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Refugees' Ramadan in Greece: No dates or milk, just bread and potatoes

First iftar of Ramadan leaves refugees in Greece hungry for home, with many stranded in camps eating unappetising rations
Refugees share an iftar meal in a camp in the city of Polikastro near the Greece-Macedonia border (AA)

ATHENS - Sara will not be eating her traditional Ramadan iftar this year. “In Afghanistan, we have this thing called bolani [a stuffed flat bread] and we eat it with tomatoes and potatoes… and the fruit juices… It was all so yummy”, she said longingly.

“But here we have to eat the food they give us,” she added, looking thoroughly glum at the prospect.

The 17-year-old from Kabul, currently living with her parents and five siblings in Elionas camp near Athens, later sent this reporter a hurried WhatsApp message, just before breaking her fast.

“Maybe the food will be different for iftar. It has to be different. Am I right?” she wrote hopefully.

For the 50,000 refugees currently trapped in Greece, many from Muslim families, Ramadan will certainly be different this year.

The holy month sees many Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and smoking during daylight hours, instead eating a meal before sunrise known as suhoor and breaking the fast with the iftar at sunset.

But it will also be more difficult this year. The long Mediterranean days – in Greece the sun rises at 4am and does not set until nearly 9pm – mean observers will be fasting for up to 17 hours.

Tents – whether UNHCR-stamped canvas or neon nylon – are stifling, and air-conditioning is only a feature for a minority lucky enough to live in a few prefabricated cabins.

Even when the breaking of the fast comes, the camp-issue food – typically poorly heated macaroni pasta or spaghetti with little protein and few vegetables – is less than appetising.

Some refugees only have access to 1.5 litres of bottled drinking water per day.

Sara’s family fled Afghanistan because her father was threatened. They have been in Greece for three months and are increasingly frustrated about the lack of information or hope.

“But maybe Ramadan will make things better, we will be closer to God in some way,” she told Middle East Eye in Athens’ Victoria Square.

Later, she sent photos of the food the family received for their iftar: the usual ready-meal-style trays of rice, juice cartons, and some oranges. Hopes for a big, happy Ramadan celebration are difficult to grasp.

Celebrations are also muted at Athens’ Piraeus port, an informal camp that is home to 1,500 refugees from Afghanistan and Syria. Authorities are trying to make the residents go to formal camps elsewhere in Greece.

But this Ramadan will take place on the cold hard dock, to the rumble of ferries carrying tourists and Greeks to happier islands.

The site volunteers have arranged for meals to be distributed later than normal, for iftar at 8.45pm. But there is tension in the queue as those who have not eaten all day wait for their rations and people complain there is a lack of water to go round.

Like any other night, the meals consist of lukewarm white rice with a small piece of gristly chicken, cheese, and mass-produced croissants.

'No dates or milk'

Suhoor will be delivered at around 2am, the refugees say, so there is time for everyone to eat their rations before the sun rises.

“There is no special Ramadan food," one Syrian Kurdish man, who does not give his name, said with sad frustration. “There are no dates or milk, just cheese, bread, potatoes, potatoes, potatoes."

Dates and milk or yoghurt are traditionally eaten to break the fast.

Asked what he wanted to eat instead, he replied: “When I think about what we ate at Ramadan last year… All I want now is mouloukhia and rice,” referring to a traditional vegetable dish.

Residents said there were around 150 people in the camp who were not fasting, most of whom were sick or elderly.

Samir from southern Syria is not fasting: "I need cigarettes," he said (MEE/Lizzie Porter)

Samir, from the Daraa region in southern Syria, is among them, although not because of illness. “There is plenty of food – but what there is? It is not good. I need cigarettes,” he smiles.

“I would prefer to be eating kuneyfeh nabulsiya [a sweet made from syrup, soft cheese and shredded wheat] – and ice cream with pistachios from Bakdash,” he added, referring to a renowned dessert parlour in Damascus.

He spends his days here thinking about his family, who are all in Lebanon: “I am worried about them. I have been here for three months and all we want is freedom.”

Later, tea and sugar are distributed from a shopping trolley by the handful of volunteers. “We are trying to organise for dates and sweets for Ramadan,” one of them told MEE.

