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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Autumn Events in My Cretan Neighborhood, Chania, and Greece

Life, Rescue, and Death in Our Neighborhood

Autumn Showers Bring Autumn Flowers, Lavender, Yellow, and Green

Our wet season has transformed the dry summer landscape of Crete, bringing out some of the greenery I used to see during Pennsylvania summers (carpets of grass, undulations of sorrel, bits of moss), although it often appears in olive groves here. The summer’s gray brown branches on wild hillsides are being replaced by new leaves of thyme, oregano, and other shrubs, mastic bushes full of red and black berries, autumn heather’s clusters of miniscule bell-shaped lavender blossoms, yellow wildflowers that resemble dandelions and buttercups, a few delicate little white flowers with six slender, pointy petals, and early miniature daisies. It all gets covered with so much morning dew that it’s sometimes hard to tell which nights it has rained, and which it hasn’t, although that’s not a problem when serious downpours turn our hilly, gutterless rural and village roads into rivers. With temperatures fluctuating between occasional dips into the 40s Fahrenheit at night (which feel very cold) and highs in the 70s on our warmer days, we got out winter rugs and coats but still keep some short sleeves handy.


Rescuing Kittens from a Dumpster

One day, after I threw some trash into one of the large public dumpsters used to collect all the garbage in Greece, I heard something scuffling around inside it. I stopped. Pitiful mewing. I looked. Two kittens on the bottom of an almost empty dumpster must have gone looking for food and gotten stuck. I leaned in, staining my jacket, but since the dumpster came up to my chest I could not stretch far enough to reach the kittens at the bottom. I didn’t know what to do. However much I’ve become accustomed to seeing and hearing the countless stray cats in our neighborhood and in Greece, however little I consider adopting any of them (because of our allergies), I couldn’t just leave little kittens where they could be crushed by heavy bags of household waste.

Two middle-aged men came along. I said in Greek, “There are kittens in the dumpster!” They looked at me and spoke another language, probably French. I couldn’t remember a word of the French I’d started learning in the Montreal area fourteen years ago, so I tried English and pointing: “Cats!!” I reenacted my failed attempt to reach them. The men looked in, consulted each other, and pulled the dumpster over, almost sideways, so I could reach in to the kittens. One scared kitten jumped past me; the other hissed and drew back, but I took hold of the fur on the back of its neck and quickly pulled it out. The Frenchmen (?) righted the dumpster, and we went on our way, mission accomplished. If only the problems of the unemployed and homeless people, the refugees, the sick, and the hungry humans of the world, could be solved so easily, with such immediate, cross-cultural recognition of both the problem and the way to cooperatively solve it.

Of course, even for the kittens, life isn’t really so simple. One of my aunts would have adopted them, fed them, and found good homes for them if they’d been in Kentucky. All I did was save them from immediate burial under garbage. But here, as I’ve said before, there are cats and dogs roaming all over, although I don’t know anyone in our neighborhood who “owns” a cat. Former neighbors, a Greek woman and her American husband, took all the cats in the neighborhood to a vet for neutering, except those that hovered around one house where the older man thought neutering was unnatural and refused to consent to it. In a decade, that single group has overpopulated the entire neighborhood once again.

And people drop off dogs here as if it were an open-air animal shelter. A few good souls attempt to feed, adopt, and/or neuter the strays. I was amazed when one American-born Greek neighbor told me she’d adopted and neutered the last stray dog in our neighborhood, so that all the dogs wandering around loose and dirty are actually owned by other neighbors! You’d never know it. So many Greeks use dogs as security systems and treat them accordingly, aside from food and water. I do see people walking leashed dogs, but I still think that’s a minority of the dog owners around here—and only one British woman cleans up after her pets. It’s impossible to go for a walk without running into a wandering dog or pack of dogs or stepping in the mess they deposit at will (for example, right next to my car door).

Death of a Neighbor

Around the middle of this month, an elderly neighbor died, the fifth on our short street to pass away in the twelve years I’ve lived here, and the second to die since my mother did. Kyrios (Mr.) Damianos had been fighting diabetes and its complications for years. Every day, he would walk the aged German Shepherd who died before him back and forth on the flattest street in our hilly neighborhood, raising his cane in greeting and stopping to chat. Sometimes he would disappear for a trip to the hospital, when his family had caught a crisis in time to save him. Then he would reappear, looking frailer, walking more slowly, but continuing his daily exercise routine, always friendly and kind, until he could no longer leave his home. Kyria (Mrs.) Panayiota, Kyrios Damianos’s wife, devoted herself to his care, refusing to hire a woman to help as most affluent Greeks do, bathing her husband with her son’s assistance, only leaving twice aside from visits to the supermarket or to take out the garbage—the only times I saw her outside. We stopped a few times to compare notes about diabetes in the family, to talk about her husband, my diabetic mother, and my own health prospects as the daughter of parents with diabetes and heart disease.  

