Domestic Life: At Home with Refugees in Athens

Abdullah’s Story

Before the war, Abdullah was a student at the University of Aleppo. He left Aleppo after finishing the second year of his engineering program. Abdullah, now 23, met me on Leros while I was volunteering for an adult refugee school. Abdullah was taking English and guitar classes at the school. At first, he was withdrawn around me and new volunteers. In the few weeks I had gotten to know Abdullah, he slowly warmed up to me, with our friendship ending in a farewell on the port of Lakki on Leros Island. At Lakki port, Abdullah took an overnight ferry towards Athens, and as he hoped, towards the start of new life. As with many of the refugees I had met while volunteering, I kept in touch with Abdullah on Facebook, but did not expect to ever meet again.

After Abdullah arrived in Athens, he was connected by a friend to live in Skaramagas Camp. Skaramagas Camp is a former Greek naval base located in the port of Piraeus near Athens. As of February 2018, 2,502 refugees lived in this seaside camp. Abdullah brought me inside Skaramagas during my visit to Athens in December 2017.

Above: The supermarket stand operated by refugees in Skaramagas Camp.

By the time Abdullah and I reunited, Abdullah had seen around ten different roommates in his container in Skaramagas. The shared living spaces, as well as the transient nature of irregular migrants in Greece, mean that roommates come and go frequently. Abdullah revealed that keys to containers in Skaramagas can be bought from €150 to €200. Abdullah’s statement reminded me of how the NGO I volunteered for at Ritsona Syrian Refugee Camp had struggled with keeping an accurate census. Tracking individuals living in open camps such as Ritsona and Skaramagas is difficult when inhabitants can enter without presenting identification. Unmanned gates were how I was able to enter Skaramagas Camp with Abdullah as well as Malakasa Camp with Farhan. By being invited by residents themselves into their homes, I was able to photograph my friends without needing to obtain consent from camp authorities.

Once Abdullah and I were inside his container, he narrated his journey from Syria to Greece. Abdullah hails from Aleppo, a city in northwestern Syria that has been heavily bombed during the Syrian conflict. 77 miles from Aleppo and across Syria’s northern border was the Turkish city of Gaziantep, Abdullah’s first stop. Abdullah would stay for seven months in Gaziantep to work and save money to pay a smuggler to cross Turkey. 

It was here in Gaziantep that Abdullah began to increase his use of shisha. Abdullah always brought a shisha pipe to smoke during social events on Leros, and I associated the scent of fruity tobacco with him. In Gaziantep, Abdullah worked at a restaurant where he prepared shisha tobacco and molasses for diners. His job required him to test the shisha before passing it on to customers by inhaling a few puffs first. Abdullah claimed that two years ago, he would only smoke shisha, which contains nicotine, about once or twice per week. Abdullah now smokes both socially and to relax on his own. He showed me how to prepare shisha by heating coals and stuffing the head of a water pipe with tobacco. As Abdullah smoked after our dinner, a green apple flavor filled the container.

Above: Abdullah prepares a recipe for chicken legs on the floor of his container in Skaramagas Camp. Ingredients used in the sauce are tomato paste, lemon salt, garlic, paprika, cumin powder, and bay leaf. The chicken was baked on a bed of sliced potatoes and purple onions. Aleppo, Abdullah’s home city, is known in Syria for its cuisine.

Left: In the absence of a kitchen in his container, Abdullah stores ingredients in jars and plastic bags under his bed. He shares a microwave oven at the entrance of his container with his roommates. To wash the dishes, he uses the sink in the bathroom. Leftovers are stored in a refrigerator in the room.


After his time in Gaziantep, Abdullah moved to Ankara, the Turkish capital. Abdullah then travelled from Ankara to Izmir. Located on the western Turkish coast, Izmir is a popular city for refugees to depart from before crossing the Mediterranean. The closest Greek island to Izmir is Chios, where Abdullah would land on the shores of in a dinghy. Abdullah spent 18 days detained on Chios before finally boarding a ferry with approximately 150 other migrants to Leros.

When I asked Abdullah why Syrian refugees choose to come to Europe instead of Syria’s bordering countries, Abdullah described the lack of economic opportunities in Jordan and Lebanon. In Jordan, Abdullah claims that a million Syrians are stuck in border camps. (Abdullah’s claim contradicts the UNHCR’s report of approximately 660,000 Syrian refugees resettled in Jordan since mid-2016.)

