Saturday, August 29, 2015

Greek Crisis, Summer 2015, Part 2: Syrian Refugees in Greece

Connecting With Some of the Refugees

I first talked with some of the refugees from Syria who ended up in Chania, Crete, Greece last September and October, when there were 45 refugees here, far fewer than the 153 who had been brought here the previous spring after their smugglers’ boat to Italy began to sink. Now, all but 14 of them have managed to leave, whether by plane or on foot, heading to the more prosperous northern and central European countries where they hoped to find family, jobs, support, and good schools. None of the children have both parents here with them, and they are anxious for paperwork to be processed so they can join other family members in the countries where they have been granted asylum. They have been staying in a beachfront hotel on a Greek island, but after their terrifying boat journey from Egypt, with families divided and homes destroyed, this is no vacation.

Only in May did I learn that two of the Syrian women in Chania speak some English, and that one of the men is an artist. Apparently I wasn’t asking the right questions before—just questions about where their families were (scattered), if they had all survived the bombing and shooting in Syria (no), whether they expected to be able to join surviving family members in other countries (eventually), what had happened to their homes in Syria (destroyed), whether they needed food and clothing (yes). Important questions, to be sure, but not enough to learn the whole story—a story that goes way beyond the numbers, the border policing, the boats, the smugglers, and the politics we hear about in the news.

It didn’t take long for me to feel like the Syrian mother I’ll call Rima was becoming my friend. Talking with her and her friend, whom I’ll call Maram, in the small fifth-floor walk-up hotel room where she had been living with her six year old twins for 14 months by May, we were just mothers and daughters together wearing similar clothes, with no veils. (“Rima,” “Maram,” and some of the other women there spoke with me on the condition that I not use their real names, because they are worried about relatives who are still in Syria.) Rima and I share an interest in language and writing; she had taught Arabic and learned to create beautiful Arabic calligraphy, while I’ve taught English and took a calligraphy class in college. We both care about our children and try to make the best decisions for them. But she has gone to great lengths to get hers to safety, while I have never been seriously worried that mine could be shot, crushed under a bombed building, or drowned in an overcrowded boat in a rough sea.  

Ordinary Families Making Extraordinary Efforts to Escape War

Rima says their problems started with the war in Syria. (If you prefer a very short summary of her story, see my brief article at Lancaster Online.) Before the war, life was perfect for her happy, loving family, with their small house in Damascus, a car, a bank account, and the gold jewelry every husband traditionally bought his wife. Her husband was a barber, Rima taught Arabic to foreign women in her home, and her four daughters attended school. Now that life is gone. Rima has a sister and brother in Egypt, and her parents and another sister are still in a small town near Damascus. She seems worried about them but doesn’t know what they can do, aside from crying together on the phone.

Rima told me her brother in law was killed when he went out to buy bread, and Assad’s soldiers shot him repeatedly. Then, she reported, he lay on the street in Barza (next to Damascus) for three or four hours, because people were too scared to move him with soldiers around. There, Rima said, everyone wanted freedom from Assad. All of Syria did, she added, but especially the people of Barza, who demonstrated for freedom daily. Many people were killed—one or two in every family there, she thinks. She said Maram’s 28 year old cousin was killed, as well as three other family members, plus many of Rima’s and her daughters’ friends, including a 12 year old boy and a 10 year old shot by a gun from a passing car. Rima told me that on Fridays, the Muslim holy day, soldiers came out on rooftops after prayers and shot people as they left the mosques. She said soldiers even waited for children to leave school so they could kill them.

So they were afraid. Rima kept her daughters—the twins and two others who are now 15 and 17--home from school, sent them back when soldiers stopped shooting, kept them home again, then finally gave up trying to figure out when it was safe to venture out of the house, and left Syria. With her sister and brother and their families, her daughters and her husband, Rima took a bus to Lebanon, stopping at a checkpoint every half hour for questioning by Assad’s soldiers. From Lebanon, they flew to Egypt, along with Maram’s mother and brother and their families and many other Syrians. Maram (who is related to Rima by marriage) also traveled to Egypt with her three daughters, but without her husband. She said they began their trip at the very dangerous Damascus airport, with bombs falling around them. Rima was reunited with Maram and her girls in Egypt, where they lived on the same street. Maram had arrived earlier and ended up staying there for 1 ½ years, while Rima and her family stayed for 11 months.