“And we have arranged for breakfast to be delivered early for suhoor before sunrise. The problem we have is that people have to wait for a long time sometimes for their food. Even if we start at 8.45pm, some people will not get their food until 9.30pm.”

In other camps, residents are taking cooking matters into their own hands.

Despite the minimal or non-existent running water or electricity, they are preparing their own meals for Ramadan.

Hala, 28, from Latakia in Syria, lives in the Ritsona camp an hour north of Athens with her husband and son and insisted she would cook for her family this Ramadan using the ingredients available.

She and the families in seven neighbouring tents have clubbed together for a small gas cooker and will use it as much as possible for iftar.

“We have vine leaves so I will prepare them with chicken,” she said.

“And maybe I will make a maqlouba. We like to eat well” she said proudly.

She pulled up a picture of the stew, traditionally inverted for serving, that she had cooked the previous week: golden chicken thighs, rice, roasted aubergine and toasted almonds. It looks stunning.

A’ieda, 26, from Aleppo in Syria, also lives at Ritsona and will also cook rather than break her fast with the standard-issue food that she said she “does not eat”. 

She describes with relish how she will prepare potatoes, makhdous – mini aubergines – and mahshi – stuffed vegetables – for her husband and four children.

“We have a small cooker and supplies and I will cook for Ramadan. We will eat good food and the food they give us is not.”

In fact, the few ingredients and cooking resources available may make Ramadan this year more bearable than the family’s last, celebrated inside Aleppo. Once Syria’s industrial capital, the city had been largely destroyed by the time A’ieda left six months ago.

"Last year Ramadan in Aleppo was very hard. There was no money and no work. We couldn’t eat much because everything had become so expensive.”

Aid organisations have warned workers that refugees – used to celebrating Ramadan with big, lovingly-prepared meals for friends and family – may feel ashamed or embarrassed at the difficulty of providing for loved ones this year.

Save the Children has issued guidelines for its staff working during Ramadan: according to rules set out for the camp the organisation works in on Lesbos, there must be “no smoking, eating or drinking in front of anyone” and food and drink should be consumed discretely outside the camp.

Refugees pray at the dockside in Pireaus (MEE/Lizzie Porter)

Activities are also adapted around the fast, including for children who are not obliged to observe it.

“With adults and children who are fasting, it is important to plan low-key activities that do not require a lot of physical effort," the Save the Children instructions read.

“Please keep in mind as well, that energy levels will be highest in the morning and at their lowest mid-afternoon.”

At the Karamanli, Frakaport, and Iliadis camps near Thessaloniki, medical co-ordinators from the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) have worked with the military camp leaders so meals are delivered before and after sunset.

“Being part of the Ramadan holiday is something new for the majority of the Greek support staff at the camps," said Katerina Nickolopoulos, speaking on behalf of SAMS.

“There might be a day or two of transition until they see what percentage of each camp is actually fasting, so that they can support everyone appropriately.”

The organisation also employs translators, many of whom are Arabic-speaking Muslims. They help ensure that “refugees feel that their concerns are being heard, and will be passed on to the military/managers of the camp," Katerina added.

Back at Piraeus, post-iftar, people mill around the port. A group of Afghan girls have gathered together their fruit rations into a handsome picnic, watermelon and apricots bright against the cold grey dock. 

A group of boys go swimming in the harbour. Others kick a football around the quayside. Afghan music suddenly blasts from the speakers of one of the volunteer’s cars, and teenage boys dance in a ring.

For a moment, all the frustration about a lack of nutritious food, the lack of information about their future, and the morosity hanging in the air, are forgotten.

But the festive atmosphere does not last long. A fight breaks out – allegedly between two Syrians – and shirts and tent nylon are ripped. “This is happening every night," sighed Samim, 27, from Afghanistan.

No one seems to sleep; into the early hours, toddlers wander and groups sit quietly, playing cards or wandering the quayside listlessly. Refugees wait for the expected 2am rations. None come – MEE is later told there were no more deliveries.

“People do not sleep here,” Samim says. “It is not just because it is Ramadan. People here are worried or sad. They are hungry. They cannot sleep.”