MYTILENE, Greece – Late last year, Mohamad Hassan Atye arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos confused, lost, and unsure.
“I heard the name of Greece just when we arrived here,” the 24-year-old native of Afghanistan said. “The police catch us from the sea, and they show us … a paper. They say, ‘We are here from Greece, and we are not Turkey,’ and that was the first time I heard the name of Greece.”
Atye works as an interpreter at Mosaik, a community center that teaches new languages to migrants in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos. Finding a job allowed him to rent an apartment, which he said was much better than living in one of the island’s refugee camps.
“The life is not easy in the camp,” Atye said on July 11. The day before, migrants had rioted and set fire to the trailer of an aid group in the Moria camp, five miles down the road from Mytilene. Atye lived in Moria before he found a job as a translator.
Atye and other migrants who have found work as translators for aid organizations represent a rare bright spot amid gloomy employment prospects for recently arrived migrants in Greece. Many migrants have struggled to integrate into Greek society, according to interviews with more than a dozen migrants, aid workers, and experts on migrant integration.
Between 45,000 and 60,000 migrants remain in Greece, and there is no plan for them to leave the country in the foreseeable future, said Savvas Robolis, a prominent Greek economist at Panteion University in Athens.
“The crucial point—that is to find a job,” Robolis said. Without work, migrants cannot integrate into their new country.
Employment is hard to come by in Greece, for migrants and native-born Greeks alike, because the unemployment rate is the highest in the European Union at 21.7 percent, the European Commission said in June.
“There’s no job for the refugees,” said Ehsan Mansuri, an Iranian migrant who works as a translator in the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, where he lives.
Mansuri has served as a translator for the past seven months with European Lawyers in Lesvos, a legal aid group on the island, allowing the organization’s staff to understand their clients’ situations. (“Lesvos” is an alternate spelling for “Lesbos” that the organization uses.)
“I translate their cases to lawyers, so lawyers can help them be able to have a nice case about why they left their country,” Mansuri said.
Mansuri is applying for asylum status himself in Greece. He had to leave Iran because he is Christian, and religious minorities are persecuted in the Islamic Republic, he said.
Calls to six Iranian embassies, consulates and foreign missions during business hours seeking a comment on the treatment of Christians in the Islamic Republic were not answered.
Data are sparse on employment rates for the migrants who have arrived on Greek shores in the current crisis, due to the continuing chaotic nature of the situation.
A working paper published by the European Commission in January found that refugees in Greece tend to work at far lower rates than the population as a whole and at lower rates than refugees in other parts of the European Union, but it relied upon statistics gathered in 2014, before the current migration crisis started.
Integration can happen naturally for migrant families if their children attend school and learn Greek, and if there are jobs available for migrants, but that process can take decades without government intervention, Robolis said.
“If you are a traditional country of immigration, like France, like Germany, the Scandinavian countries, you create institutions to teach the language, to teach some professions,” Robolis said. “Currently, Greece does not have many things to support the process of integration.”
In addition to providing a livelihood for migrants, employment provides a diversion from the interminable wait for decisions from immigration and asylum authorities that many people face in refugee camps. Mansuri is not paid for his work with European Lawyers in Lesvos, he said, but he appreciates having something to focus on during the day.
Many interpreters earn competitive salaries, especially if they work for international aid organizations.
Abdul Rahman, a 36-year-old Afghan who lives in Athens, declined to reveal how much he is paid by the Catholic organization Caritas to translate between Persian and English, but he said he supports his wife and two of his children in Brussels, and still has something left in his paycheck.
“I keep the rest for my pocket money,” he said.
There is an acute need among the majority of migrants who do not speak English or Greek for translation when dealing with authorities, Rahman said, especially when they first arrive in Europe.
“If you have the wrong translation, many people lose their asylum status in Greece,” Rahman said. “The newly arrived people, they don’t speak, like, English or Greek, they do not understand, and they have fear.”
Because migrants might not have access to a translator who speaks their language when they arrive in Greek processing centers, registration papers can contain incorrect birthdays, ages, and surnames, Rahman said.
Without the help of a translator, many migrants could not follow directions to a doctor’s office or explain their symptoms to a physician, Rahman said, so escorting migrants to medical appointments is one of his responsibilities at Caritas.
Christine Rufener, a psychologist with the organization Doctors Without Borders who completed a three-month stint working with migrants on Lesbos in early July, said that she would be “useless” without an interpreter.
“Language is what a psychologist uses to do her job,” Rufener said. “That is your tool. That is how everything happens.”
Native speakers are valuable as interpreters because they understand idioms, Rufener said. She recounted a consultation, during which she called a patient a “peach,” and her translator suggested a phrase that would sound more appropriate to the patient.
Translating medical jargon can be difficult if a translator does not have experience speaking English in hospitals, Rahman said, although doctors do their best to explain. In addition, difficulties arise when a Greek doctor does not speak English—like many interpreters, Rahman does not speak Greek.
In a quirk of globalization, the organizations, workers, and volunteers that provide aid to the migrants come from all over the world, and English has emerged as the standard language.
Rahman learned English while working with the United States Army for more than a decade in Afghanistan, he said. He was a contractor for the Army, ensuring that American airfields were stocked with jet fuel.
“There are some opportunities for refugees who speak English,” Rahman said. “Some NGOs, they’re from America or from other European countries, they need those people who speak English, because they don’t speak Greek.”
Rahman hopes to relocate with his son to Brussels to join the rest of their family, if he can get approval through the EU’s family reunification program.
Other translators do not want to leave their jobs in Greece. Atye, who had never heard of Greece before he arrived on its shore, has adapted to the relaxed Greek lifestyle, and he does not plan to leave for the wealthy countries in western and northern Europe, where many other migrants want to live.
“If I find some way, if I find some good future in another country, maybe I go,” he said with a shrug. “I don’t know about the future.”
Atye left his home in Herat, Afghanistan as a teenager for Dubai, he said. He was expelled from the emirate after a few years for causing a car accident while drunk, and then made his way to Lesbos by way of Tukey. Today, he has found a home in Mytilene.
“I have a lot of friends from Greece,” he said. “The population of Greeks, they’re good from my mind.”
The first word he learned in Greece was “malaka,” which can mean either “dude” or a profane synonym of “jerk,” depending on the usage. The sailors on the boat that picked him up tossed the word around as a joke, he said. Since then, Atye has been able to live in Mytilene without learning Greek, because many of the locals speak English.
“I worked here now, it’s like seven months, but I learned, like, seven words,” Atye said. “Greek is difficult, really.”
He will have to learn Greek at some point, he said, but he is too busy now to study a new language.
“When you try to find a job, the first thing is they’re asking about the Greek language, and the second one, they’re asking about English,” he said.
Atye thought for a minute, then remarked upon the dilemma faced by the migrants who cannot communicate in their new country. “Most of them, they cannot speak.”