They sold some of their gold jewelry in Syria and the rest of it in Egypt, because their money ran out. All the furniture in their houses, even down to the light switches, has been stolen, according to friends who have been there since Rima left. The houses on her street were bombed or shot full of bullet holes. Maram showed me before and after photos of her once beautiful living room, with orange draperies and fabrics complemented by paler colors before the bombing, and then a complete mess with holes in the walls and huge pieces of cement all over afterwards. It is good these people got away. But now they have no homes.

Crowded together with her and her brother’s families in one unimpressive house in Egypt to save money, Rima cried daily and told her husband she wanted to return to Syria. He said they could be killed if they did. All the men were scared to go back, lest they be taken by soldiers and never heard from again. Rima told me the teacher at the dirty school her girls attended insulted the children and beat them with a wooden rod, so the girls didn’t want to attend. It was also very hot in Egypt, with biting insects that prevented sleep and made the girls look ill. Egyptians asked why they came, told them to leave, swore at them, and expected the women to be their prostitutes. Rima was scared; she said they left because it was almost as bad as Syria. Greeks are not like that, she told me: Rima can walk alone in the streets at night here as she could not in Egypt.

Rima, Maram, and their families left Egypt together. They were told they’d travel on a good boat featuring cabins with beds, food, water, and even wi fi, but the smuggler lied to them. He charged $2500 per adult, and half that for each child. A small wooden boat took them to a medium sized one where they spent one night with just enough room to sit up next to all the other Syrians. After one day, they had to jump from the medium boat to a large one, the one that later broke down. There was no bridge, so men threw the women and children up to the larger boat like sacks, while big waves rocked the boats. One man bumped his head, got dizzy, and fell down. One heavy woman fell down, lost her shoes, robe, and scarf, and suffered pain for two days. Rima and Maram think two or three people died on that boat, perhaps from drug overdoses; it came from Morocco, and they believe it was carrying heroin as well as refugees and migrants from Syria and Egypt.

It was Rima and Maram’s first time on a boat, and they became seasick. Two of their daughters couldn’t eat or even drink water properly for four days—they managed only drops of water, fresh lemon, and salt. Everyone ate lemons which a man brought around along with bags for seasickness. Everyone vomited in the bags, so they ran out of them. Although they had brought plenty of food with them (including chocolate, bread, and cheese), they were too seasick to eat it.  

After two days on the big boat, a large wave broke a window, and sea water washed over Rima’s little twin girls, leaving them wet and cold. The children were crying; everyone was crying. Rima’s husband couldn’t look at his daughters. They thought they’d die. They prayed. The boat rocked wildly. After four days and five nights, the boat broke down in the middle of the sea.

They hoped for help from Italians, since they were trying to get to Italy, and then to Germany, but Greeks came to the rescue. The refugees thanked God for their rescuers and their children’s lives and health, but they were upset to learn that they were put on a Greek boat. They didn’t want to come to Greece, because they knew it was hard to get to Germany from here.

Rima said Greece “closes the door – if we go in Greece we can’t go out” because the authorities don’t let them board planes. Rima tried twice, Maram once; Maram’s older daughters (who are 19 and 21) tried once a week, ten or twelve times, and finally succeeded. They paid $150 for a fake ID from Belgium or France, or $300 for a fake passport from the Czech Republic. One friend with a lot of money got through the first time. But generally officials took the fake ID, destroyed it, and refused to let them travel, so they lost the money paid for all the plane tickets as well as the IDs.

Why keep breaking the law, then, and giving their limited savings to criminals? With family in Germany, which has been giving asylum and support to the Syrian refugees who get there, while Greece is unable to support its own citizens during an economic crisis comparable to America’s Great Depression, and incapable of guaranteeing support or jobs for refugees, what would you have them do? Most refugees cannot find legal ways to reach a safe, prosperous country; one father said he went from embassy to embassy in Egypt in vain. A UN HCR representative informed me that for those who “have no documentation in Greece, there is no legal way for them to travel to EU or other countries unless embassies of such countries issue visas for humanitarian or other grounds, which is in practice very difficult”—except when an immediate family member is there already. So at least one family member must get to a land of safety and prosperity however they can. That is what current laws push them to do.

So Rima’s husband came to Crete with his wife and their daughters, but then he walked for 40 days to reach Germany. He now has the asylum he sought there, so the rest of the family will eventually be able to join him. Her husband would have stayed in Greece if he could have found work; Rima likes Greece. But like many Syrian refugees, Rima and Maram want to go to Germany because they expect to be able to find the jobs, support, and educational opportunities their families need, especially since the kids have barely attended school for three years. There was a good university in Syria, but now Rima supposes her girls will go to a German university after they finish high school. Once her husband learns German and gets the appropriate permit, Rima expects him to be able to cut hair or fix cars. Meanwhile, the German government is supporting him. Rima may look for a job once her girls return to school. She and Maram are thinking of opening a small restaurant featuring Syrian food, because they are good cooks—as I know from sampling some of their tasty cooking.

