Kaparelli (Greece) (AFP) – 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 knowledgeable 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 pressing 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 (45 miles) 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 locally are parsley, rocket, onions and potatoes — fully organic according to Kastro.
The 16-hectare (40-acre) 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 anarchist-friendly 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.
– Reaching a European market –
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 populous Muslim communities of northern Europe who yearn for flavours reminiscent of their home countries.
Some 50,000 people are stranded in Greece from the major refugee wave that hit Europe in 2015-16, most of them Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans.
The workforce for the Kaparelli project is drawn from around 1,000 refugees who live in self-run reception centres in Athens.
Among them is Fahed Abo Aguz, originally from Aleppo, who lives near Stuttgart, Germany, but shuttles back and forth after developing a strong interest in the project.
Fahed says he met Kastro after his wife and five children came through Athens en route to joining him in Germany.
“The climate here is good and working hands easy to find,” says the 30-year-old, whose family also tilled the earth back in Syria.
Known locally as “the German”, Fahed now wants to export produce grown at Kaparelli to oriental groceries in northern Europe.
Fahed sees an opening particularly for bulgur, a cereal made of various wheat species that is popular in Middle Eastern cuisine.
“At the moment everything comes from Turkey. It’s a niche market. But it’s difficult for refugees to find financial backers,” he notes.