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Greece's refugee crisis through a different lens

Commentary: For Road Trip 2016, I went to Greece to find out how the government, activists and migrants are applying technology to ease the refugee crisis. It wasn't what I expected.

This is part of our Road Trip 2016 summer series "Life, Disrupted," about how technology is helping with the global refugee crisis -- if at all.

The main street in Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesvos, wraps around the green-tinted Aegean like a horseshoe. Brightly painted buildings line the road while wooden sailboats bob near the pier. It's beautiful.

It's also where I bump into Waleed, a young boy I'd met earlier that day at the gate of the Kara Tepe refugee camp just outside town.

He was fishing with two other migrants.

I ask where his mom is. He points back toward the camp. "Kara Tepe," he tells me.

And his father?

"Dad. Syria. Psh, Psh," he says, pointing a finger to his head while imitating the sound of gunfire.

I say, "I'm sorry," but he shrugs it off. That's life in Syria, where he came from. It was another reminder of the pain refugees have faced both at home and in Greece, where they fled to safety. The pain often sits just under the surface, bubbling up after they talk about their past for just a few minutes.

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I came to Greece to find out how, or even if, the tools of the digital age are helping the country cope with thousands of displaced people.

The assignment proved to be a more difficult than I'd expected.

More than 57,000 refugees and migrants have been stuck in Greece since March, when an agreement between the European Union and Turkey -- along with nearby countries' decisions to close their borders to migrants -- transformed Greece into a dead end for people hoping to reach northern Europe.

That's put enormous pressure on the Greek government, which constantly struggles to find refugees decent housing and even process their requests for asylum. (Things could soon become even more difficult. Despite facing life in limbo, refugees are arriving in Greece in increasing numbers, hopeful the EU will let them in, The Wall Street Journal reported this week.)

While many locals were happy to talk to us about the refugee crisis, others wanted us to leave. We were even, quite literally, chased out of a neighborhood in Athens by anarchists who don't like reporters. Another time, two Greece police officers temporarily took our identification cards and ushered us away from the Macedonian border, where we went to see the shuttered Idomeni refugee camp.

Yet, the memories that stick with me are those of the refugees we met throughout Greece, who were welcoming and eager to tell their stories. They wanted me to know the dangers that forced them to flee their homes and the difficulties they face in Greece.

They were people like Kabir Anwari, a soft-spoken 20-year-old from Afghanistan I met my first day in Greece. He was living amid rows of tents inside an abandoned building in the port of Piraeus. (The government shut down the camp five weeks after we visited it.) We talk about how he came to Greece and what it is like for him being away from his family.

"Every day is so difficult for me," he says.

And, like so many other younger refugees I met, he asks if we can stay in touch on Facebook and WhatsApp.

I see him a few days later at the port. This time I give him a big hug and tell him to be strong. As I walk away I worry about what will happen to him, I realize I'll probably never see him again.

Originally published August 3, 2016.

Updated September 3 at 7:41 a.m. PT: Adds information about a new wave of refugees and migrants coming to Greece.


Waleed (right) fled Syria with his mother after his father was killed.

James Martin/CNET