Additional Obstacles, Cultural, Legal, Residential, and Financial

Maram’s husband lives in Germany, where he also has a German wife. Islamic law allows up to four wives, but since German law does not, he has told German officials that he and Maram are divorced. This makes it more difficult for Maram to get permission to go there, although her husband’s German wife has shown compassionate concern for her and her children. Two of Maram’s daughters joined their father in Germany six months ago. A German friend who lives here in Greece tells us that according to the Dublin Regulation, children are supposed to be reunited with both parents, whether the parents are divorced or not. She has been trying to help Maram with paperwork to enable a family reunion in Germany. If the Germans don’t make an exception for a Syrian refugee, the Dublin Regulation may help. I very much hope Maram won’t be left behind when the rest of her family is reunited. 

Maram, Rima, and some of the other refugees from Syria have been living for 17 months in small rooms in a hotel whose owner the Greek government promised to pay for their lodging. Any time I asked the owner or his son, however, they said that they had not been paid and were having serious financial difficulties, losing income from tourists for two summers while facing bills, taxes, and loan payments. But there is nowhere else for the refugee families, which include children, to go; Crete has no shelter for them, and in Athens and other parts of Greece thousands of refugees are sleeping on the streets or in parks while waiting for their documents to be processed. The government managed to move a couple hundred out of an Athens park where they’d been camping, and into some prefabricated housing, but there are still thousands of homeless migrants and refugees waiting for processing.

Another mother I met (from Aleppo) came here with her three boys. Her husband visited from Sweden, where he’d been granted asylum. When I gave them a ride back to the hotel from the Anti-Racist Festival earlier this summer, I was struck by how little he fit the stereotype of a Muslim man or an Arab refugee. A fairly short, slim man with light skin and light, reddish curly hair, he spoke with sensitivity in very good English. His wife and her younger boys expect to join him in Sweden without any problem, but that’s not true of their 18 year old son, who is not eligible for family reunification under the Dublin Regulation at his age. Unwilling to remain in Greece without his family, any connections, knowledge of the language, or employment prospects, the 18 year old set out on the long road travelled by so many refugees, walking to Sweden from Greece to join his father. He seems to have preferred to walk that far alone, rather than remain in a foreign country by himself. I just hope Sweden will grant him asylum once he gets there.

As Europe awaits the result of Greece’s upcoming sixth general election in eight years—a pro-European majority or a revitalization of anti-bailout parties—refugees from Syria wait for permission to join family members elsewhere in Europe. Of course, these are the lucky ones, not the relatives left behind in Syria, where their houses may be bombed or their children may be shot. These are the lucky ones who made it out of the chaos of Egypt and Libya, beyond the crowded refugee camps or slums of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Most of them used to be well-off, so they could afford to pay what the smugglers demanded, and what the long journey required, assuming things went smoothly. However, their shipwreck further complicated their lives and strained their resources.

While talking with me, one of the women mentioned that they’d lost everything, left everything behind in Syria—their work and routines, their neighborhoods, their homes, and all that was in them. Tears came to their eyes as they thought about it, and all I could think of to say was “you still have your family.” But that isn’t quite right, since the surviving members of their families are scattered in several different countries.

A Lonely Artist Who Longs for His Family

Like Shamsalddin, a Palestinian refugee who had been living in Syria with his wife and two small daughters before the war, I am drawn to the arts and artistic expression, although I focus on writing and photography, while he paints and draws, and I have not been separated from my spouse and children for a year. I am not so depressed that I can barely function and don’t have the will for self-expression. I do not wonder when paperwork will be completed so I can join little six and eight year old daughters I haven’t seen all year. I have not lived in a lonely room without the job I need to support my children, worried that they might not be allowed to continue attending school since the answer to their mother’s asylum request was delayed for more than ten months.

