Return to the soil lifts refugees’ spirits in Greece

Catherine Boitard –

On a field deep in Greek farm country north of Athens, Suzan from Syria is smiling over an onion patch.
Far from minding the arduous labour, the herb picker is happy to be outdoors, surrounded by the springtime bloom, after months spent cooped up in refugee camps and reception centres.
A Kurd from embattled Afrin, she has joined an initiative that addresses two concerns at once — what to do with thousands of idle refugees stuck in Greece, and how to use abandoned farmland around the country.
Seventy kilometres north of Athens, in the farm village of Kaparelli, formerly sceptical locals and refugees are now cooperating for mutual benefit.
“The point is to not rely on others’ charity, help new arrivals overcome forced inaction, and show to those who want to stay that there is a way out,” says 49-year-old Salman Dakdouk, one of the project organisers.
A Syrian long-term resident of Greece who goes by the nickname of ‘Kastro’, he has brought know-how from years of work on the island of Crete, one of Greece’s main centres of farm produce.
The Kaparelli project began a year ago with the assistance of locals who helped arrange land rental or allowed the use of their disused fields to revive dormant vines and olive groves.
The refugees receive a salary for their work, and local landowners hit hard by the Greek economic crisis also benefit.
“We are currently helping out seven families (at the village),” says Kastro. Among edible plants grown are parsley, rocket, onions and potatoes — fully organic according to Kastro.
The 16-hectare holding also boasts sheep and chickens, and is now waiting for cows to arrive.
Apart from being consumed locally, the produce is also bottled and sold at the Sunday street market of Exarchia, the Athens district that welcomes refugees.
It also stocks the larder of Roots, Farm to Table, a collective restaurant where Suzan works alongside four other refugee families.
Combined with Greece’s mild climate and abundant sunshine, the know-how of Middle Eastern natives could open a vital outlet for recession-hit Greek farmers in the Muslim communities of northern Europe who yearn for flavours reminiscent of their home countries.