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Greek Islanders Struggle To Aid Refugees Without Losing Tourists


A popular tourist destination is now filled with visitors who are not tourists at all. The destination is the Greek island of Kos. The visitors are refugees from wars in Syria and elsewhere. They have arrived in such numbers that the government sent a ferry boat that some could use as housing. More arrive daily. Joanna Kakissis reports on how they're changing Kos.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Every August, tourists usually fill a square in the port city of Kos that's shaded by a 500-year-old sycamore. Legend says it's descended from the tree where the ancient father of medicine, Hippocrates, taught his pupils. Grace Scargill is 11 years old from Leeds, England.

GRACE SCARGILL: It's a really nice place because it's old. And yeah, it's cool because it's like, a piece of history.

KAKISSIS: Her father brought her and her sisters to the tree then took them out for dinner at a nearby restaurant. The restaurant is called Platanos, the Greek word for sycamore.

DIONYSUS HARAMIS: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "This restaurant is in the heart of the tourist district," says the owner, Dionysus Haramis. "To get a table here this time of year," he says, "you usually had to book a month in advance."

This summer was different. When the square became a makeshift shelter for thousands of refugees and migrants who have slipped into the European Union by sea, chef Chris Ganaglou saw entire families sleeping outside the restaurant.

CHRIS GANAGLOU: It was just full of people with no hope, no food, not even, you know, some cold water. And we - we're just trying to do whatever we can.

KAKISSIS: Ganaglou broke down when he saw a 9-month-old baby sleeping in a cardboard box.

GANAGLOU: I have a son, he's like, 5-and-a-half, and I was thinking that I'll never want to see my kid like this.

KAKISSIS: Dionysus Haramis, the owner, let families use his restaurant's bathroom. One mother was so desperate to clean her child after days without a shower that he found her bathing her baby in the toilet. Most of the migrants were forced to relieve themselves outside.

HARAMIS: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "The stench was overwhelming," he says, "but what exactly are people supposed to do? The mayor here has offered them nothing." Tourists now stay away from the Hippocrates tree and Platanos. Business has plunged 75 percent since last year.

HARAMIS: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Haramis worries he may have to close the restaurant, which has already been hit, like other Greek businesses, by the economic crisis. One of his customers, Grace Scargill, the little girl from England, says she now associates Kos with refugees. She even saw an inflatable boat filled with migrants from her hotel room.

GRACE: I was just like, gazing out, and we heard, help, help, in the distance - because it's just right near the sea. But we could see a lot of people from the other hotels helping them, which was good.

KAKISSIS: Hundreds are still arriving on Kos every day. The government finally sent a ferry last weekend that can house more than 2,500 people so families don't have to camp outside while waiting for police to register them.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All of you will get inside, OK?

KAKISSIS: Haramis closes his restaurant and stops by the port to check out the ferry now docked there. There's a long line of people waiting to board. They're all Syrian.

KAKISSIS: Haramis strikes up a conversation with a Syrian dental technician who only gives his first name, Mohanned. He has been camping out on the sidewalk with his wife and two baby sons. Haramis wishes him luck.

HARAMIS: So now you are lucky because of the boat.

MOHANNED: I will be lucky when they open. Now I'm not lucky (laughter).

KAKISSIS: Haramis watches the family board then walks home. Tomorrow more migrants will arrive, and he says he will do his best to welcome them and stay in business. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis on the Greek island of Kos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.