Shamsalddin told me he used to have a good life as an artist in Syria. But then his computer, paintings, and entire home were bombed, and now they’re gone. All he has left are a few imperfect smart phone photos of his art work (pictured here). His wife and daughters are safe in Sweden, but they were granted asylum and a residence permit only recently, after a long wait. Since others received residence permits a few months after getting to Sweden, or even just two or three weeks after their arrival, Shamsalddin didn’t see why the Swedish officials wouldn’t give his wife a permit earlier. He doubted they understood how hard things were for him and his family, who live in a modest hotel like the one he is in here and eat with other asylum seekers, not at home with their family.
For many months, Shamsalddin worried that everyone in the hotel except him would soon join their families in other countries. Although he smiled at me occasionally when I visited, Shamsalddin said he worried too much about his wife and little girls to focus on painting or drawing; he just wasn’t in the mood for it. He emphasized his loneliness, and he didn’t seem to talk with other people much. He said when he is happy, he can paint very well, but when he isn’t happy he doesn’t want to paint. I tried to talk with him about letting out our pain through writing (in my case) or painting and drawing (in his case), reminding him that all art isn’t rooted in happiness. Some of his art suggests he already knows that perfectly well, but maybe he would have been more convinced to try to express himself now if I’d discussed my writing about my parents and my feelings after they died. That is the only suffering I have endured that can begin to compare with what these refugees have faced, although the circumstances were very different.

Never allow the numbers and politics to let you forget that these refugees are people like you, people with talents, skills, needs, feelings, problems, and children. The difference is that they fled cities plagued by bombing and shooting to save their children’s lives, and now they are looking for places where their children can have a safe, healthy future, an education, and hope. Yes, some refugees may have crossed borders without the appropriate papers, but if you couldn’t find a legal way out of a war zone, wouldn’t you get your children to safety any way you could? Yes, everyone has problems, yes, there are unemployment and need among the native population everywhere, but would you keep your children in a city full of bombing and shooting, or in a refugee camp or slum plagued by overcrowding, health, safety, and sanitation problems, inadequate food and water supplies, and unemployment, or would you try to take them somewhere with more to offer?

An Overview of the News and the Numbers

Recently, the New York Times  and NPR have been following fleeing refugees up to and beyond the Greek islands closest to Turkey, which has become refugees’ preferred starting point this summer on the way to more prosperous central and northern European countries. Some Greek islands in the eastern Aegean have been overwhelmed by tens of thousands of needy refugees, who then head north from mainland Greece to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Serbia, and the European country of Hungary. Aside from a short-lived struggle on the border with FYROM, Greece and its impoverished Balkan neighbors have tended to allow desperate refugees and migrants to pass through on their way to countries where they hope to find more jobs and governmental support, but Hungary has almost finished a giant wall along its 109-mile border with Serbia that is meant to push migrants and refugees away.

Every time another fence is erected, that simply pushes migrants and refugees in a different direction, or toward more unscrupulous smugglers, such as those who seem to have let 71 people die in a truck in Austria last week. Fences between Turkey and Bulgaria, Turkey and northeastern Greece, and Morocco and the Spanish territories in North Africa don’t stop people who are desperate to reach a land of opportunity, such as Germany, Sweden, Austria, France, or the UK. Germany expects to receive as many as 800,000 migrants and asylum seekers this year, and it has been the most generous country for refugees, but its leaders have warned that the country cannot continue to care for such large numbers of needy human beings.

This year, many countries—including Greece, which now has a caretaker government until the September 20 election—are struggling to cope with the huge influx of refugees, mostly from Syria, some from Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Volunteers and NGOs offer some of the food, clothing, care, services, and shelter governments do not provide, but everyone is overwhelmed by the numbers. The UN recently reported that about 310,000 refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe so far this year, with almost 200,000 of them coming to Greece, which has replaced Italy as their most popular initial destination within Europe. The UNHCR announced a 750% increase in refugees and migrants arriving in Greece by sea from January to the end of last month, compared with the same period last year, and about 76,000 more have come since then. Again and again this year, the media spotlight has reminded people that migrants and refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea at unprecedented rates. According to the UN, more than 2500 people have already died this year in their dangerous efforts to cross the sea.

In spite of repeated calls for an organized, united European response to save lives and reduce the burden on Greece and Italy, tentative agreements to relocate a mere 40,000 of the refugees in other EU countries have led to little action and many arguments with countries that just don’t want to accept refugees. The issue of migration has joined that of the common currency during the extended Greek economic crisis to raise the question of whether a united Europe remains possible. With about 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, it seems clear to me that prosperous countries in Europe, North America, the Middle East, and elsewhere should, in all fairness, act on their claims to support human rights by accepting far more refugees than they have so far agreed to.

