Isolated in Greek Camps, Migrants Find Work

Mustafa Balqes’ café in Skaramagas migrant camp. Photo: Alice Maiden

Mustafa Balqes is a 26-year-old Syrian who opened a café in Skaramagas migrant camp in July. Surrounded by bamboo fences and stocked with new wooden tables, his café adds color to the stark camp. Pink flowers on the tables frame the view of the Aegean Sea.

He installed a foosball and pool table in one tent, and surround-sound speakers in the other. If you ignore the United Nations tarp, you might forget for a moment that you’re in a migrant camp.

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that nearly 50,000 migrants are still in Greece, awaiting asylum interviews in which they will make their cases for staying in Europe. Many migrants have been in camps for more than a year and still have months to go before their asylum cases are processed. Isolated from tourists and locals, counting dwindling savings and unstructured days, many migrants remain without jobs and little way to productively fill their days. But a few lucky migrants have found work in camps—or even, like Balqes, have started their own businesses.

The set-up was a major investment: Balqes said the pool table cost about 1750 euros (about $2,070), the billiard balls were another 750 euros (~$890), and the rest of it—matching wooden tables and chairs, tablecloths, the coffeemaker—were another 1000 euros (~$1,180). Charging one euro ($1.18) for a game of pool, and one euro for a cup of coffee, just breaking even seemed like a distant future.

Balqes acknowledged the costs but insisted that this camp business was his best option. “I was able to work in this area—because there is no permission from the government,” he explained through Google Translate.

“You go into—” He gestured towards Athens, beyond Skaramagas’ fences. “I cannot live in Greece. I do not like living in a country where there is no work.”

Balqes echoes a concern that thousands of refugees share. If they get asylum in the European Union, it will likely be in Greece. But with an unemployment rate of over 20 percent, prospects for work are dim.

The Greek nongovernmental organization (NGO) Solidarity Now assists refugees with the job search. George Kanaris, the Welfare Service Coordinator at their Athens Solidarity Center, partially confirmed Balqes’ fear.

“They don’t speak [other] languages. They’re completely isolated in their own community. They just came to Greece,” Kanaris said. “How likely is it under these conditions to find a job?”

“We’re talking about a country that the rate of unemployment for us, for the Greek population, is already very, very high,” Kanaris added. In April, the unemployment rate was 21.7 percent, according to Eurostat data.

“Too much problems in Greek. All of Greek no have work,” Balqes said. “I have many friends who speak Greek and do not get a job. They work in Arab restaurants so they can live and get a little money.”

Balqes did not intend to work in a restaurant. In Syria, he was a ship engineer.

“I would appreciate working in any other field. Such as a fisherman, a sailor, and a mechanic,” he said. He tapped a cigarette into the ashtray and looked towards the dock.

“Before, [I had a] passport from Syria. Now, no have passport.” He listed the countries he had been to: “Brazil, España, France, Greece, Venezuela, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Yemen…”

Without a way to measure Balqes’ Syrian engineering experience, his professional qualifications don’t count on Greece’s shores.

Savvas Robolis, an economics professor at Panteion University, predicted that migrants integrating into Greece will be forced to take jobs below their professional qualification—often in agriculture, construction, or tourism. Migrants can then build a network, learn the language, and send their kids to school in hopes that they will resume the professional path their parents had to give up.

“The problem is the standards of education,” Robolis said. “How do you accept the country the diploma is from?”

“The crucial point is to find a job,” Robolis said.


Jobs are hard to come by in Oinofyta camp, where 600 refugees live on the site of an abandoned factory. It is an hour and a half from Athens by train, a trip that costs four euro each way.

The aid organization Do Your Part manages the camp and funded a tailor and a barbershop inside. Ali Yazdi, 34, is the barber. He cut hair for eight years in Iran. Before Oinofyta had a barbershop, he cut hair outside at the camp for no charge. Yazdi befriended Lisa Campbell, the Executive Director of Do Your Part. After a month of the outdoor barbershop, she recognized his work and set up a salon in one of the factory’s rooms.

Ali Yazdi cutting hair in the Oinofyta camp barber shop. Photo provided by Danielle May.

Nowadays, Yazdi covers his customers with a cloak and styles their hair in a mirror. He charges two euros per haircut. A decal in cursive font labels the white-walled room “Beauty Parlor.” Campbell eventually gave Yazdi the keys to the barbershop, said Danielle May, a former Oinofyta volunteer currently in a relationship with Yazdi.