The day Kyrios Damianos died, I stopped by his house briefly at the beginning of an all-night vigil with his body, which was buried under white flowers in an open coffin, only his face showing, white and still, waxy and unreal. The sweet scent of the large white bouquets nearby reminded me of my mother’s memorial service (although the flowers there were more colorful). I expressed my sympathy using the word I’d learned by hearing it so often after Mom died, “silipitiria,” and the addition D mentioned, “zoe se sas,” life to you. I glanced at Kyrios Damianos but did not touch him or make the sign of the cross, as my next-door neighbor Kyria Katina later did; I did not know what I was supposed to do and did not feel comfortable paying as much attention to the dead as to the living who were there to mourn. Other neighbors who had lost parents were also present; as I whispered to two of them, we understood loss and grief. Kyria Panayiota was remarkably composed at first, but she broke down on the phone with a relative, and after she moved closer to the side of the coffin, next to her son, she began an affectionate, tearful lament addressed to her husband. At some point I began to cry, too; I think it was the flowers and the memory of Mom that got me started, but I was also crying for that kind neighbor and his family.

I find the all-night vigil that lasts until the funeral the next day one of the cruelest of the Greek Orthodox customs surrounding death: force the bereaved to stay awake all those hours and endure the funeral in a haze of exhaustion. Perhaps it’s a cathartic way for some to say goodbye, but my own naturally upset sleeplessness provided more than enough exhaustion after my parents died; an entire night out of bed would have pushed me to physical illness that would have deepened my depression. Three and six days later, Greek family members attend more memorial services, and forty days later, there is another public memorial service. A year later, they do it again. The funeral does not provide closure for the exhausted mourners here; the living are not allowed to try to move on as soon as they can manage. Rather, the grief must be publicly reawakened repeatedly before the bereaved are allowed to try to put it behind them. Of course, the grief is reawakened naturally, over and over, for years; my complaint is that there is a prescribed formula here, rather than a natural, personal process of grieving and healing. I readily admit, though, that this probably makes more sense—maybe even provides some sort of comfort--to at least some of those who have grown up with the tradition, if not to the Greek friends with whom I’ve discussed it.

Education and Commemoration in the Community

Science and Technology Day for Children

This year’s Science and Technology Day for elementary school students at the Technical University of Crete on a Saturday in mid October was even better than last year’s. Attendance more than doubled to about 4,000 this year, thanks to the experience and dedication of the wonderful director, Dr. Elia Psilakis, her staff, and hundreds of volunteers, mostly students and faculty members. I helped with safety checks in the impressive university building that housed it (tricky as it was to childproof), as well as offering a few scattered ideas. While almost everyone else involved helped more than I did, it felt good to be doing a bit of community service and university business again for a change, as if I really belong here in Chania.   

D and his team of students and postdocs presented a child-friendly version of some of their work with geostatistics that focused on the use of statistics to predict things like the weather and where lignite might be found underground (complete with photos of mining equipment and a discussion of how lignite is used to produce electricity in Greece). His group had found some amusing cartoons as well as beautiful colorful fractals to show off. Our kids appreciated their father’s efforts. Our American friends, a mother and her ten year old son, didn’t understand even as much of it—or of anything that day—as I did, but they also enjoyed the day, since there was so much to see and do. Every so often, my son would say he was tired and wanted a break and a snack, but then his attention would be distracted by yet another interesting exhibit, and he’d forget about the break—for almost four and a half hours. That’s pretty impressive for him, and good evidence of how impressed he was with the science day.

There were the traditional microscopes to look through, experiments with plant dye, magnets to play with, electric current demonstrations, chemistry experiments with salt and baking soda, and a few schoolkids’ science projects, plus a newfangled combination of computers and plants for computerized determination of watering needs. The kids were especially excited by the “Earth through the Eye of Technology” presentation of a flying drone in an open-air atrium, as well as a motion sensor camera that put them into movie scenes projected on the wall; electric cars that had been built by students and won trophies in races; little robotic cars, grabbers, and helicopters; glow in the dark chemistry experiments; colorful laser lights; computer games designed by university students; and the opportunity to program traditional Greek puppet theater (Karagiozis) shows on computers themselves.

