On December 23, 2017, an unusual sight graced the streets of Chalkida, a small Greek town outside Athens surrounded by mountains, and famed for the rapidly changing blue tides that surround it. Three Santa Clauses walked joyfully up and down the town’s cobblestone streets, distributing roses to passers by. Each rose came with a message of thanks to the Greek community for welcoming and hosting refugees.
“We gave flowers to the Greek people to thank them for their generosity, for welcoming us into their country,” the trio of Santas said in a video shared on Facebook, capturing their jubilant interactions with Chalkida’s local community.
The Syrian Santas, George, Hamza and Michael, are refugees who fled their country in 2016, and now live in Ritsona Refugee Camp. Theirs is not, however, the first time Syrian Santas have shared Christmas greetings with the people of Chalkida. The project began in December 2016, by friends Musstafa Musstafa and Youns Alsalem. The pair had long wanted to thank the Greek community for its hospitality, while also countering the divisive anti-refugee rhetoric propagated by the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Their initiative was brilliant in its simplicity and sincerity. With the help of friends, Musstafa and Youns purchased dozens of long-stemmed roses, attaching a message to each written in Greek and English, reading: “We would like to thank the Greek people for receiving and helping us.”
Built on an old military airbase twenty minutes from Chalkida, the Ritsona camp houses approximately 650 refugees from countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Iran, and Sudan, amongst others. In 2016, the camp’s refugees, like other refugees in Greece, were effectively trapped when Europe’s borders were shuttered under the EU-Turkey deal. Many were left to wait out their asylum claims in the camps.
Today, many of Ritsona’s longer term residents have been relocated to Athens, or granted asylum elsewhere in Europe. After many months waiting for their claims to be processed, Youns and Musstafa were relocated to Sweden and Germany, respectively. So, when Christmas came around this year, Musstafa’s brother, Hamza, who is sixteen, joined forces with George and Michael to keep the Syrian Santa tradition alive in Chalkida.
“We wanted to do this to thank the Greek people,” Youns told Muftah, describing how he originally conceived and planned the idea, in order to show Syrians love and respect all religions.
Originally from Damascus, Youns lived in the Ritsona camp for over a year before being relocated to Sweden. Even in his new host country, Youns remains determined to continue the spirit behind the Chalkida Syrian Santa Project, and is coordinating with Musstafa to distribute roses in Sweden and German on New Year’s Day.
The two men also hope to expand their project further. “Now we are working to be a big team that we will call the Syrian Santa Claus Team, which includes fifteen people. We will go to France, Germany, Greece, Belgium, Norway, Austria, Sweden and Denmark,” Youns told Muftah. “We will share this all over the European Union. Let people know that we love all religions, and we do not differentiate between anyone,” he said.
Meanwhile in Greece, the young residents of Ritsona Camp are exploring other ways of sharing their perspectives with a wider audience. Indeed, the camp was recently in the news, after teenagers and youth launched the first two editions of Ritsona Kingdom Journal, an online magazine featuring their artwork, photography, short essays, poetry, and more. The magazine is produced with help from Swedish NGO Lighthouse Relief, which has been active in the camp since March of 2016.
Toward the end of their YouTube video, Hamza, George, and Michael promise to keep the Syrian Santa project going: “We hope to do the same project again next year if we are still in Greece, if we are not in Greece we will come back or we will ask someone else to do it.” The Syrian Santas determination to show their appreciation for their host communities is a true testament to their infectious generosity of spirit.