgusting." The people on the benches surrounding us shouted at her. Generally, people's reactions are positive in the neighborhood," says Katerina.
The residents of Nikaia are proud of their city's heritage and identity. The Nikaia refugee settlement, called Kokkinia, was established in 1923, and originally hosted more than 6,000 refugee families who were displaced following the Greco-Turkish War of 1919.
When the far-right political party, Golden Dawn—widely considered a neo-Nazi movement—tried to seize control of Nikaia—a suburb in Athens—its residents pushed back. "Nikaia is an area of resistance," Stamatis said. "It always was, and it always will be."
Recently, things have started to get a lot easier for Setty and Awa. She has found temporary work, and they are preparing to move into a rented home of their own. "Now I feel that Greece is my second home," Awa said. "Here, I can provide my daughter with a better life."
As they prepare to move into their new home, Maria is still blissfully unaware of her family's struggles and how she came to her new home.
The separation will only be physical, as the emotional connection will last forever. "We told Awa and Setty that they can come visit whenever they want. Even if we happen to not be in, they can knock on my mother-in-law's door next door, [and she will] let them in. If you are bonded like this, you can't lose contact. We're a family," says Katerina.
I ask Stamatis what moment most stands out to him from their time spent together. Katerina interrupts: "For Stamatis, every passing moment with Maria is the most moving of his life."