Saturday, October 31, 2015

October in Greece: More Refugees, Taxes, and Worries—And More Donations, Volunteers, Innovation, and Energy

Refugees Fleeing Bombings and Racing to Beat Winter Storms

Cumulus Clouds Over the Mediterranean Sea
October in Crete comes with cumulus clouds decorating a sky that is vast and visible. Rain brings out tiny green leaves on wild lavender and savory shrubs, and clusters of little red berries on mastic bushes brighten the rugged hillsides. I can appreciate the rebirth of the wild autumn landscape during the rains that follow the long, dry Greek summer, but not everyone can. The small group of refugees from Syria that is still here in Chania waited in the city for my delivery of friends’ and neighbors’ coats and winter clothes after a recent drop in the temperature. “Maram” and one of her daughters, another mother with two sons (one the same age as mine), and Shamsalddin, a Palestinian artist from Syria, are too anxious to join their families in Germany or Sweden to focus on the scenery of a Greek island. I can understand their unrest; I would not want to live in a small hotel room for a year and a half, missing family members in a far-off country. But at least they are safe, warm, and dry.

A Syrian Refugee Boy in Chania
That is not true of thousands of the refugees passing through Greece, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria on their way to Germany, or for many of the overwhelming numbers of refugees Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey are struggling to feed and shelter. Repeated meetings among European and Balkan leaders have led to few answers to the question of how to help so many people. The latest emergency summit yielded agreements on more communication, funding, border guards, police, and registration personnel, repatriation of economic migrants, efforts to stop human smuggling, and more “reception centers” for 100,000 refugees in Greece and the western Balkans. But that is just talk among officials in a warm, dry room, as refugee families wait outside in cold rain for tangible results. A trio of New York Times writers opines that the “plan that emerged at a summit meeting in Brussels last weekend appears doomed.” I hope they are wrong; the refugees do not need any more doom.

Rough Sea, Chania
This year, the number of refugees trying to reach Europe by sea has not yet decreased in the face of lower temperatures and worsening weather as it did in previous years. Rather, large numbers are rushing to beat the winter and the fear of possible new fences in Austria and Slovenia and to escape intensified fighting in Syria and worsening conditions in refugee camps. So far in 2015, about 560,000 refugees and migrants have entered Greece by sea, with a total of 700,000 crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration. Quite a lot when you consider that President Obama only recently agreed to settle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the USA over the next year—a very small fraction of the half million Germany has already accepted or the million it expects.

It’s easy to write that 3,200 women, men, and children have died trying to reach Europe, but it’s harder to dwell on photos of the babies and children among them, and harder yet to seriously consider how it would feel if your own child was one of them. Click here for a photo of a baby saved (alive, I hope) along with 273 others off Lesbos, Greece last Wednesday, when another one year old, a four year old, and fourteen others drowned in the same wreck. Almost fifty have died in wrecks in that area during the past few days alone. Why should the babies’ parents have been desperate enough to put them on boats in dangerous seas? Why couldn’t these human beings have been granted asylum while outside Europe, instead of embarking on a potentially fatal journey to get into it? The mayor of Lesbos, the Greek island where over 300,000 refugees have arrived from nearby Turkey in 2015, recently asked the same question. He urged that refugees be processed in Turkey or at least brought to Greece on passenger ships. That might help avoid the drowning of another 100 babies and children in the Aegean—the number lost in just the last two months.

Ferry Boat, Port of Piraeus
But what about the hundreds of thousands who make it to Europe alive? As Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said the other day, “Dead children always incite sorrow, but what about the children that are alive who come in thousands and are stacked on the streets? Nobody likes them." They also need better solutions.

I was surprised that President Obama advocated “Crowdfunding to Aid Fleeing Syrians as part of that solution. I think of crowdfunding as something regular people like me turn to when they can’t think of any other way to raise money to help those in need. But the President of the United States? Syrian refugees do need all the money they can get, and since the American government emphasized that the crowdfunding would not be used to replace governmental funding, I suppose it’s a good thing. In spite of continuous reports on the refugee crisis, the extra press coverage for this White House appeal is not superfluous. Aid agencies remain so underfunded that they cannot provide adequate food to refugees in camps. I was horrified to hear on NPR that some Syrians are returning to their bombed-out hometowns because they consider it more likely that they will find a way to feed their children there. What a world—too little food to risk staying in refugee camps, so it’s safer to return your children to a war zone?

