'Work is life' for the refugee-entrepreneurs of Greece's Ritsona camp

Informal businesses provide financial and psychological support at the Ritsona refugee camp north of Athens

Palestinian Yaqoob Fatayer, 23, manages the Umm Adnan Grocery at the Ritsona refugee camp in Greece.  As a single man he expects a long wait before placement and has been in Greece for 18 months. September 14 2018. Anna Zacharias / The National
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In some respects, Gold Cafe is like any other coffee and shisha cafe. Two caged canaries fill it with birdsong. Young men gather outside in the afternoons and older men chat around tables in the evenings.

Yet this is no ordinary cafe. It is one of the informal businesses at the Ritsona refugee camp, an hour north of Athens, Greece. Ritsona is a temporary residence for about 750 refugees from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan awaiting asylum in Europe.

Businesses bring routine and community to those who have made the perilous journey to Greece, fleeing persecution and war.

“This coffee shop brings forth humanity and ethics,” says Ismail Hussein, 47, its owner. “Work is the jewel of man. I cannot sit at home. I want to change the way time passes and, at the same time, I benefit. I have a family of six and if I don’t work and I stay at home, what will I do?”

His shop is a financial and psychological investment.

Mr Hussein, who was born with a disability in his leg, walked with his wife and children from Damascus to Greece, sometimes carried on the arms of his children. Two years ago, they crossed at the land border and made it to safety in Thessaloniki.

He inherited Gold Cafe from a fellow Syrian who was placed in Germany. Mr Hussein has already chosen his business successor when the time comes for his own family to move on.

Profits are meagre. There is shisha, fresh orange juice and Mr Hussein’s own Greek-style freddo iced coffee. NGO workers pay a euro for an espresso. Residents order less often. “People in the camp are poor and have no money,” says Mr Hussein.

Registered refugees and asylum seekers receive a stipend funded by the European Commission that ranges from €90 for a single person in catered accommodation to €550 for a family of seven or more in self-catered accommodation.

Ritsona’s entrepreneurs reinvest this. Gold Cafe is opposite a falafel cafe and cigarette stalls. The camp also has a hair salon and several supermarkets.

Informal markets are typical of camps where refugees may stay for years, often unable to work or move freely in their host country.

Riad Dawood, 45, a Syrian who has lived in Greece for two years and seven months, spends his mornings at Gold Cafe to escape the boredom of a caravan. September 14, 2018. Anna Zacharias / The National
Riad Dawood, 45, a Syrian who has lived in Greece for two years and seven months, spends his mornings at Gold Cafe to escape the boredom of a caravan. September 14, 2018. Anna Zacharias / The National

Refugees face immense business barriers. They usually lack financial and social capital, often cannot speak the local language, cannot access credit and do not have knowledge and contacts in the local markets. Yet research shows they are disproportionately entrepreneurial and economically diverse.

In Jordan’s Zaatari camp, entrepreneurs sew wedding dresses, bake cakes and sell perfume at the camp’s market, Champs-Elysees. In Uganda, where refugees have the right to establish businesses and have significant freedom of movement, they created a thriving business environment.  A 2014 study by the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, found that 40 per cent of those employed by urban refugees in the capital of Kampala were native Ugandans.

“Existing economic work on refugees tends to focus narrowly on refugee livelihoods or on the impact on host states,” wrote Alexander Betts, the director of the Centre’s Humanitarian Innovation Project, which undertook the project. “Yet, understanding these economic systems may hold the key to rethinking our entire approach to refugee assistance.”

The research has broader implications for how migrant crises can be managed in Europe.

Greece is under severe economic strain and exited an eight-year bailout in August. It shoulders disproportionate responsibility for refugees following a March 2016 agreement between the EU with Turkey. Critical countries in Europe have closed their borders and it takes years before refugees are moved out of Greek camps.

