Migrant Lives

Kos, When Tourists And Migrants Land On The Same Greek Island

A popular hot spot for European summer vacationers, the Greek island of Kos is now also a prime destination for undocumented immigrants from places like Syria and Pakistan.

Migrants at a Doctors Without Borders camp in Kos
Migrants at a Doctors Without Borders camp in Kos
Doan Bui

KOS â€" It’s 5 a.m. on this Greek island. Along the docks, young British, German and Swedish people stagger and holler to each other after a night spent at a rowdy gathering billed as a "foam party." No one can see that off in the darkness of the sea, exhausted and distraught migrants are approaching the shoreline in rowboats.

Amed Ebdi, 18, is more or less the same age as the drunken tourists we saw just a few minutes earlier taking seaside selfies to post on Facebook. He comes from Kobane, and has arrived at the port of Kos with three heavy books on the Kurdish language. But as soon as he landed, he also posted a selfie. He insists on showing us other Facebook pictures. "Him, he's dead," Ebdi says. "She's dead too. As for him, all his children died. Him, his brother was beheaded by ISIS. I'm keeping all the pictures of the dead people from Kobane I knew. Me, I'm alive."

Of all the Greek islands, tiny Kos is the fourth most popular tourist destination after Crete, Rhodes and Corfu. It's a perfect place for European tourists with its cheap all-inclusive stays and direct charter flights leaving from Kracow, London, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

But located just six kilometers from the Turkish coast, Kos also has become one of the main arrival points for migrants. Kos police chief Georgos Georgakos says so far this year, some 11,000 migrants have landed on the island of 40-by-8 kilometers (25-by-5 miles). "And in the summer, the number grows," he notes. "In June, there were 3,500. We had never seen that before."

The numbers have grown so unwieldy and anxiety so high that police resorted to using fire extinguishers and batons this week after violence broke out in a Kos sports stadium where hundreds of people, including young children, were waiting for immigration papers.

It happened after a Kos police officer was suspended for brandishing a knife and slapping a man identified as a Pakistani migrant.

Coast Guard chief Ioannis Mispinas explains why the numbers have spiked. "Before, smugglers were carrying people on speedboats. It was more expensive, between 2,500 and 3,000 euros. Now it's low-cost. They pile them up into rowboats, with no smuggler, and they have to manage on their own," he says.

Ebdi spent hours and hours on a shaky rowboat launched from the Turkish coast, guided only by his smartphone GPS. The cost was 1,200 euros. By contrast, tourists pay just 30 euros for a cool 20-minute airboat ride.

Mispinas says that there's never been a shipwreck off the shore of Kos, though he does recall around a dozen floating bodies coming from other islands in recent months. The latest was found in early July after the wreck of a rowboat near Bodrum, in Turkey. At the police station and at city hall, officials pretend to know nothing. Scaring vacationers is not an option for local authorities. In Kos, tourism is vital for the local economy.

"As if they disappeared"

Once safely on Kos, the migrants are made invisible. At about 7 a.m., the groups picked up by the coast guard leave from the harbor. Only early bird travelers and locals witness the scene.

"I see them every morning, but then it's as if they disappeared," says Jochen, an Austrian who didn't want to give his last name. "I don't know where they take them."

But the flow of migrants bothers others. Dick Gerrits, a Dutch expatriate who has a shop in front of the police station, is suspicious. "They're like time bombs. Here, in Kos, they're acting nice because they want papers. But you'll see when they show up in your country, in France or in the Netherlands â€" then, the trouble begins!"

The Captain Elias hotel, an abandoned building well away from the center, is where the newcomers are sent. There is no electricity, only a few water taps and some outdoor toilets. Doctors of the World tents surround an empty swimming pool. It's about 3 p.m., and Kos inhabitants volunteer to distribute extra meals they collect from hotels each morning.

Farhan Khan, a computing engineer, left Bangladesh with his young daughters and his wife. Back in his native country, he had a house and a garden. "And A/C! And to think that today we live in tents and dirt, like poor people," he says. "But I can't go back now. We spent $15,000 to get here."

Migrants with more resources don't stay at the Captain Elias camp. They simply go to the Marie hotel, which is full. Migrants occupy 80% of it. The Turkish hotel manager charges 15 euros a bed, putting five people per room. That's 75 euros a night for a room, a boon for a hotel that was suffering from bad reviews on TripAdvisor.

The Oscar hotel is a bit cozier and also rents its rooms to these very quiet guests from points south and east. Giovanni, an Italian man, had a room next door to migrants. "The most annoying guests are the British who come back drunk in the middle of the night. No one notices the Syrians. They're just like us, actually."

"Enjoying your holidays, kids?"

Wefa, wearing shorts and nail polish, arrived in Kos a week ago. Though she comes from Syria, she speaks only English to her children. "My kids look very Western, don't you think?" she asks. She is preparing them for a new life that she hopes will be in Britain.

When Wefa thinks about the journey to get here, she tears up. But as soon as the children look at her, her face transforms. "You’re enjoying your holidays, right kids? They had never seen the sea before, you know. We’ll grab some ice cream later."

As in the movie Life Is Beautiful, in which a father creates an imaginary world to shield his son from Nazi horrors, Wefa has tried to protect her children. "In Damascus, I would say that the noise of bombings was fireworks," she says. "When smugglers abandoned us in a forest for a day, I told them we were hiking. And I told them so much about the sea trip that they were excited to take the boat. They didn't even realize it was dangerous."

The children believe the fairytale. "It's nice here. I like the beach," her young daughter says, pausing during a game in front of the police station where her mom waits for the document that will allow them to continue their journey.

Just like tourists, migrants stay on average one week, 10 days at the most, waiting to arrange safe passage to the next destination.

"Where is the best country to go?," Ebdia asks. "Germany? Norway? And to go from France to England, what do I need to do?"

Waiting to leave, migrants, just like tourists, often find themselves doing nothing much at all. Hassan is from Pakistan. Every day, he strolls around the city, peeks in the shops, dumbfounded.

When he arrived in Kos, Hassan saw a drunken tourist getting undressed to dive naked into the water. He notes that his home region in Pakistan is under Taliban control, and women are forced to wear burkas.

"I know that in the West you do things differently," he says. "You know, I had Facebook too."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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