When Kip Fellow Nikolia Apostolou traveled to Greece’s Lesbos Island in early August, she snapped an Instagram photo of the beach. It shows a rocky shoreline littered with blue, yellow and orange lifejackets — some small enough for toddlers.
The vests had been hastily shed by Syrian refugees who’d made a terrifying journey across the Aegean Sea. The peril of the choppy waters was minified by the hellish landscape from which the refugees escaped.
The stop was one of dozens that Apostolou made during the summer on her trek through nine countries — from the Greek Islands to Sweden — following the routes taken by refugees and immigrants from the Middle East and Africa.
“I was amazed by the continuous flow of people,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in Belgrade, Athens, or Austria; there are thousands of people with backpacks, on the move.”
An avant-garde backpack journalist, the Columbia University graduate does it all: She writes gripping news as well as long-form articles and takes photos to illustrate them. She shoots and produces video, some of which is distributed exclusively through social media. But she does more substantial film work, too, and in fact co-directed a documentary about a far-right wing Greek political party that was screened at film festivals.
She’s firmly entrenched in social media. Her workaday social media posts include photos of a refugee child in a body bag, humanitarians handing out children’s shoes, people sleeping on sidewalks and in makeshift tents.
“I’m now back in the Greek islands and the numbers are only growing larger,” Apostolou said in September. “The European Union wasn’t prepared for this, even though it was evident from the first few months of 2015 that it was going to happen, so refugees drown on their way to Europe or because there are no camps they sleep in the streets, waiting to get papers, have nowhere to shower, and no food.
“As Greece is still in an economic and political crisis, problems are not being solved, instead they’re being magnified,” she said.
Apostolou was born in Greece and lived most of her life there. She spent much of the last three years covering the country’s debt crisis: Unemployment in Greece is at 26 percent. The welfare system has been dismantled. Suicides are up by 47 percent and one in three Greeks have no health insurance.
Many of her family and friends have lost jobs or emigrated. Her 86-year-old grandmother has had her pension cut by nearly 40 percent.
“Having your own family being affected by such harsh measures just makes you want to work harder in order to inform people about the injustices taking place,” she said.
Paradoxically, because of the crises she’s had a steady stream of freelance work from international media such as the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor and Al Jazeera, covering the contagion effect of the crisis on everyday Greeks.
One of her pieces for Al Jazeera Magazine chronicled a homeless woman in her 50s who spent her days photographing street life in Athens.
“Aside from revealing that she used to be a secretary, she refuses to talk about her life before the crisis. About homelessness, however, she has plenty to say – and begins by explaining what it has taught her about dignity.”
Being Greek, she doesn’t have the stereotypes that parachute journalists come in with, she said.
“The first few years of international headlines (were) all about the lazy Greeks, the huge numbers of public sector employees and nothing about the EU’s inability to deal with this economic crisis.
“Today, seeing your country and your people getting poorer by the day, is a constant punch in the stomach. I also believe many of us living and working here suffer from a type of PTSD, as we’re constantly seeing tragedy and pain and can do little about it,” she said.
What she does about it is provide an insider’s perspective, writing about shipyard workers struggling to get by on dwindling shiftwork; and producing videos about families who can’t afford heating oil for their homes.
Her stories are flush with the frustration everyday Greeks feel toward those responsible for the country’s over-borrowing and embezzlement of public funds.
Working as a foreign correspondent — a childhood dream for her — has allowed her to be more raw with such reporting.
“I denied three job offers to work for local media. The media industry here was obviously not healthy and it made sense for me to focus on work coming from abroad,” she said.
“A genuinely free press is difficult when the business elite control much of the coverage.”
Greece has the EU’s second-lowest ranking in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, after falling 56 places from 2009 to 2014. The watchdog organization sites police violence against journalists and attacks on reporters by Golden Dawn, the right-wing party that was the subject of Apostolou’s documentary and videos for the New York Times.
“Journalists in Greece have come under increasing fire from government officials and the business tycoons connected to them. Without strong domestic laws to protect free press and free speech, journalists are left vulnerable and open to intimidation,” she said.
During her fellowship, Apostolou found allies who understood the stress of being a journalist in an environment hostile to the press.
“During KipCamp I mostly enjoyed sharing my concerns and hearing from others on the safety issues we have as journalists while using all the technology that can be easily be hacked and (being) followed by anyone not happy with our reporting.”