Part of the political opposition to refugees is concern they will be an economic burden and displace native workers in the labour force. Yet evidence indicates that even large refugee arrivals can financially benefit host communities in the long term, particularly when they are quickly integrated into the labour market.

In the short term, entrepreneurs such as Mr Hussein connect settlements, host communities and transnational communities.


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The supermarket beside Gold Cafe averaged a profit of €500 a month when it opened. Success breeds replication and profits dropped after a series of shops opened around it.

Its manager, Syrian Obaid Burour, can be found every afternoon beside a cooler of Cornettos waiting for his next customer. Ice cream is his bestselling product.

“Business causes a change in someone’s life,” says Mr Burour, who is 57. “It is better than staying in a caravan feeling bored all the time. If you stay in a caravan without doing anything at all, you get sick or feel depressed.”

Mr Burour paid smugglers thousands to bring his family of four into Greece two years ago. They stayed seven months at a crowded camp on the island of Samos before arriving in Ritsona.

He was hired by the supermarket’s previous owner because of his retail experience on Al Hamra Street, a famous shopping district in the heart of Damascus.

“Work is important to every single person in the world,” says Mr Burour, who keeps the shop open 12 hours a day. “It is a way to pass time with others and opens the mind. Work is life.”

Daily structure is particularly important for young men such as Yaqoob Fatayer, who works at Umm Adnan Grocery. Mr Fatayer blasts Greek pop music from the corrugated iron grocery, drawing in friends to talk.

Aged 23, he expects a long wait for placement. Families take priority and he has already been in Greece for 18 months, including a year on the island of Lesbos.

Mr Fatayer was born in Syria to Palestinian refugees. He left Syria two and a half years ago with his brother.

In Syria, young men face the greatest risk of violence. In refugee camps, they are without family or daily structure.

“If you ask young men, they’ll tell you there isn’t life here for young men,” he said. “There’s no sports here for us, no work. There’s nothing for young men. We just wake from sleep, sell things and then go back to sleep. That’s the life of youth. It’s no life. It’s not a little boring, it’s very boring.”

At Ritsona, youth have support through Lighthouse Relief, an NGO that organises activities for young people from 12 to 25, including language skills, work training and the production of a magazine that chronicles daily life for youth in the camp through short stories, photojournalism, art and poetry. The anxiety of waiting is a common theme.

Mr Fatayer tries to avoid this by working from 9am until 12am. Every Wednesday, he takes the camp bus to Athens to purchase stock. “At least here [in the shop] I’m fine and I pass time with people,” he said.

His employer is Fida Mohammed of Damascus, who expanded the business from a vegetable stall into a sizeable supermarket.

Ms Mohammed, 35, has lived in Greece for three years, and half of that time has been in Ritsona. The shop brings in money for her toddler. “Look, it’s tiring,” she says. “I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy. We take it day by day and we get by.”

Shops give atmosphere to institutional camps. Mr Hussein has decorated Gold Cafe with a small Christmas tree, a Greek flag, and paintings by his friend, Riad Dawood.

“In my view daily life isn’t good, not in the islands and not in the camp,” says Mr Dawood, 45, a Kurd from Syria’s Hasaka region, who worked in Abu Dhabi for four years. “The thoughts in my mind are always about my children. Here, I get bored.”

His family have been in Greece for two years and seven months. His wife has high blood pressure and he has struggled to cope. He spends his mornings at Gold Cafe to escape the boredom of a caravan.

“Ismail is a good and decent human,” he says. “He comes to sit with me here, from morning until night.”

Mr Hussein nods. “We chat together about the old days, about our work, about everything.”

“Yes, exactly,” says Mr Dawood. “Even if you feel frustrated, you come, hear good conversation and forget your frustrations.”

For them, a cup of coffee has value beyond measure.

The National travelled to Greece with Etihad Airways, which donated stationery, clothing and blankets to 2,450 children at the Kara Tepe, Ritsona and Malakasa refugee camps during a special aid mission.