The computer games and some of the virtual reality oddly came under the heading of “Bob the Builder,” and the laser lights were part of cluster of exhibits introduced with cute Greek word play: Physi ke Physiki ke Physika … Physiki (Φύση και Φυσική και Φυσικά...Φυσική), or Nature and Physics and Naturally…Physics. We had to drag the kids away from the drones and computers, but then they went wild over a wonderful area near the exit where some faculty and students from the school of architecture had set up an origami table, a maze of large, linked cardboard boxes, a jungle-type movie area, and a fascinating group of machines that included a virtual reality headset. It was almost 8:00, closing time, and the place was mobbed. I asked a professor if they’d call it a day soon, and he replied that the students were tired after a full day of preparation and presentation, but they didn’t have the heart to tell the deeply engaged children to leave.

October 28, Ohi Day

The rain played havoc with our Ohi (“No”) Day parade in Chania, which honors the 1940 decision of Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas not to let Mussolini’s forces enter and occupy Greece, as well as the fierce resistance by Greek fighters who defeated the Italians when they attempted to enter Greece from Albania, thus diverting the Germans, delaying their invasion of Russia, throwing the Nazis into the Russian winter, and changing the course of World War II. I most admire those who find ways to avoid violence and killing, but even I consider the Greek military’s humiliation of Mussolini and frustration of Hitler impressive, since I acknowledge that that was one of the times when people had good reason for armed resistance.

When it was time to take our daughter to march next to the Greek flag with her elementary school class, rain was pouring down, and thunder was rumbling in the distance. As we drove toward town at 11:15, I received a call saying that the parade had been cancelled. Confirming that, we decided to buy our kids some hot chocolate to save the day, but shortly after our hot drinks arrived, at the original meeting time for my daughter’s class, I received two more phone calls about the reversal of the cancellation. So we requested takeout cups and hurried off again, reaching the meeting point just before noon, when the parade should have started. Apparently the governor had originally cancelled the elementary schoolchildren’s participation in the parade, and then, seeing that the weather had cleared up, revoked the cancellation. There’s no such thing as a rain date in Greece—or advance notice. (“I don’t have school tomorrow” is not an uncommon claim—I heard it last week, for example.)

So half the class was assembled in confusion, and the principal was there without the Greek flag, badges, white gloves, and neckerchiefs the children were supposed to use. She’d sent someone to get them. Meanwhile, mothers photographed kids in their black and white parade outfits, and every so often more desperate children would run through the crowds in search of their classes. We were still tying on neckerchiefs and distributing badges and gloves when the gym teacher who’d led the marching drills insisted that everyone take their places, and we all rushed toward the beginning of the parade, parents and children alike.

D and I took our son on ahead in search of a high-enough vantage point, which turned out to be café steps. Our daughter’s class soon marched along with their flag, preceded and followed by more and more classes of almost identically dressed schoolchildren in identical rows. We couldn’t watch too much, because we had to scramble around to meet our daughter at the end of the parade route, and that turned out to involve an 8-block detour around town to avoid the VIP watchers’ stand, to my astonishment and annoyance. After collecting our daughter, we returned to watch the uniformed military squadrons, including chanting green berets and other special forces, with their weapons, flags, instruments, and even some skis. Our son was bored by everything but the weapons and the WWII vintage military vehicles, some of them full of small children. That struck me as just as incongruous as the police in riot gear near the area where the schoolchildren were gathering before the parade, but later I learned that protestors had thrown stones during past parades.

That was my first experience of a serious Greek parade (as opposed to a Carnival celebration). I knew it wouldn’t include the colorful floats or baton-twirling pageantry of American parades, so I was able to appreciate the cultural experience, complete with the weather-induced drama, rushing around, and detours. I wasn’t left with any time to get bored watching rows and rows of marching children, but thanks to the detour, I missed the colorful costumes of the Cretan dancers. I’m obviously too used to contemporary American pomp and circumstance, flash and color, to fully appreciate a simple parade for a serious holiday. On the other hand, I considered the giant cartoon-character balloons hovering over the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the spectators wearing silly turkey hats surprisingly tacky and lacking in creativity. I haven’t been in the U. S. at Thanksgiving for a long time and only saw photos of the parade; I didn’t realize it had come to that. At least Greeks are honest about, and aware of, the point and history of their holidays.

Protests, Strikes, Struggles, and Needs in Greece and Beyond

Giving Thanks and Eating, or Striking and Protesting Still More Austerity

Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Greece, but our children still had the day off because of a general strike, the first really big one here since last April. As workers, including teachers, protested the usual problems arising from the excessive austerity measures here, D discussed the relative merits of Batman and Spiderman with our son over the turkey legs and thighs that had to content us since whole turkeys are only sold in Greece around Christmas time. For a truly American touch, I baked an apple pie, although I combined my mother’s recipe for the filling with a newer one for an olive-oil-based crust more appropriate in Crete.