On the other hand, my cousin Bill wrote to me from his home in Germany, “Here I sit on the happy end of the whip, right near that whip hand, while you take the dual internal and external crises full force [in Greece]. Up here in Happy Land the whip is getting a bit dizzy from being snapped in all directions at once. Fear is brewing in those who would be afraid. Voices of hatred are rising unashamedly and are being heard by the frightened ones. The population is polarized. Interestingly, the East German chancellor is showing some leadership and is clearly not afraid. Yet, the government is hesitant and the humanitarian response poorly coordinated and incomplete. Church organizations are playing a constructive role in what would otherwise be even more of a vacuum.” 

“Rima’s” Twin Daughters
I was sorry to hear that the German government strikes Bill as hesitant about how to help refugees, since from here the chancellor still appears more decisive than any other European leader, and also because some of my Syrian refugee friends are counting on the German authorities. “Rima” and her daughters have been reunited with her husband in Stuttgart, but they are waiting for permanent housing to replace the single room all six of them share (plus a small kitchenette they share with 17 people). Rima was initially so disappointed by the living arrangements that she thought of returning to Syria. But her comfortable home there is gone.

I was relieved when a wonderful former student of mine who happens to live in Stuttgart stepped in to marshal assistance for Rima and help her feel more at home there (filling the vacuum Bill mentioned, which Rima knew far more about than I did). Now Rima’s four daughters are attending school, she and her husband are studying German, and she has more of what she needs, including some new friends. I can tell from Rima’s notes to me that my student and her friends’ eleven carloads of clothes, shoes, winter wear, backpacks, microwaves, crock pots, and Arab-German dictionaries lifted spirits as well as meeting needs. And an informal dinner party fundraiser complete with Syrian food cooked by Rima and her friends should both raise money and expand cultural horizons and friendships. Where politicians fail to find solutions, others clearly need to step in.

Anxiety and Ambivalence: Utopia Neither Here Nor There

Plane Tree Above Café Tables, Chania
And others do step in, in Greece as well as Germany. The politicians can’t seem to work things out here either, so things are getting worse for many folks, as expected. It’s still unclear in exactly what ways that will happen, given what Maria Katsounaki calls a search for “alternative measures for the alternative measures” to raise revenue. This October, these measures are discussed under the browning leaves of immense plane trees that spread their branches above small café tables in squares throughout Greece. As Katsounaki points out, “Along with a big wave of taxes, we also have a procession of strikes coming up. The latter, which had been considerably fewer during the first SYRIZA-Independent Greeks government, are slowly but surely making a comeback as work stoppages and protest rallies take their place alongside the tax hikes and cuts in pensions and salaries.” 

High property taxes continue to be imposed based on property values that belong to pre-crisis years, although real values have dropped drastically. And this is not just an issue for the wealthy; a majority of Greeks own property, which they have inherited, often a modest home, sometimes an olive grove in a village, sometimes an apartment they rent out to bring in much-needed income. It remains to be seen just how much farmers’ taxes will be raised, and whether the private tutoring schools used by all parents of children destined for Greek universities will have new 23% taxes imposed where none had been before.

Technical University of Crete
October does not bring lovely yellow, orange, and red leaves that fall into tempting piles of fragrant color to our part of Crete, although the rain does sometimes bring out the scents of a Pennsylvania autumn—wet fall leaves, grass, and soil, and damp air. There is more green here, but less bright color. The other day, as I drove past the Technical University of Crete--one of the many institutions here that exemplifies both the serious problems with the Greek educational system and the encouraging initiatives that suggest there’s hope for improvement--I considered my ambivalent position in (and on) Greece.  

On the one hand, I often feel ready to return to the U. S. immediately. I want to see the great forests change to bright colors in the fall, to walk across wide lawns of green grass, to live in a house with plenty of space for everyone. I want my children to engage in inspiring intellectual discussions, to feel encouraged to think actively and creatively as I did throughout my years of schooling. I want them to have the opportunity to take photography classes and act in plays on a real stage with lighting, costumes, and scenery as I did in my public high school. I do not want them memorizing textbooks as Greek children do, spending a month each year studying for high school exams, making up for an inadequate public education by attending an expensive second school in order to pass extremely difficult university entrance exams, and getting so burnt out studying for those exams that they have no energy to attend or pass Greek university classes.