In both Jordan and Lebanon, Abdullah heard that Syrian refugees are not permitted to legally rent or purchase homes, start businesses, nor obtain employment permits. These perceptions regarding employment and renting are only partially true. In Lebanon, legal employment for Syrians is limited to certain industries, while 81% of Syrian refugees rented their homes in 2014 according to the UNHCR. Abdullah expressed frustration at how many Syrian refugees Lebanon was willing to accept. Abdullah asserted that during the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese War, Syria granted housing to 6 million Lebanese refugees, a favor that should be returned by Lebanon in welcoming an equivalent number of Syrians today. (I fact-checked Abdullah and found that inflows of Lebanese refugees to Syria peaked at 1 million, rather than 6 million, during the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese War.) While Abdullah’s figures are exaggerated, his opinions represent Syrians’ preference to resettle in Europe rather than in neighboring Levantine nations.

Above: Abdullah takes a break from sweeping his floor after cooking dinner.

After airing his discontent for Jordan and Lebanon’s reception of Syrians, Abdullah criticized the roles played by Jordan and Turkey in the Syrian crisis. Abdullah alleges that Jordan and Turkey fund both the Islamic State and the Free Syrian Army. To Abdullah, Syria’s neighbors have vested interests in toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and crippling Syria’s economic productivity. Abdullah informed me that prior to the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, gas fields were discovered in three Syrian cities. Interested, I searched for proof of these discoveries online. I was able to find a an industry study citation on the likelihood of three offshore hydrocarbon basins off Syria’s coast. I also found a source describing an announcement made by President Assad on the discovery of a gas well near Homs. The industry study and the Assad announcement date to 2011, coinciding with the year the Syrian Arab Spring turned into civil war.

Abdullah lowered his voice when theorizing that foreign economic interests were at play in his country’s war. Beyond gas reserves, Abdullah stated (and I verified) that the Syrian economy depends on oil and agriculture. Crude oil exports constituted 30% of Syrian government revenues in 2010 and despite years of fighting, agriculture still accounted for 20% of estimated GDP in 2017. I wondered if a failed Syrian state could be favorable to those who wish to control Syria’s natural resources, and if the economics of conflict had spurred the Syrian refugee crisis.

Abdullah lastly directed his opinions to Europe. Abdullah viewed the Greek state to be more welcoming to refugees than the Greek people. Abdullah believed that the Greek government is incentivized to keep refugees so that it could collect payments in the name of assisting refugees. Abdullah speculated that the European Union doles out payments to European countries according to the number of refugees present in a country. Despite whether the Greek government can profit or not from the refugee crisis, Abdullah felt that the people of Greece are unwelcoming to refugees. In 2016, the Greek economy was saddled with a 23.6% unemployment rate after the Greek sovereign debt crisis. To the average Greek, migrants represent competition. Refugees and migrants increase the labor force in an economy that could not afford to absorb more job-seekers.

Above: A tear in the mosquito net of Abdullah’s window reveals a neighboring container at Skaramagas Camp.

Abdullah chafed at what he saw as the futility of NGOs in Greece. NGOs could not provide what refugees needed the most: jobs. When I asked Abdullah what he would do if he were to start his own NGO, he said he’d teach self-defense to refugees. With crime coupled with unemployment in Greece, Abdullah was eager to leave the country. He hoped to reunite with his older brother in Germany but admitted that this outcome was unlikely. As adults, Abdullah and his brother would not be considered vulnerable enough for family reunification.

Before Abdullah and I ate dinner, he murmured a prayer: “God is especially merciful.”


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Engdahl, F. William. “The Secret Stupid Saudi-US Deal on Syria.” Newsbud, 24 Oct. 2014,

“Greece.” The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency, 24 Apr. 2018, 

“Over 90% of Syrian Crude Oil Exports Go to European Countries.” Today in Energy, U.S. Energy Information Administration, 16 Sept. 2011, 

Site Profiles January – February 2018. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 12 Mar. 2018, 

Site Profiles March 2018. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 27 Mar. 2018,