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10 June, 2016

Greek Syrian mayor and refugees bring tourist village back to life

A Greek summer resort that closed over five years ago as a result of the financial crisis has been turned into a haven for more than 300 refugees.

In a two-storey, white-painted apartment beside a picturesque beach, Tarek Al-Felou and his wife, Kinda, are making a shish barak, a Middle Eastern dish of meat dumplings.

Their neighbours are some 320 refugees, most from Syria. Since late March, they have breathed new life into LM Village, a summer resort that closed more than five years ago as a result of Greece’s financial crisis.

Now, each of the 38 neatly painted bungalows houses two families. Their laundry flutters in the breeze. Mothers chat on porches framed by palm trees. Teenagers play basketball on an abandoned court as toddlers chase each other up and down a faded, blue-and-yellow water slide nearby. “Yallah, get down from there!” shouts an older boy. Five times a day, a grandfather’s Islamic call to prayer echoes through the square.

The resort-turned-refugee-shelter is a village in nearly every sense, a far cry from the fighting, shelling and sieges its residents escaped just months ago. For most, it is the closest approximation to their former, pre-war lives that they have experienced in years.

In this place we try to forget we are refugees,” says Tarek, 42, who once owned a restaurant outside Damascus and fled to Greece with Kinda and their two children. “We can pretend we’re on holiday.

The reopening of the resort as a refugee reception centre is the initiative of the local mayor, Nabil-Iosif Morad, a Syrian doctor from Homs who has lived in Greece for 25 years. A Greek citizen through marriage, Nabil-Iosif is also the first naturalized Greek of Syrian origin elected to office in the country.

He offered the resort after the Greek Government asked local mayors for help in taking in the 57,460 refugees still in Greece, following border closures along what is known as the 'Balkan route' to northern Europe. More than 1 million refugees and migrants arrived in Europe last year by sea, according to UNHCR figures.

Nabil-Iosif says at first he started gathering donations of clothing to send to Idomeni, the unofficial camp at the Greek border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where 10,000 refugees lived in squalor for several months this spring. “But that wasn’t enough. So I asked whether we could use this space.

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