The governing coalition and its supporters understandably like to boast about improvements in Greece’s economy. However, the return to growth, improved credit rating, and primary budget surplus (which excludes the enormous debt and interest payments) fail to impress others, since most of us don’t actually see any tangible signs of real improvement. On the other hand, those who aren’t too sick of the topic and the situation can go on and on about the remaining problems that have arisen from a six-year recession and the troika’s recipe for severe austerity, which the government has followed. We can discuss the way spending cuts have reduced wages and pensions by an average of almost 50%, while unemployment is still hovering around 26% overall and vastly higher for young people, and that is all made worse by major tax increases and an increasingly inadequate social safety net (see, for example, A Sea Change in Greece? and Greeks Go On Strike Over New Austerity Measures).

According to Unicef, “[i]n Greece in 2012 median household incomes for families with children sank to 1998 levels – the equivalent of a loss of 14 years of income progress”; between 2008 and 2012, child poverty here increased from 23% to 40.5% (2.6 million more children plunged into poverty in rich countries during Great Recession and Unicef Innocenti Report Card 12). And, as the headline puts it, a recent International Labor Organization “report warns of prolonged social crisis unless steps are taken in employment” stimulation in Greece. Yet the troika still wants more austerity, even more tax increases! I cannot believe that educated, thinking people could propose such a thing—isn’t the troika composed of educated, thinking people? Many prominent economists—for example, Nobel Laureate  Paul Krugman--agree that all this “austerity” is not only unfair, but downright harmful to Greece and Greeks, and probably Europe and the world as well.

Syrian Refugees in Crete and Athens: Illness, a New Boatload, Protest and Hunger Strike

I received several phone calls last week about a Syrian refugee who had a heart attack and urgently needs medical treatment if his nine-year-old daughter is not to be left here without a living father, her only relative in Greece. Jode’s father Adeeb, whom I’ve met, was in the public hospital in Chania for a week after his heart attack, and now he needs an angiogram and additional care and medication which he has no insurance or money to cover. A Syrian who has been living in Chania for thirty years has been trying to help him, translating and attempting to make arrangements, but he called me to ask if I could help raise money for this. As I told another one of the refugees a month or two ago, it’s much easier to convince people here to donate food and clothing than money these days; in crisis-ridden Greece, most are barely getting by, if that. So I don’t know whom to ask. My Greek friend K has been in touch with the local branch of Doctors of the World, which does not have the facilities for the procedure Jode’s father needs, but we hope they will be able to help arrange for his care. Still, the question remains: who can pay for it? Can anyone out there help out? If so, let me know!

The people involved with local migrant support groups that K and I have appealed to on Adeeb’s behalf have not responded, but I don’t blame them; they’ve already done a great deal for so many migrants and refugees. Now, I think they may be down in the southeastern Cretan town of Ierapetra, overwhelmed with the effort to help a new boatload of 585 migrants, mostly Syrian refugees, whose boat’s engines stopped working in the rough sea 70 nautical miles from Crete so they had to be towed to our island on Thanksgiving day (Harrowing sail ends in Greece for Syrian refugees). They were taken to an indoor basketball arena that is being used as temporary housing. What will happen next, I don’t know, since almost a third of the refugees who arrived in Crete last spring are still in unsupported limbo here (as I said in last month's blog post), and the Greek government has so far provided very little support for all the Syrian refugees already in Athens and elsewhere.

With all of this in mind, I was astonished by a New York Times article about a company’s spending over one million dollars on Christmas decorations (Splurging on Opulent Holiday Displays at the Office), while about two hundred Syrian refugees, including a number of children, have been camping out in the cold in front of the Parliament building in Syntagma Square in Athens since November 19, asking the Greek government for the housing, health care, and education international law decrees are due to war refugees, as well as for travel documents that would allow them to travel to other European countries to apply for asylum. (See, e.g., Syrian refugees seek fresh start from Greek destitution and the Syrian refugees’ and supporters’ Tweets.) Even after several of the protesting refugees began a hunger strike on November 24 in an attempt to get the attention of the Greek government and the slow-to-respond media, the government said the refugees’ only option was to apply for asylum in Greece. The Greek government says it is neither able to issue a travel document allowing the refugees to travel in Europe, nor to provide accommodation for all the Syrian refugees, many of whom had been sleeping in an Athens park before moving to Syntagma Square.

