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Asylum seekers stir commerce and compassion in Greek village

EVZONOI, Greece >> The thousands of exhausted refugees and migrants who have arrived in this village on Greece’s northern border with Macedonia over the past year have left their marks in all kinds of ways.

There is the new sign outside the seven-room Vergina Hotel written in Arabic, the confiscated cars that fill the police pound and even the way that Jordana Michailidou, 78, looks at the spot outside her garden gate where she ran into a cluster of children one evening.

"They were right there," Michailidou recalled recently, tears in her eyes at the thought of those small, hungry faces. "I had been cooking that day. So they ate well."

In this isolated, economically depressed area, where villages have populations of 300 and shuttered textile factories are scattered over the hilly landscape, there has been nothing abstract about this year’s refugee crisis.

The tens of thousands of men, women and children, most of them Syrians fleeing the war, who have made it to Greek vacation islands on flimsy rubber boats have largely exited this nation after walking country roads to get to villages like this one. Here, they filled the few taverns and family hotels to bursting. And on most nights, with nowhere else to turn, hundreds slept in the main square.

Some residents saw the arrival of the refugees as a welcome shot of commerce. Tasos Christakis, the owner of the Vergina, bought and reopened the other hotel near the main square (four rooms). Simos Adamidis, the owner of the Hara Hotel, packed his lobby with the kinds of things that someone on a long march might need, selling ponchos, flashlights, foot bandages and much-sought-after Snickers candy bars.

But others saw only a humanitarian crisis and the pain and displacement of war. They collected food and clothes, sat under signs on market days asking for donations and risked felony charges and the confiscation of their cars by sometimes ignoring the human trafficking statutes that make it illegal for them to give rides to the refugees, even when they are elderly, disabled or carrying babies.

For a while, the roads were clogged with weary travelers trudging north. Most arrived by train at Thessaloniki and walked the 50 miles to the border here. Then, last month, the government and international relief agencies stepped in, allowing buses to bypass the villages and whisk most refugees and migrants straight to the border, as long as the asylum seekers could pay the fare.

Yet there seems little chance that life will go back to normal around here soon.

In these small villages where everyone knows everyone, the business of judging one another’s behavior is in full swing.

"I would really love to know who turned me in," said Evelina Politidou, a member of the regional town council, who spent four nights in jail and faces felony smuggling charges for giving a ride to a refugee family. Her car has been impounded since Aug. 9.

She makes do these days with her uncle’s pickup truck, but she said she was still determined to help. She was busy recently handing out water to new arrivals at the transit camp at the border with Macedonia, an area where rolls of barbed wire separate each country’s corn and potato fields.

Like others who threw themselves into helping the refugees, she says too many businesses in the region simply took advantage of the misery that passed before them, raising their prices.

Some, she said, made people pay as much as 5 euros, about $6, to charge their phones. Others doubled the cost of water and charged by the hour for hotel rooms.

"One of these hotel guys would call the police when the volunteers showed up at his place because we were giving things away for free," she said. "Really, we should give him an award for social service."

Christos P. Gkountenoudis, the mayor of Paionia, which includes Evzonoi, said the past year had been difficult, with most of the focus on the islands where the migrants first arrived. His area, with an unemployment rate of 45 percent (almost twice the national average), was left to struggle with the stream of refugees and migrants on its own, he said. With so many needy Greeks in these parts, he said he could hardly justify spending on the refugees. Still, he said, there had not been any trouble.

"The one thing I can tell you is that, with all the people that have passed through here, we have had no robberies, no incidents of criminality whatsoever," he said. "The only issue has been the garbage. They leave a lot of garbage behind. But even that, we have had volunteers to help with."

For now, he has agreed to the transit camp at the border, where as many as 5,000 have arrived on a single day, waiting for trains to take them across Macedonia to Serbia and on to other parts of the European Union. That is only as long as Macedonia keeps its borders open, Gkountenoudis said. If Macedonia closes its borders, he said, he will immediately demolish the camp, a cluster of white tents and portable toilets.

"We will not have people living there," he said. "Absolutely not."

The loss of the refugees’ business has left Christakis at the Vergina Hotel fuming over his neighbors for their unwarranted fear of the migrants and over those who might have called the tax authorities to inspect his books.

"What these narrow-minded people failed to see," Christakis said, "is that these refugees spend money. The minimarket was working. The pharmacy was working. And now the refugees will spend their money elsewhere."

Christakis, whose family has owned the Vergina for three generations, said that he had been employing six people this year, but that he might have to lay off three. Still, he said, even if the refugees and migrants do not come back, the Arabic signs will stay. He will not give anyone satisfaction by taking them down.

"Of course, I am bitter with the ones who went to the authorities urging them to get the refugees out of here," Christakis said. "Some people even said, ‘I hear they are speaking Arabic now in Evzonoi.’ That really made me angry."

Some in the village, like Katerina Toulkeridi and her mother, Panagiota, who run a snack bar, say they are glad that the refugees no longer have to walk and are taken straight to the border. For a while, mother and daughter had more customers than they could handle.

An Arabic menu still hangs by the kitchen wall, translated for them by a Syrian customer. But despite what their neighbors may think, they said, they never really made money on them.

"Other people thought we did because it was so crowded here," Katerina Toulkeridi said. "But we didn’t. Are you going to leave someone hungry? We did what we did in a quiet manner. These were people with great dignity."

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