Of course, the best solution is to solve the problems that make people leave their homelands—war, other violence, famine, poverty, forced military conscription--but that has proven extremely difficult so far. In the meantime, human beings fleeing dangerous situations need good, viable options. They do not find these in the overburdened refugee camps bordering conflict zones, or—even worse--the other spaces refugees manage to live in, many of them plagued by crime, safety concerns, and a lack of adequate healthcare, education, food, clean water, and hope. Prosperous nations need to provide more legal channels for migration and, especially, asylum for refugees, including different types of humanitarian and temporary visas and more choices and help for people fleeing war zones. These legal avenues need to be within reach of the desperate people who need them, in or near the troubled areas. If only unscrupulous smugglers offer so-called “help” to refugees, where do you expect them to turn?

Nils Muiznieks, Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, argues that “European countries have lost all sense of proportion. With a total population estimated at more than 740 million, they are among the richest and most stable countries in the world, but they pretend to be threatened by the idea of admitting 600,000 asylum seekers a year…. The values of tolerance, acceptance and solidarity have defined the European project. We cannot abandon them now, over this.” Hear, hear! Americans and others should think about the way a very similar argument applies to them, too.

Updates on Some of the Refugees Who Have Left Crete

Having seen his baby son Adam only in cell phone photos, the former Syrian restaurant owner Abdulkader Alkadi recently flew with his four children (ages 7 to 13) to join their mother and new baby brother in London, where Mrs. Alkadi had flown alone when she was pregnant, in search of medical care and a residence permit. Mohammed, whose badly burned wife Hanan is in Malta with four of their seven children, went to Athens, planning to join his family in Malta. Mahmoud, the first of the refugees to speak with me here, is in Germany with his family.

Adeeb Mayyasa, the father with a heart problem who was here with his 9-year old daughter Jode, has gone to Athens with her to request asylum in Greece. Last I heard, his wife, 17-year-old daughter, and 22-year-old son were in Egypt; some family members were unreachable, while others were killed in Syria. Mohammed Khalid and his daughter Besan are also in Athens to apply for asylum in Greece. Although they did not want to remain in Greece, given 25% unemployment and limited support services, they have no family in a prosperous nation, so they have no better prospects for asylum.

Suggestions for Further Reading


Friday, July 31, 2015

Greek Crisis, Summer 2015, Part 1: An American Immigrant in Greece

The News in a (Large) Nutshell

It is both ironic and unsurprising that I have not found time to post blog entries in the two most anxiety-provoking months of Greece’s recent political and economic crisis. I have enough material for a book (including 357 pages of news clippings this month), but time is another story. I’ve spent many days nearly overwhelmed by the dizzying array of disturbing news. I’ve spent other days caught up in the daily lives of my family, my community, and my new Syrian refugee friends.

For more details about the tumultuous Greek political and economic news (and its effect on the olive oil industry), see my Olive Oil Times articles (more are linked on the right side of the page); or if you already know the Greek news, skip to the next section. Here’s the news in a nutshell: On June 27, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras broke off negotiations with creditors and announced a referendum on whether Greece should accept creditors’ terms for more loans. Then the European Central Bank (ECB) stopped providing emergency liquidity assistance to Greek banks, the banks were closed, capital controls were imposed, and the economy sank deeper into depression. A majority of voters rejected creditors’ terms on July 5, but the prime minister accepted a similar agreement with creditors in order to save Greece from a sudden, chaotic exit from the Eurozone—which most Greeks do not want to leave.

Banks were running out of money because anxious depositors had been withdrawing their savings, fearing losses in a bail-in or a change to a devalued drachma. On June 29, with banks closed, ATMs began dispensing only 60 euros per account per day; after three weeks, an equivalent weekly limit replaced the daily one. Still in effect even with banks open again, capital controls have made life difficult for anyone trying to make major purchases, pay rent or bills, or run a farm or business, deepening Greece’s depression.

After Greece edged very close to a Grexit, the Greek parliament approved one austerity agreement after another, albeit unwillingly, with the support of Euro-friendly centrist opposition parties but without the support of about a quarter of the members of parliament from Prime Minister Tsipras’s leftist party, SYRIZA. Creditors required this approval in order to begin negotiations on another loan package and other financial assistance. After the parliamentary approval, Greece received a bridge loan to allow it to catch up on debt repayments, and the ECB resumed limited emergency liquidity assistance to Greek banks. Work on a third bailout agreement is beginning as the prime minister tries to calm dissenters in his party who are opposed to the additional austerity measures it is expected to require. The future of the SYRIZA-ANEL radical leftist/right-wing nationalist governing coalition is uncertain. Another round of national elections is likely this fall.