Several of the protesting refugees have fainted from hunger and cold and required hospitalization. True, Greece is still struggling to extricate itself from a recession and 26% unemployment, but why can’t it at least let the refugees leave? (The answer: a flawed European law.) And how can a company spend a million dollars on decorations? How much food, shelter, and medical care could that money provide? (A lot; I’ve emailed them to ask for a tiny fraction of that for Adeeb.) While those decorations may bring joy to many New Yorkers and tourists, the cost seems excessive to someone who's become accustomed to the modest, reusable decorations typical of cash-strapped Greece. Even in glamorous New York City, where everything's done on a different scale, surely one or two Christmas tree cutouts or giant wreaths could be sacrificed; it’s likely that viewers will survive with only $997,000, or maybe even a mere $500,000, worth of decorations from one company. But I don’t know if the refugees will all make it.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Syrian Refugees in Chania: An In-Depth Update, After 7 Months Here

Fleeing Bombs, Facing the Waves, Fearing the Future

Mahmoud was not happy to be staying in a beachfront hotel on a Greek island. He hated the beach and the sea. For migrants like him who fled the war in Syria, life in Greece is no vacation. He and 152 other refugees from Syria were brought to the island of Crete (where I live) against their will last spring, when their rusty, overloaded smugglers’ boat could not make it to Italy, which many refugees view as a gateway to the countries in Europe that are most hospitable to them.

I spoke with Mahmoud, Adeeb, Abed, Samir, and several other Syrian and Palestinian refugees here in Chania, Crete three times recently, once after taking them a carload of food that families at my children’s Greek public school had gathered for the refugee families (thirty-five or forty people, including fifteen to twenty children) who are still here. These refugees have been stuck here since the Greek Coast Guard brought them to the island on March 31. I think that’s their boat in the photo from The Guardian linked here; the caption certainly seems to refer to them. 

I can turn away from the cell phone video taken on the twenty-four-meter boat carrying over four hundred migrants from Egypt and Syria when the rough waters of the Mediterranean make the boat rock so much that it upsets my stomach just to watch the video. I don’t have to stay on the boat for ten days to escape falling bombs and buildings that crash down on top of men, women, children, and babies. I can turn away from the crumpled  photo of Hanan, the Syrian mother of seven whose right arm was so severely burned when a bomb struck her Damascus home that most of the skin is red and raw, and metal instruments are poking into it. I don’t have to feel the terror or the pain of the burn; I don’t have to live with the scar or fear that my arm may be amputated. I can turn away from the video of some men torturing another man with a knife, and then stabbing him, which I was told came from somewhere in Syria. I am in little danger of torture or stabbing here on a Greek island. But when I pull the smart phone showing the video away from four year old Joad, the fathers from Syria who showed it to me tell me that I don’t need to protect their children from a mere video, since they have already seen a hundred real dead bodies.

And they could not simply turn away from them. Struggling to protect their children from real dangers, the refugees attempted a risky voyage on a small, overloaded boat where the food ran out after six days, and water was rationed for another four, before it began to take on water, and a rescue became necessary. I can barely imagine tolerating ten days like that myself, let alone with my children hungry, thirsty, and exhausted beside me. And then the terror of sinking into the waves.

An End to Life as They Knew It: “The War Is Eating Everything”

The Syrians and Egyptians on that boat, and the Palestinians who had lived in Syria, did tolerate it. Even so, they did not reach their intended destination; they were brought to Crete in Greece, leaving many separated from mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, or brothers. The seriously injured Hanan’s husband Samir ended up in Crete. Hanan and four of their children, ages 1 ½, 7, 14, and 23, were on another boat that began to sink, and they were taken to Malta. Samir told me his wife was informed that she and her sick toddler could only receive hospital care there if they first applied for asylum in the tiny island nation, where they have no desire to stay. (Is that not a human rights violation? I have asked someone at the UNHCR.) They want to go to Sweden or some other country with a good program to help refugees, a country that would allow surgery on her arm to save it from the amputation they fear could be necessary without prompt treatment. But Hanan and the children are stuck on one island, and Samir is stuck on another. Their married children are in Syria, Turkey, and Jordan. They don’t know what to do.

