Making a living on Syria’s refugee trail


Mourhaf Lababidy is busy making falafels with his sauce made of yogurt, flour and lemon juice. It’s homemade, straight from his tent at this petrol station-turned-makeshift refugee camp on a highway near the Greek-Macedonian border.

Mr Lababidy, along with a fellow Syrian he met here, set up shop selling bread, then added vegetables, and finally pizza and wraps.

“We are like Syrian people, we don’t need anyone to give us ideas,” he says.

Many of these shops have opened up in the last month or so, when refugees realised they would be here longer than they intended to and feared they would soon run out of money.

After the border with Macedonia closed in March, more than 1,000 people used to live here, but the authorities have been moving them to official camps. By 05:00 on Monday morning, word spread that they would be evacuated.

Many wanted to stay and were confused, not knowing where they were being sent. They were given time to pack up their belongings and most of them calmly boarded buses destined for official camps.

The numbers had been gradually going down in any case. No-one is certain why, but some believe that the migrants used smugglers to cross into Macedonia.

Entrepreneurial spirit

Donations for basic goods have been been given out daily to the refugees, but supplies could not meet demand, meaning that they needed a way to sustain themselves and their children.

Such is the case for Mr Lababidy, who fled with his wife and two children, including a 10-month old, from Idlib in Syria at the end of February.

He takes out his phone to show what he says are recent photos from Facebook of bombings in his home town – one of a destroyed building, another of a man with blood all over his head with his eyes closed.

He owned a cafe in the city and the entrepreneurial spirit seems to have carried over to Greece, where he realised he might have to stay for a while and find a way to make money.

“We are only just trying to work, not just for ourselves but for our kids,” he says, “and you know, the food isn’t good [here].”

The 34-year-old buys groceries and tools from the nearby town of Polykastro, where he goes by taxi.

Apricots at his shop sell for two euros a kilo, eight pieces of bread are one euro, while cigarettes go for two euros for one packet.

Where do the cigarettes come from? “No comment,” Mr Lababidy blurts out.

Smokers’ delight

Competition is fierce among several other cigarette stands in the camp, including one just down the same lane of tents as Mr Lababidy’s.

There, Abdulkader Gafer sits behind a brown table with 11 packs of cigarettes.

How’s business going? “Not good, but [I] sit down here in the morning to at night: two euros, maybe.”

This is his friend’s business that Mr Gafer, 60, watches over, since he mainly uses a wheelchair because of neck pains.

The two met in Greece, where Mr Gafer has been for three months, following two months in Turkey after leaving Damascus, where he worked as a tailor.

He says the packets are bought from a man in Macedonia who visits these camps to sell cigarettes because they are cheaper than those in Greece.

It is the most popular business at this camp, with three more stands selling just cigarettes.

In front of a row of picnic tables where people gather under shade, two Syrians make their own pita bread, selling six pieces for one euro.

Hair today

Under a tent next to the driveway of the station is barber Mohamad Rashed, 23, who is cutting the hair of his Iraqi client in front of a pink Disney Princess-themed mirror.

He also tweezes the eyebrows and shaves the man’s beard – all for three to four euros, but sometimes he offers his services for nothing if someone says he does not have enough money.

At the end of the cut, Mr Rashed sweeps away the hair with a brush made of small tree branches.

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Business varies day by day. Sometimes 10 clients come, other times only three.

Mr Rashed, from Afrin in Syria, complains that in Turkey, he could work for a month and not be paid.

“No-one will care about us, because we are also refugees there in Turkey,” he says.

For Mr Rashed, his business is a way to get back some control over his own life.

“I get money here and I’m feeling comfortable, and I get the money because of the job, no one can give me the money for nothing.”

Inside his tent is a table with electric razors which he got at the petrol station, while the rest is from Polykastro. There are combs, a spray bottle, two bottles of body lotion and wet wipes meant to remove make-up.

Take back control

On a street lamp next to Mr Rashed’s tent, black string is tied around eight empty cans of strong beer selling for €1.50. Mr Rashed says the business belongs to his friend, who is sitting outside, wearing camouflage trousers.

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They met on the dangerous boat ride from Turkey to Greece. Mr Rashed says his friend ended up being the driver of the boat, because their smuggler got scared at the last minute.

Mr Rashed wants to continue working as a barber in Germany where he hopes to settle and bring his mother and sister. But first he needs to figure out how to get there.

Many here have tried to avoid the official camps in this area, some of which the UN High Commissioner for Refugees labelled as sub-standard. At the same time, they have no opportunity to move on to Macedonia.

While these businesses do not offer luxury living, they sustain the hopes of a life in the European Union for these refugees, because they can spend more time in Greece.

It is a way to take back a bit of control in a place where they have little.

As for Mr Lababidy, the falafel shop owner, he is happy to go to any other country, as long as there are job opportunities. He does not see that happening in Greece, where he complains there is no work and his children have not been able to go to school.

“From [wherever] you are in Greece, you will live in misery,” he says.

Source: BBC

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