MOLYVOS, Greece — This is a story about war and waiting tables, about how a line can be drawn between the chaos in Syria and why Theodore Kourniaris lost his job on the Greek island of Lesbos.
In the eastern isles of Greece, the hidden face of the European refugee crisis is an everyday dude like Kourniaris, who suspects he has been cheated — not only by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs on his own people, but also by leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who threw open the door to refugees and then slammed it shut.
Kourniaris, 27, is a Greek waiter who lives with his mom. He has spent every summer season since he was a kid humping bottles of chilled retsina and plates of grilled octopus to German and British and Dutch merry-makers in packed tavernas in his picture-postcard-perfect village on the sea.
“They’re gone, man,” said Kourniaris. The April-to-October trade that sustains the island has — poof! — vanished, as middle-class European pensioners and young families with children decided they would not spend their holidays on an island that hosted 600,000 war refugees and economic migrants over the past 18 months.
To survive, Kourniaris will spend the winter months, if he is lucky, tugging on goat teats.
“By hand,” he said. “Hundreds of them.”
For $25 a day.
If you don’t care that Kourniaris and thousands like him have lost their jobs on the hardest-hit Aegean island, he suggests you try milking goats.
Without the summer season, Kourniaris not only will lose his restaurant wages but also could be denied three months of government unemployment benefits, which he relies on to get through the winter. He will lose his health insurance, too.
Out of work until mid-July, Kourniaris found a part-time gig at a cafe for a few hours a week. “I’m barely keeping my head above the water,” he said.
There were many tourists here last year — during the worst of the crisis — and thousands of asylum seekers arriving each day.
“They came up on our beach, right there,” said Dimitrios Vatis, 71, an owner of the Aphrodite Hotel, pointing to his pebbly beach on a secluded cove.
He said members of his staff would excuse themselves from the hotel restaurant and run down to carry the children ashore.
Sitting at a table by the wine-dark sea, the hotelier flipped open his reservation books and sighed. For 2015, the pages were all colored in red, meaning almost every room was booked. For 2016, it’s almost all white, meaning empty.
“We feel nobody cares about us. Nobody takes a moment to think of the cause and effects of these things,” Vatis said. “We hear them. They call us fascists now, because we complain. But we helped the refugees before anyone! Before the NGOs, before the U.N., we helped them. Now, if you’re even a little bit anti-
immigrant, if you say, ‘Wait a minute,’ you’re a fascist.”
Tourism is a wipeout this year.
“The situation is the worst in 50 years on the island,” said Periklis Antoniou, chairman of the Lesvos Hoteliers Association, which uses an alternate spelling of the island, and owner of the Heliotrope Hotel.
Many charter flights have been canceled, and even domestic runs from Athens are down. The cruise ships have pulled out. The international travel agents have pivoted away from Lesbos and its sister islands, and bookings are down by 70 to 90 percent, Antoniou said.
“I don’t blame the media,” he said.
But why, he asked, are newspapers and broadcasters still recycling images from last year showing the crisis in the islands at its worst — for instance, of the indelible image of a toddler drowned on a beach?
The boy washed ashore in Turkey, not Greece, Antoniou pointed out.
“You have to look very hard to find a refugee today,” said Melinda McRostie, who runs a Greek taverna, the Captain’s Table, in the Molyvos harbor with her husband, Theodoris. She also founded a group, the Starfish Foundation, to assist refugees.
She described the stages the island’s residents have gone through: “People were shocked, then they helped the refugees — a lot. Now they’re angry, and I see it, they’re scared: ‘Are we going to be refugees too?’ ”
In March, a deal was struck between the European Union and Turkey that threatens to return asylum seekers to Turkey. Since then, the illegal smuggling has slowed to a trickle — but it has not stopped completely.
Earlier this month, the Greek coast guard reported that four people drowned and six were rescued when a boat overloaded with migrants capsized off Lesbos, according to the Reuters news agency.
Last year, the Greek islands were an open turnstile toward a new life in Germany or Sweden. Now, they are Europe’s waiting room.
There are some 42,000 asylum seekers in grim camps on the Greek mainland and 8,000 more stuck in the eastern Greek islands. There are about 3,000 still on Lesbos, most at two camps near the island’s biggest town.
With a wealth of misery in the world, the crash in the tourism economy here might not seem like a big deal, the waiters of Lesbos admit.
“You don’t see people eating out of dumpsters yet,” said Kourniaris. “But this winter? You might.”
Raphael Vouas, 54, closed his popular Sansibal Restaurant here. After 23 years, there weren’t enough customers to keep it open and pay staff. That’s seven more Greeks without a job.
“Now I am the tourist,” the restaurateur said.
He spends his days at the beach or sitting in a cafe drinking coffee. “Look at me, I have a tan.”
He meant this in a bad way.
Bureaucrats in Brussels mostly shrug: It’s just a few islands; they’ll bounce back. The European Union is now struggling to absorb the million-plus asylum seekers it has already let in, most from Syria. Athens has no real plan to make the mom-and-pop restaurateurs and their employees here whole again.
The frustration felt on the Greek islands is another bell ringing in Europe about the challenges posed by a globalized world, even as Europe encouraged one of the largest mass migrations in history.
The locals here believe they did right by the war refugees — they were on the front line, and they say they would help again. But now they feel abandoned.
The Greeks on Lesbos understand the refugees’ plight. Their grandparents had similar experiences. Many locals are descendants of Christian Greeks who were forcibly repatriated from Turkey — as Muslim Turks were from Lesbos — in the aftermath of World War I.
Ask an unemployed Greek waiter today what he thinks about Donald Trump, and even the socialists say the New York real estate mogul might be onto something.
Residents here are quick to say that they found the beaches littered with foreign passports — from Morocco, Iran, Algeria, Pakistan — abandoned by migrants looking for a backdoor to Europe.
“They weren’t all war refugees, and they weren’t all Syrians,” said Michael Konstantellis, 39, who has waited tables and has worked as a DJ and travel agent.
These same feelings — these micro-stories of anger and abandonment — are spreading across Europe.
The images of waves of asylum seekers coming ashore in Lesbos nine months ago were in part behind Britain’s vote to abandon the European Union, and they are stoking an anti-immigration tide in Austria, France and Denmark.
“You’re talking about the butterfly effect,” said Kourniaris, referring to the idea that the beat of an insect’s wing in one part of the world can change the weather in another.
The pope came to Lesbos to highlight the migrant crisis. So did U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Queen Rania of Jordan and Angelina Jolie.
The people of Lesbos are short-listed for a Nobel Peace Prize for their generosity.
The locals say, “We can’t eat prizes.”