Adeeb, here with his delicate, bashful 9-year old daughter Jode, told me that in Syria he had money, a home, a job—a comfortable life. He traveled to Italy, India, and the USA. But that is all in the past. His four-story building was destroyed by a bomb. He said, “The war is eating everything … my home, my car, everything.” Jode has not been to school in three years; none of these children have, aside from a month now in the local Greek school with a language foreign to them. Adeeb’s wife, 17-year-old daughter, and 22-year-old son are in Egypt. Three other grown children and two grandchildren were living in Duma, Syria (near Damascus) when he last heard from them two years ago, but he recently decided that they must have been killed in the war. He learned on the internet that his wife’s sister, husband, and family died in Duma in mid September when their building was bombed, falling on top of them and killing twenty-one people. 

Abed was the only father I spoke with who was here with his whole family--his pregnant wife and their four children--at the beginning of the month. But during our most recent conversation, he told me that his wife had gone to London. She has a problem with a foot that was deformed in a childhood accident and needs an operation she could not get here, and they think she may give birth to twins in a few months. Abed is considering selling one of his organs because he needs money. In Syria, he owned a restaurant; he showed me a photo of it on his cell phone, with a huge amount of meat for a gyro on a spit. But in Syria, he says, he could die. His family was in Gota Alsharkea (beside Damascus), where his restaurant was bombed. He told me, with Mahmoud translating, that while he was still in Syria 1 ½ years ago, he was trying to give some people food and money and take them to the hospital, but the Assad government wanted to imprison him for that. He escaped to Egypt, but the government caught his two brothers. One was killed and the other put in prison. He showed me the videos and photos taken on the boat and in Syria. 

Mahmoud, a Palestinian refugee who had been living in Damascus, also ended up in Crete with three of his children (11, 15, and 17 years old) and one nephew (11) whose parents and siblings are in Egypt. His married daughter is in Sweden with her husband and 5 year old son; his wife and adorable baby have managed to reach Germany, where they receive two hundred euros every ten days for living expenses. (I saw their photos.) Mahmoud hasn’t seen them for six months, but he wants to take his other children to Germany, too, because he views it as a country with a good program for refugees, unlike Greece with its 26% unemployment, where he can’t even get the job he wants very much in order to support his family and offer them a good future.  Desperate for a way to do this and lacking legal options, he admitted that he tried to use forged passports to leave Greece with two of the children. But the authorities stopped him at the airport. “If you don’t want me, want to help me, why catch me?” he asks. “I want my future,” he says, and, even more, he wants a future for his children. He was a merchant, but he lost his home, office, everything. 

Unfinished Business: The State Has Still Not Paid for the Refugees’ Hotel Stay

Ioannis (Yannis) Volikakis, owner of the Elena Beach Hotel in Nea Chora, Chania, where the Syrians have been staying for nearly seven months, has done far more than anyone should expect a private individual to do, providing these refugees with rooms, as well as meals for four months--until the government said to stop giving the refugees food, and let them find it where they can. Kyrios (Mr.) Yannis, as the Syrians call him, provided for 140 individuals in the first months, with forty or so  staying there even now. Yet he says he has not been paid a single euro for all the electricity, water, and laundering of linens, plus three meals a day, although he also lost all the money he should have earned at the hotel during the summer tourist season, as well as a great deal of revenue from his café and restaurant there. Kyrios Yannis told me the government tossed the refugees into his hotel and said goodbye, without sending anyone to check on the children or paying any of the expenses he incurred during their stay, in spite of a verbal agreement for such payment and his repeated appeals to the regional and federal governments. Apparently the 10,000 euros the EU contributed for the care of the refugees was given to the exhibition center where they stayed for just their first few days on Crete—but nothing for the hotel owner who says he has lost hundreds of thousands of euros and has now missed three loan payments. What does the government think he is, he wonders, “the bank of Chania”? He said the police tried to evict the refugees at one point, but the Syrians refused to leave, and Yannis told me they were right: where were they to go, without another place to house their children?

Why Are They Stuck? Trouble with Smugglers and Laws

We are looking for [a] COUNTRY! SYRIA IS GONE. We dream to live in safety please. You saved us from the sea, now help us to leave!!

These messages appeared on posters held by some of the Syrian children last spring. Why do they want to leave? The fathers who told me about the death, destruction, and separation their families had endured during Syria’s war are looking for a country that could offer refugees more help finding safe homes, healthy food, and good schools for their children, a country where they could find jobs and rebuild their lives. Publications by the UN HCR and non-governmental organizations offer support for the Syrians’ belief that Greece is not such a country. It is struggling to support its own citizens and the immigrants and refugees already here, given the recession that has increased social and political unrest, racism, and xenophobia in the face of more than 26% unemployment, a health care crisis, a 33% decrease in household incomes since 2010, increased taxes many cannot afford to pay, and 164 billion euros (about 90% of the Greek gross domestic product) in bad debts. So the men I spoke with have not applied for asylum or official refugee status here. (I apply the term “refugees” to them as the word is commonly, rather than officially, understood, since they have fled a war-torn nation.) Mahmoud emphasized that he felt a “need to leave Greece,” because he had seen little governmental support for refugees here. In countries that offer better refugee support programs, he said, “you are a free man”—but in his view they “just stay here like animals.” 

Given the contrast with the desperate refugees fleeing on foot to overcrowded apartments or tents in camps just over the Syrian or Iraqi border, this may seem hard to believe, and I think that’s why I have been unable to interest the American Embassy, the New York Times, and the Guardian in these families’ stories. Yes, they have a roof over their heads—at the moment. Yes, they are in a fairly safe land with a fairly mild climate. Yes, they are managing to find at least some food for their children, and people are giving them second-hand clothes. But think about it. How would you feel in their shoes? Relieved to escape bombings, murderers, and drowning, yes, but then what? As far as I can tell, the people who manage to get this far from Syria tend to be the ones who were better off financially and better educated, those who enjoyed a lifestyle that must have been comparable in some ways to that of middle class Americans. These parents and I have similar aspirations for our children. These fathers do not want to sit around, unemployed, in a hotel from which they could be ejected at any time, and ask for food at churches and soup kitchens. They want to get jobs to support their families, live in their own homes, educate their children in a country where they can envision a good future for them. (I have not learned what the mothers want, since none of them speak Greek or English, and I do not speak Arabic or know anyone here who does.)

Ideally, the United Nations and the wealthy countries of the world should provide far more resources to bring peace and overcome the humanitarian crises in the war-torn, poverty-stricken, and famine and disease-ridden nations so many human beings are fleeing in search of safer lives—and some are doing that now, most notably in the fight against Ebola. Obviously, the root causes of migration need to be addressed in order to eliminate people’s need to leave their countries, but that is an enormous undertaking. On a more limited level, I want to focus on two problems now. 

One is smugglers, their methods, and the reasons they are used. The costly Evros and Melilla fences in Greece and Spain do not stop migrants as intended, but rather make attempts to escape the problems in Africa and the Middle East more dangerous, especially when ruthless smugglers provide unsafe boats, urge migrants to puncture inflatable boats before reaching shore to inspire rescue efforts, or even murder their clients by sinking boats, as in the case of five hundred men, women, and children who were killed in mid September, including one of Mahmoud’s friends, along with his wife and two daughters. (Of the ten survivors, six, including a seventeen-month old child who was doing astonishingly well a month ago, were brought to hospitals in Crete for care.) Mahmoud has heard of hundreds of migrants who were “swallowed by the sea,” and in fact thousands draw out coast guard, military, and commercial boats for expensive rescue attempts which fail too often. 

The refugees I spoke with emphasized the dangerous nature of the sea voyage from Egypt to Italy. Usually, Mahmoud suggested, there are fifty, sixty, or one hundred people on one of those small boats, not four or five hundred, which is far too dangerous, as in his case and the case of the recent murderous tragedy. Some of the Syrians and Palestinians here say they paid smugglers $3,000 to $3,500 per adult, with some children free, and others half price. Yet, to my surprise, none of them complained about the smugglers; they complained more about the Greek government and the Assad government, about having too little good food, too little help, and being unable to go where they feel they need to go. I wonder if this is because the smuggling and the boat trip are in the past now, while they’re focusing on their present problems. Or maybe it’s that the smugglers at least got them somewhere far from Syria, while the Greek government is getting them nowhere. In any case, the smugglers did not get them where they had agreed to take them, and a number of the would-be refugees remain in a stateless limbo.

The other problem I want to discuss here arises from the Dublin Regulation, which generally requires those who seek asylum in Europe to do so in the first European country they enter, like it or not—except in certain cases of family reunification--and thus concentrates refugees on the struggling outer perimeter of the EU, putting immense pressure on Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, and Greece and limiting the legal choices of the asylum seekers. That’s why the Syrians and Palestinians have been stuck in Greece: now that they are here, the law requires them to apply for asylum here if they want asylum in Europe. Many have heard that Greece is having a hard time taking care of its own, and that human rights organizations have sharply criticized the prevalence of racist violence here, as well as the conditions in some of its migrant detention centers. So many migrants try to bypass Greece, even if it’s closer to their starting point, to reach Italy. Those “aided” by smugglers thus increase their risk of drowning by lengthening their trips in unseaworthy boats in order to avoid getting stuck in a country with little to offer refugees. If they do get stuck here, they don’t always agree to apply for asylum, since doing so would end their chances of obtaining asylum in other European countries they still hope to reach, although they are not allowed to enter them legally.