Many agree that reforms are desperately needed in Greece, but increasing numbers admit that additional austerity measures and still more tax increases—such as the sales tax increase already passed by Parliament—are unlikely to allow the Greek economy to recover, let alone grow, in the midst of a depression. (See, for example, this excellent article on why pensions should not be be cut more than they already have been, and taxes should not have been raised more than they already were: Pensions in Greece Feel the Pinch of Debt Negotiations.) It seems clear that Greece requires some form of debt relief, since debt at 177% of the GDP is unsustainable. Yet German leaders and their allies want to wait until fall to discuss that.

Insecurity and Frustration: Responses to Uncertainty and Limitations

Even before Tsipras called for a referendum, people were nervous. For example, my mother in law said there was havoc at a bank in Piraeus on Friday morning, June 19, when the bank ran out of money and closed early, and customers shouted that their money was being stolen from them. Even then, some were unsure if banks would open the following Monday, and they naturally wanted access to their own money in these hard times—wouldn’t you?

Recent news has been more nerve wracking than at any other time during the Greek economic crisis. With the dreaded capital controls, bank closings, and default on part of the enormous Greek debt no longer a threat, but a reality, we also approached the brink of a Grexit from the Eurozone, and many claim a Grexit could still occur, although probably not this year. More and more people have been talking about a return to the drachma, but I am relieved that it was avoided, at least for now, because I believe it would lead to shortages of imported items such as fuel and—most importantly—medicines. I do not think we would ever starve in Crete, where agricultural products literally fall off the trees in my neighborhood. (I have been collecting unwanted lemons, grapes, and figs lately, and a neighbor has given me tomatoes from her garden.) But I am concerned about Athens and other areas of less abundance, and about those whose lives depend on imported medications.

It rained the last Saturday morning in June (very unusual for that time, in Crete), shortly after the prime minister announced the referendum. A Greek neighbor said a supermarket employee commented, “so the Germans have taken our sun from us, too.” Many consider the Germans’ and their allies’ hard line on austerity at least partly responsible for Greece’s continuing depression. Others blame the Greek government. I don’t understand the logic of any of them.

I was bewildered by Tsipras’s decision to hold a referendum, since that decision led the ECB to cut off liquidity assistance and hence resulted in capital controls that have cost the country a great deal in lost business. But I was even more astonished when the prime minister urged parliament to support an agreement most consider worse than the one voters rejected. Many Greeks were furious as well as disappointed that all the hardship created by the bank closures and capital controls accompanying the referendum decision was not followed by a better deal for Greece, but (according to many) a worse one—in spite of the still-delayed possibility of debt relief, which could have been discussed in any case. The political developments of recent months have been unbelievable, but the social and economic effects have been far too real.

Many people are struggling to keep going. With salaries and pensions already cut, taxes already increased, and many just getting by before all that, how are they to manage now? Between July 1 and July 24, Doctors of the World had 275 visitors to their free medical and social services clinic in Chania, mostly unemployed Greeks. The doctors and social workers there do crucial work, helping far more people than they did before the crisis, but they cannot perform surgery there or provide endless supplies of medicine, let alone jobs. Soup kitchens are super busy, charities are underfunded, and refugees have set up camp in an Athens park; too many people need help.

The cicadas are prospering; there are so many this year that they often fly into me when I walk under the trees here in semi-rural Crete. Greek people, however, have had trouble sleeping after middle-of-the-night announcements and parliamentary debates. I’ve seen dozens of people waiting in line at ATMs in Chania since the Saturday of the referendum announcement. The roads were full of traffic that Saturday, as everyone scrambled to supermarkets to stock up on necessities and formed lines at gas stations that still had gas. Clothing and cosmetic stores were largely deserted as people focused on the necessities. However, aside from a few days of limited amounts of gasoline until payments to gas suppliers could be arranged, I have seen no shortages in supermarkets or pharmacies here at all, nor have I spoken to anyone in Greece who has seen them.

