As Greece replaces Italy as the main European gateway for refugees fleeing their war-torn homelands, the country is battling to cope with the huge influx of souls at a time when it doesn’t have much to give. Its economy remains severely strained. Following embattled Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ resignation, Greeks will once again go to the polls to elect a parliament – the fourth vote be held in less than three and a half years.
Given the lack of a unified European Union policy on migrants, Greece isn’t finding much support from its European neighbors, either.
Almost 1,000 lives reach Greek shores every day, of which 60% are from Syria, according to the United Nations refugee agency. The Eastern and North Aegean Islands of Kos, Kalymnos, Leros, Chios and Lesbos have become temporary shelter for thousands arriving in dinghies from the sea.
Nevertheless, the deus ex machina in this case is not the government, but local residents and activists from near and far who are gathering food, medicine, clothes, toys and other equipment for the refugees. Many of them are using Facebook and Twitter (#refugeesGr) to spread the word.
“I Owe It to Them”
Many older islanders have memories of the 1922 Catastrophe of Smyrna (modern Izmir in Turkey), when a great fire led countless Asia Minor refugees to flee to the same neighboring islands on the Greek side. The vast majority of local residents are descendants of those refugees.
Giorgos Tyrikos-Ergas, a member of NGO Agkalia (Hug), posted to Facebook on August 20 a brief personal account of what he witnesses every day helping refugees arriving to Lesbos Island. His post has been shared over 2,540 times and has more than 5,870 likes:
“Handing a Syrian refugee 50 euros and he won’t accept it, saying ‘I am just one, I will make it through, give it to a family.’ Discussing The Heart of Darkness by Conrad with a Pakistani professor of English literature from the University of Lahore throughout the night at the Agkalia [building] without electricity. An Afghan youngster reciting Sappho’s verses and telling you he’s sorry he arrived to the island as a dirty refugee. […] Α DJ finishing his nightclub shift, meeting him 7 o’ clock in the morning, sleepless, and he gives you 70 euros, his daily earnings, ‘to help the people’ and leaves smiling on his motorcycle. […] A Greek immigrant from Germany coming and telling you quickly that he is going to prepay for fruit and moments later, you understand that he prepaid the fruit for the whole next month and more and you don’t even know his name to say thank you. Receiving a message from that Syrian guy with the wonderful family that passed by Agkalia a month ago and learn that ‘we are in Germany, we made it, we are alive.’ I said I wouldn’t post anything else for this week, but I cannot help but share those things…We didn’t have the power to imagine such situations. Honestly, I don’t have the right to stop recounting what we are witnessing, good or bad, I don’t have this right.”
His grandmother, Eleni Pavlou, had told him about her family’s connections to Syria. Giorgos retold her memories to journalist Anthi Pazianou from news site Efsyn:
“My family, refugees to Syria during World War II, managed to survive because they had a ‘dish to eat’ during those six years. I am alive thanks to their [Syrian] solidarity. I don’t forget, I owe it to them and I am here to help.”
The NGO is run by four active volunteers at the moment, led by priest Papa-Stratis, who is featured in a short clip entitled “A Good Samaritan in Greece” by the UN refugee agency:
“It’s Not Charity, It’s Solidarity From Everybody to Anybody”
Still on Lesbos, another citizen collective has intensified its activities at the transit Kara Tepe Camp, which houses 3,000 people and where it was reported during July that the “situation is particularly dire; until a few days ago only five toilets and two showers were operational.”
Social kitchen “O Allos Anthropos” (The Other Man) distributes “Free Food For All”:
– Asteris Masouras 正义 (@asteris) August 21, 2015
“Many see it as charity, others see it as alms to the poor, others as soup kitchens, others feel sorry, others say what can we do, others curse. I have one thing to say, even if you disagree with this. It’s not charity, it’s solidarity from everybody to anybody: everyone participates, even the refugees. It’s respect from everyone to anyone. It’s also love from human beings to human beings regardless of skin color, ethnicity or religion.”
“Humanity and Hope Do Not Have National Borders”
On Kos Island, Symmaxia (“Coalition”) volunteers offered their help at the abandoned Captain Elias Hotel, which acts as a shelter to many refugees who have arrived to the island during the last weeks:
“Today, Sunday, Symmaxia volunteers distributed food to almost 700 refugees and immigrants at Captain Elias. We hope soon the rest of the refugees currently at the port will be informed, so everybody will be fed at the hotel, they don’t need to be in public squares near the port.”
The UK’s Channel 4 News invites Facebook users to “meet the retired British nurse helping out with the growing humanitarian crisis in Kos island”:
At Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, the Refugee Solidarity Movement says it is “ensuring food security and basic supplies for refugees.” With the recent violence against refugees at the Greek-Macedonia border, volunteers went to the Greek border village of Eidomeni to hand out water, food, clothes and sanitary items.
– Dimitris Plastiras (@dplastir) August 22, 2015
– Teacher Dude (@teacherdude) August 23, 2015
Around 170 people who took shelter during the previous month at Pedion Areos park in Athens have been relocated now to Refugee Hosting Center in Elaionas. Many of them will seek asylum in other European countries as well as try to locate friends and neighbours already residing abroad.
At the center, one child illustrated the refugee experience of crossing the sea. Twitter user @epan_e_kinisi shared the drawing, a reminder that behind the numbers are thousands upon thousands of innocent human beings deserving of help: