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Millions of Syrians face a nearly impossible situation. Their country is too dangerous for them to stay in, but other nations are not exactly welcoming. Of the many Syrians driven out of their homes by civil war, more than two-and-a-half million are living outside their country now. Of those, about 60,000 have made it to Europe. Their first stop in Europe is Greece, which still has serious economic problems and is in no mood to help.

Joanna Kakissis found Syrians in the shadows in Athens.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: They wait in a smoky hotel lobby.

MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: This lobby is like Syria, says a man who calls himself Mohammad. That guy is from Damascus, he says, pointing around. That one is from Homs, that one from Latakia.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

KAKISSIS: About 80 Syrians are here, including six neighbors from Yarmouk, a Palestinian neighborhood in Damascus. They sit together at a table near a bright window, sipping sweet, hot Nescafe from tall glasses.

LULU: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Lulu is a 25-year-old scholar of Arabic literature. Like everyone here, she won't give her last name because she fears for her family still in Syria. A month before, Lulu rode in a tiny, crowded boat from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Kos.

LULU: It's really small. We were 13 people, at the night. I was very afraid, but I believe if I travel to Europa, I can take my husband, my mother and my sister from Syria.

KAKISSIS: Lulu's hoping to make it to Sweden, which has taken in at least 14,000 Syrians. Her neighbor back in Yarmouk, a man named Hassan, is aiming for Germany, which has accepted another 18,000 Syrians. He's 45 years old and used to run a clothing shop in Damascus before it was bombed a year ago. Now he's eager to find a job.

HASSAN: Maybe I have work, maybe, until to I can bring my family to me.

KAKISSIS: The hotel's owner, Konstantinos, who also doesn't want to give his full name, says the Syrians started arriving here six months ago.

KONSTANTINOS: (Greek spoken)

KAKISSIS: The first customers were a family with two kids, he says. We gave them a good deal. They liked the hotel and spread the word. Rooms are $20 a night, two to a room. Forty of the roughly 120 rooms in the hotel are occupied by Syrians.

KONSTANTINOS: (Greek spoken)

KAKISSIS: They always have friends in town, Konstantinos says, friends who tell them where to eat, what to see, where to go.

MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Those friends are often smugglers, like Mohammad, the man we met earlier in the lobby. Mohammad is a Syrian Kurd who's lived in Greece for 14 years. He won't give his full name, but he says he works as a house painter, but makes much better money in this lobby, where refugees will pay as much as $5,000 to get out of Greece. Smugglers like Mohammad sell the Syrians fake passports and visas and plan escape routes. Those who have money try to fly out. But few get out on the first try. Abdul Rahman, a teacher from Raqqa, knows this firsthand. How many times have you tried to leave?

ABDUL RAHMAN: To the airport? Maybe six times. And...

KAKISSIS: With a fake Greek passport, or a Greek ID?

RAHMAN: Not the Greek. Hungarian ID, France passport, many nationalities I have.

KAKISSIS: But they always catch you.

RAHMAN: Yeah. The last time, the security catch me as - when I'm going to the plane. You know, they say to me, I know your face. Bad luck.

KAKISSIS: Now that Abdul's low on cash, he's planning to stowaway on a truck loaded onto a ferry bound for Italy. From there, he hopes to continue to his final destination in the Netherlands, where his brother lives. None of the refugees want to claim asylum in Greece or Italy, which offer no social welfare benefits or job prospects and rarely grant asylum requests.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: If they run out of money, they could end up like the family of Ahmed, a 10-year-old boy from Aleppo. Ahmed just rode in on his bicycle to deliver falafel sandwiches - each about $2 - to Syrians in the hotel lobby. The sandwiches are the only source of income for his eight-member family, who are now crammed into a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in Athens.

SOBHY: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Ahmed hands a falafel sandwich to Sobhy, a 40-year-old veterinarian from Deir ez-Zour. Sobhy is tired. He's just returned from the airport where he was turned back a sixth time in an attempt to move on from Athens. He slumps onto a plush sofa in the lobby and recites a poem. He composed it when Syrian government forces imprisoned and tortured him for 73 days.

SOBHY: (Singing in foreign language)

KAKISSIS: Each hour that passes without you feels like years, he sings. The most beautiful times I spent with you. Hours passed like seconds. Sobhy wrote this poem for his children, who wait in Turkey. He thinks of them each time he fails to get out of Greece. Two weeks later, Sobhy finally makes it to Sweden, stowed away in a truck. Lulu, Hassan, Abdul and the others get out of Greece, as well, by the hotel in Athens is full once again. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.

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