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Greece's Aegean Islands Struggle To Handle Influx Of Migrants

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As Mr. Rocca said, there are more routes into Europe than just Libya to Italy. Another route takes migrants over sea from Turkey. Greek migrants in the Aegean Sea are receiving record numbers of these migrants, and Greece's economic crisis has left it out of cash to care for them. So volunteers are stepping in, as Joanna Kakissis discovered on the island of Leros.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: I meet Latifah Abouras and her sons outside a police station on the island of Leros.

LATIFAH ABOURAS: Latifah.

KAKISSIS: Latifah. And how many children do you have?

ABOURAS: Three children - boys.

KAKISSIS: And they're all with you now?

Latifah's 40 and from Daraa, a city in Syria. She used to work as a school cafeteria lady. War forced her out of her home. She sold her house for a pittance and used the money to pay smugglers so she and her family could ride a rubber boat from Turkey to Greece. She's in Europe, and she has dreams.

ABOURAS: And house and money for children, school, good - I want to work. I love work.

KAKISSIS: But she arrived on this Greek island with wet clothes, little money and no idea what to do next.

MATINA KATSIVELLI: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: Then she spotted Matina Katsivelli, a tiny, high-energy retired judge who showed up lugging a giant cardboard box.

KATSIVELLI: (Through interpreter) We've got dry clothes in here and shoes because some people have lost their own at sea. We make sure the babies have their formula. We have breakfast because maybe the people haven't eaten for two days. And by the time the local authorities show up, maybe 10 more hours have passed.

KAKISSIS: Katsivelli runs a volunteer group that's helping overwhelmed local authorities care for the hundreds of refugees and migrants arriving on Leros, home to barely 8,000 people. One of the volunteers is Panos Rozakis. He points to about a hundred migrants standing outside the police station. Some will sleep here.

PANOS ROZAKIS: There's no room for everybody here. It's just a small cell, let's say, for six persons, and they put about 30 people in the cell. Actually, it's for criminals, OK? But because of the situation, they put all the refugees inside until they get their papers.

KAKISSIS: Migrants also sleep in storage areas at the Coast Guard offices. Mothers with infants sometimes sleep in a room at the hospital. Katsivelli and her volunteers pushed for more space.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: They got some money from the national government to renovate an abandoned house. On a recent day, it's filled with Afghan and Syrian families and a geophysicist from Iraq. There are beds, clean sheets, and twice a day, the Coast Guard hands out meals. But Leros Mayor Michalis Kolias says some local people object to it.

MAYOR MICHALIS KOLIAS: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: "People live in houses all around, and they complain," he says. "They say the migrants may be sick, and they aren't getting proper medical checks."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Matina Katsivelli says there's also a belief that building proper reception centers on islands will just encourage more migrants to come.

KATSIVELLI: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: "And that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," she says, "because on other islands, migrants are sleeping in parks, and hundreds more are still coming every day."

The migrants don't stay on Greek islands long. The police fingerprint them and give them temporary residency papers. Then they buy ferry tickets to Athens. Latifah Abouras waves as she and her family board a small ferry. They don't want to stay in Greece long. The country is bankrupt. So they're hoping to go to Germany. They're just not sure yet how they'll get there. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.