At the end of July, Yazdi was close to opening Oinofyta’s third business: a coffee shop in the garden outside his tent.

He planned to make “four models of coffee” (four types, May corrected him) in his tent, and serve them to customers sitting outside on the benches that line a nearby wooden pagoda. May bought him a coffeemaker, but Yazdi paid for the rest. Do Your Part had subsidized Yazdi’s barbershop, but the costs for the coffee shop came out of his pocket.

Aside from the tailor shop and a local farm that employees 30 migrants, few job opportunities are available for residents of Oinofyta, May said. All day, women clean and cook, while men “play football, smoke, and worry.”

“I think people are really, really reluctant to do anything that anchors them in Greece,” said May. “I did ask someone that, because he was a carpet maker—I said, ‘why don’t you start a carpet shop here?’ And he was like, ‘why? I want to leave.’”

Yazdi said he wants to leave Greece, too. His goal is to live in England, Germany, or another country with cooler weather than Greece’s. “Hot country is very shit,” Yazdi said. He is learning English. He plans to find work as a translator.

“Because now I am out of money. Very expensive,” Yazdi explained. “For example, if I am going to England, I must give 7,000 euros [~$8,290]. Going to Germany, you must give 3,500 euros [~$4,140].”

May questioned how he could save up so much by charging just a couple of euros for a coffee or haircut. “You are working maybe 10 years, to get 3,000 euros!”

“I know,” Yazdi said.

Petros Mastakas, associate protection officer of the UNHCR in Greece, said that people like Yazdi have a better chance at finding work in Greece than they think. But the narrative that Greece has no jobs, and other European countries are paradises, is mistaken, Mastakas said.

“What this prevailing narrative doesn't allow to come out is that there are job opportunities. Job opportunities are linked to comparative advantages in the labor market,” Mastakas said. If Yazdi improved his English, for instance, he would have a comparative advantage. “Everybody is now, as we speak, in the NGO world, looking for a person—refugee or not, it doesn't matter—who can speak Sorani and English. Kurmanji and English.”

Mastakas said that when migrants think their only chance at finding a job is to leave Greece, then they leave at any cost—whether that is 1,500 haircuts or the risk of traveling farther north with a smuggler. “Before you take the risk of suffocating in a truck, see what are your limited chances in where you are now, including Greece,” Mastakas said. “It’s not easy, but you cannot say that there is nothing.”


Ehsanullah Ahmadi has not owned a business in a refugee camp. He was a sound engineer in Afghanistan.

But since he arrived in Greece last April, he has taught himself English, organized volunteer groups, worked as a translator, and pitched products to investors. Right now, he is unemployed. But he does not believe the narrative that there are no jobs in Greece.

“The refugee, they have a good energy. They have a good energy,” Ahmadi said. “I think the Greek government has to use the refugee. They can use the refugee. They need to.”

In Kara Tepe camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, Ehsanullah Ahmadi taught himself English. He started by holding his phone in just the right spot where he had enough WiFi to download language learning videos from YouTube. After that, he gathered with a newfound group of friends daily to practice English conversation. He learned 10 new words every night. Almost two years later, his English is near perfect.

His group of friends called themselves “refugee volunteers.” Ahmadi cooked breakfast with Kara Tepe volunteers, translated Farsi for doctors, and sewed clothes for camp residents. On his phone, he had a picture of a certificate that names the organizations he worked with: International Rescue Committee, Humanitarian Support Agency, UNHCR, Because We Carry, Movement on the Ground.

The International Rescue Committee offered him a position as a translator on the island of Samos, but the 900 euro (~$1,070) monthly salary was not enough to support moving his family out of Oinofyta. Another organization offered him translating work in Thessaloniki, six or seven hours away. Again, he could not take the job.

For Ahmadi, the problem is not employability, but location. For three months, Ahmadi even took the one and a half hour train ride into Athens for Greek lessons every day, but he could not afford to continue.

“Here in Athens, I couldn't find job. But I am trying to find job. Every day, I apply to a lot of organizations for job as translator,” Ahmadi said. “I hope. I will see. We will see.”

Andie Ayala, Maria Chiara Ficarelli, Jack Lohmann, Talya Nevins, and Ethan Sterenfeld contributed reporting.