On the other hand, businesspeople lacking funds to restock their stores are struggling. NPR reported recently that the Athens Chamber of Tradesmen claims 15% of businesses could close by September if capital controls continue, on top of the 250,000 already closed during the last five years, since Greece imports 70% of the non-food items sold here, and imports are at a standstill with money transfers abroad still restricted (Struggling Greek Businesses Choked By Money Controls.) Other ordinary people are also running into problems: people like the retired priest without a bank card who lives in a village where there was no bank open for three weeks to provide the pension always claimed in cash; the educated dietician who is working three jobs, including one as a store clerk, to earn 800 euros a month, believing things can’t get any worse; the dentist unsure how she’d pay for attendance, food, and lodging at a professional conference in Europe since her credit and debit cards wouldn’t work outside Greece. And these are the lucky ones who still have jobs (probably with reduced wages and benefits), not the more than 25% of Greeks (or over half of young people) who are unemployed. I’ve heard of some who get around a lack of cash by exchanging eggs from their hens or tomatoes or greens from their gardens for a cooked meal.

Many Greeks feel insecure about their future in this time of crisis. Many are tired of discussing all the problems, and the way the “solutions” offered are not working, since more and more austerity (including too many tax increases) with too little reform just doesn’t stimulate a depressed economy—or a depressed population. Yet life goes on here—especially for the children, who do not yet realize they will inherit whatever debt their parents’ generation of Europeans does not forgive.

Remember the Children of Greece

Children finishing sixth grade face a different sort of insecurity and a different kind of change, reminding their parents that insecurity and change can be a normal part of life, not only an aspect of crisis management. With my daughter saying goodbye to her elementary school this year, the end of the academic year featured even more gatherings than usual. Aside from the annual kung fu demonstration and the yearly song and dance show featuring all the elementary school classes, families participated in an evening of games in the schoolyard, watched a Greek sixth graders’ version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and gathered for a night-time beach party.   

This may seem to confirm the myth that Greeks party too much to have real problems, but I want to emphasize that the events I’m discussing all cost very little, taking place outdoors or in public buildings, with no more money spent on contributions than one would spend on a family meal, very basic costuming assembled at home (plus one ten euro skirt), and virtually no scenery for the performances. These events are not evidence that Greeks are lazy or extravagant, but rather that they try hard to carry on as well as possible in the face of severe economic difficulty—wages down by an average of about 21% in the last five years, family incomes reduced by a third. (For some statistics, see e.g. Greeks Worry About Bailout’s Push for an Economic Overhaul). Rather than giving in to despair, most parents think a lot about   their children, and these events showed them making the most of creativity, volunteerism, imagination, determination, and community spirit for the sake of the kids.

When the elementary school parents’ association organized a big party outside our school, association members and their friends planned and refereed the games, families brought scraps of cloth, old buttons, and leftover art supplies, and money left over from families’ annual 10-euro contribution to a school fund covered souvlaki and drinks. Greeting various parents and grandparents as I hurried from one game to another to photograph both of my kids with their classmates, I felt satisfied to be part of that cheerful, close-knit community. I so often hear Greeks say “let the children be well,” “let the children have fun.” They did.

When I was in sixth grade in Pennsylvania, we managed to stage a musical version of Alice in Wonderland in the school cafeteria/gym, but that was a modest effort compared to my daughter’s class’s Greek version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Shakespeare did strike me as a surprising and over-ambitious choice for eleven year olds, especially given insufficient rehearsal time in their final venue. Even so, the combination of gracefully dancing sprites, a comically cavorting group of boyish players, and poised leads remembering many lines provided outlets for various types of talent and beauty, entertaining a good crowd of family and friends in the theater of a local community college.

This year’s annual end of school performance by all the elementary school children occurred too early in the day for working parents, shade, or comfortable temperatures, unlike the usual evening gatherings. However, “Around the World in 80 Minutes” featured joyful and sometimes impressive performances by the children, with attempts at a variety of ethnic costumes and some striking songs and dances. The show offered not only the expected stereotypical costumes and mannerisms, but also a welcome exposure to songs sung in different languages, including Chinese, Spanish, and Kannada (from India). It invited the children—almost (but not quite) all of them 100% Greek--to imagine themselves belonging to different cultures. 

The sixth graders’ night-time beach party was a modest family affair, except that children who knew nothing about campfires attempted to feed and leap over them until they were extinguished. I admired the silhouettes of children reveling in their first evening at the beach, splashing and playing in front of the setting sun, bathed in a sea of glowing reflections of the joys of childhood play. Those kids did not really doubt that their lives would go on much as they have, even in a different school with different classmates, instead of the ones they cry to think of leaving after six years together.