Solutions for the Syrians and Other Refugees?

The cost of the Dublin Regulation and the fences is too high in euros and, especially, lives. It is unrealistic to expect that the Melilla and Evros fences will be pulled down after millions of euros were spent building them, but it should be easier to dismantle a misguided agreement. I concur with human rights organizations such as the European Council on Refugees and Exiles and Pro Asyl that the European Union should abolish or “fundamentally reform” the Dublin Regulation. If asylum seekers were allowed to choose the country where they wished to submit their application and legally go there directly, there would be a less overwhelming number of people needing housing, food, clothing, education, and processing of asylum requests in the perimeter countries that are currently struggling, and in many cases failing, to provide humane treatment and prompt processing. While there is now some provision for family reunions, asylum seekers should also be allowed to head to countries where they have cultural or linguistic ties or reasonable expectations of employment or financial support, thus facilitating their integration into new communities. 

The New York Times Editorial Board recently suggested setting up application centers for asylum seekers in Egypt and Libya. I would add Turkey, both because of the tens of thousands of people fleeing to that country from Syria recently, and since it is another starting point for migration to Europe. Application centers could be useful if prosperous nations would offer asylum to more of the refugees who are fleeing life-threatening situations in their homelands, and settle them in communities where they could find jobs. Some criticize this idea because of the problems migrants already face in these countries, but I urge the UNHCR, perhaps with the help of a respected international NGO—but not the troubled national governments of Egypt and Libya--to consider trying to administer such a program at an international level. If more desperate people are offered hope of a better life by legal means, fewer are likely to turn to smugglers. The thousands of dollars per person that desperate migrants are paying smugglers could be put to better use to buy tickets for safe, legal transportation, saving lives and decreasing the need for expensive rescue missions. I ask the most prosperous countries of the world to help more of these struggling parents and children resettle in nations that can offer them the safety, health, education, and jobs they seek, and I ask the international community to try to work out a way for the refugees to resettle without turning to smugglers. 

Michael Kimmelman’s July article about the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, which turned into “an informal city: a sudden, do-it-yourself metropolis of roughly 85,000,” raises another possibility, especially given the enormous numbers of refugees now fleeing Syria, Iraq, and other nations. Perhaps more permanent refugee “camps” that become cities could present a viable option for those without the means to travel. I realize that this is not an ideal solution, given serious problems with violence, abuse of women, and criminality in such city-camps. But if these new cities could be transformed into largely self-sustaining, productive, safe, healthy entities that could contribute to the larger economy rather than being a drain on it, this idea could be promising. 

When a country fails to take care of all its residents, it is understandable if citizens fail to see how their nation could offer refuge to more impoverished people. The tragedy of unemployed, impoverished Greeks committing suicide in order to avoid burdening their families or dying because they can no longer afford adequate medical care is just as horrible as the tragedy of Syrians and Iraqis being killed in wars or migrants drowning in the Mediterranean. But with thousands and thousands of human beings dying in Syria, in Iraq, and in the Mediterranean Sea—as well as in Central America, Africa, and elsewhere--think about how you’d feel if your children or grandchildren were in danger of being killed by gangs, extremists, or war. Wouldn’t you want to take them to a place where they could be safe? Mahmoud, Adeeb, and their friend Mohammed did, and Samir told me they recently set off for northern Greece, planning to take their daughters and nephew on foot from there to Germany, where Mahmoud’s wife and baby are now.

Far from most of my family and old friends due to my own chosen migration, although in comfortable circumstances among people I love, I believe refugees also long for those who share their past and their memories. Having lost my father and my mother to heart attacks, I expect that the refugees feel a similar strong, deep pain, regret, and emptiness after the loss of loved ones to war. As one of Nea TV’s videos about the Syrians in Chania asks in a message like those that pop up on the computer, “Are you sure you want to delete all feelings?” If not, advocate more assistance for refugees. There are more of them than there have been since World War II, with no sign that their problems will be solved any time soon. I urge empathy, or at least sympathy, for all human beings in need. 

Many thanks once again to the Syrian and Palestinian refugees as well as Ioannis Volikakis for discussing their situations with me. 

For more about the Syrian and Palestinian refugees, see my last two blog entries and two videos produced by a local television station:

Προσφυγόπουλα από τη Συρία (Refugee children from Syria), a Nea TV show on the Θερινή ’Ωρα (Summer Time) program, in Greek and English. (The commentator speaks Greek to the audience, but she speaks English with the Syrians, as the Syrian doctor and his daughter do.)