Gazing up at the dark starry sky during a lull in the party, when the fires had been put out and I considered my kids fairly safe, I couldn’t remember it being such a big deal to finish sixth grade, although I was scared of starting middle school. On the other hand, I have been surprised by brief scents and tastes of my childhood in the rare Greek raspberries that appeared in organic stores twice this summer, and the campfires at the beach party—minus the marshmallows we used to roast. I have a completely different life here than I did in the USA, and I am not sure what will happen to that life in this time of crisis, but I felt a sense of security as a member of a community of interwoven families at the school parties and performances

With Refugees at the Anti-Racist Festival and Tourists Enjoying the Greek Summer

The refugees from Syria who are still in Chania after 15 months do not feel the same way. Separated from parts of their families as well as their homeland, where their homes and belongings have been destroyed, waiting to reunite with husbands, wives, fathers, or mothers in another strange land, they probably feel far more insecurity than sixth graders, settled American immigrants, or even many of the Greeks who are facing an economic crisis. Attending Chania’s Anti-Racist Festival with some of the Syrian women and children I’ve met this year gave me a very different perspective than I had at last year’s festival. Sitting behind a table filled with their handmade strawberry and bergamot preserves, date-filled Syrian cookies, and Arabic calligraphy saying “My country is in my heart” and “No to racism” in what looked more like beautiful paintings than writing to ignorant me, I used my broken Greek to translate their somewhat limited English as they sold what they had made, when our German friend wasn’t there with her more fluent Greek.

It only occurred to me the next day that sitting behind a table next to Syrian Muslim women who were covered in long coats and headscarves and walking around the park with them and their children might have had more significance than simply spending time outside with new friends, looking around, and stretching our legs. After the attacks in Tunisia, France, and Kuwait at the end of last month, I realized that literally standing by Muslim women and children, joking with them, sharing food after sunset during Ramadan, tickling a little one’s feet to cheer her up after an allergic reaction to insect bites, meant more than I’d thought at the time. I just felt like I was relaxing with my new friends, helping them get out of the small hotel rooms where they spend most of their time, into a large park with anti-racist folks milling around, chatting, sharing their ideas and literature, giving lectures, playing music, selling food and drink, helping children with art projects, or reading fairytales with an egalitarian twist. And of course I was doing all of that, too.

Shortly after the Anti-Racist Festival, some American friends visited us in Greece on their way to Ukraine, where one of them has family and business partners. I wondered if they’d been asked if they would visit Syria this summer, too. Of course, their trip was planned long before anyone knew that Greek banks would be closed and cash would become scarce, and they were heading for western Ukraine rather than the trouble spots. Especially since my friends were coming with plenty of cash, I encouraged them to continue their trip here as planned. And like all the tourists I’ve heard of, they had a wonderful time here, with no problems aside from luggage delayed by a non-Greek airline. The sea is still a lovely clear aquamarine, the sky a brilliant blue. The mountains, gorges, caves, monuments, museums, and beaches are still here. The Greeks my friends met at their hotel, in Chania’s Old Port, at the Botanical Park of Crete, and at various restaurants were friendly and helpful. My American friends were able to do what they wished, and they would recommend Greece to anyone who can manage to come. They hope to come back to see more of the island, since one week is certainly not enough for a visit to Crete. Tourists, take note: Greece is a challenging place to live, but still a truly wonderful place to visit.

Summer came upon us suddenly about a week early this June, with temperatures up in the 90s, the fuschia brilliance of bougainvillea climbing out of gardens, pink and white oleander blowing in the wind by the roadsides, apricots, cherries, and honeydew ripening, cicadas’ buzzing drone occasionally replacing birdsong, multiple end of school performances and parties, and our closest brush yet with a Grexit. At the farmers’ market, I heard one vendor calling out, “peponia san baklavadakia,” or honeydew as sweet as baklava, and Crete does offer incredible fresh produce. The weather moderated into comfortable temperatures here until the end of this month, when the heat hit us again, but it is often relieved by sea breezes. Now I smell the oleander and ripening figs baking sweetly in the hot sun, reminding me repeatedly of the abundance around me on this fruitful island, where every walk gives me a view of the endless blue of the sea.

May the creditors allow Greece to take advantage of its talented people, its beautiful islands, its historical heritage, its lovely beaches, its abundant olives and other produce. May the Greeks find a way to use the great potential of the people and the land for an economic comeback. Tourists, consumers, writers, you can help too. Come to Greece, buy Greek olive oil, wine, olives, feta, and other Greek products. Write to politicians and editors in support of the Greek people. So many prominent economists blame non-Greek bankers and politicians at least as much as Greeks for the situation here that I have lost track of them. But whatever you think about the adults, Greek children are certainly not to blame for the mess the country is in. They deserve your support.