Wildflower and Bee in Crete
On the other hand, I know my nostalgic memories and dreams of a comfortable, peaceful middle-class suburban America would be hard to re-create. Having lived in Greece for 13 years, I do not want to immerse my children in an American culture of violence where mass shootings lead to calls for more guns to defend the innocent people from the crazy extremists, as if the Wild West had spread throughout the country along with the glorification of murder seen in movies about strong, clever assassins. I recognize that if I move away from Greece I will miss a great deal about it—not only only the omnipresent fresh produce and unique Cretan wildflowers, the vast blue sea that meets the sky before me, the rugged landscape full of striking gorges, mountains, and hillsides full of olive groves, or the endlessly varied landscapes and seascapes visible from Crete’s countless beaches. Also the neighbors who ask about our health and our children, the friends who bring gifts from their gardens, orchards, olive groves, or kitchens, the shopkeepers who are ready to donate goods to refugees, and the volunteers in the neighborhood association, the school’s parents’ association, and the university who organize free parties and events that bring people together in fellowship and fun.

Like many others here, I wonder whether people educated elsewhere could help Greece transform into a more logical, innovative, energetic, motivated, responsible society, because the basis for all of that, plus a lot of creativity, talent, and intelligence, are evident here. It certainly sounds ethnocentric to refer to help from people (primarily Greeks) educated elsewhere, but an infusion of ideas from other places does strike many of us here as necessary to overcome the generalized lack of logic, the inefficiency, the disability, and the inconvenience, of a broken state system. Still, I occasionally wonder if even the highly imperfect situation we have in Greece now isn’t better than a land where guns are everywhere, and children are in danger of being shot in almost any place, at almost any time. Don’t Americans see that there are too many guns in our country? Although I recognize that the problem of gun violence in America is not at all that simple, I still wonder, if so many Americans are determined to embrace guns, where do I belong?

Greeks Bearing Gifts

Reddening Pomegranates on a Neighborhood Tree
With the last of the figs still smelling sweet, October brings ripening olives to the groves all over Crete, along with reddening pomegranates breaking open in the trees or falling to the street to shatter and reveal their crimson jewels. Even now, after years of crisis and illogical politics, Greece has far more to offer than ancient history, archaeological sites, museums, and beaches, and no one who is ready to criticize supposedly “lazy Greeks” should forget that. Greece has not only helped inspire the world-famous Mediterranean diet. Today its wines are gaining increasing recognition, and the country contributes the third largest quantity of olive oil to the world—mostly high-quality extra virgin olive oil, much of it winning international awards. Greek businesses and farms continue to produce high quality products even in the face of capital controls, Greek researchers and educators continue work of international importance, Greek athletes and artists win international championships and prizes.

Students’ Kung Fu Demonstration
And right here in Chania, Crete, our elementary school parents’ association has continued to organize free lectures on crucial parenting topics such as bullying and children’s sexuality, as well as occasional gatherings for games and food. They have also provided a valuable service during the economic crisis by arranging the most affordable art, chess, Cretan dance, and kung fu lessons around. (15 euros per person per month for three hours of kung fu each week!) Also at school, a parent placed a box about the size of two microwaves near the snack bar. School children are filling it with plastic bottle caps. Once they have collected 1500 bottle caps to recycle, they will give them to the Greek Red Cross, who will buy a wheelchair for a disabled child. What a wonderful idea to raise kids’ awareness and give them a way to help someone who lacks something they have, even now that many cannot afford to make charitable donations because they are barely getting by! My son is so proud to collect and deposit all the bottle caps we have, and he is excited that the box is about ¾ full.

Summer Day Camp,Technical University of Crete
This past summer, I was surprised to learn that my idea of a summer science camp at the Technical University of Crete had been adopted by someone I hadn’t talked to about it, whether due to coincidentally similar thinking or my spark of an idea. I’d hoped for a free or very inexpensive camp staffed by volunteers and accessible to many children, but I’d found no one to work with me on it last year. This year’s busy organizers were more ambitious, hiring a staff of students and physical education teachers to work with some professors on lab demonstrations and botany lessons and help a Red Cross volunteer demonstrate first aid techniques. Since it was a seven-hour, seven-week day camp, it was not cheap, but with the program changing every day to include such activities as sign language with a deaf person, singing while signing, art projects, lectures on astronauts, the planting of herbs, jiu jitsu, tennis, and soccer, it was an excellent new venture for a Greek summer program that both included and went far beyond the usual athletics and arts.

Robot, Science Day, Technical University of Crete
The Technical University of Crete also continued its successful new tradition of a science day for elementary school students for the third year in a row, organizing the largest event of its kind in Greece this fall, according to the university rector. About 4,500 parents and children—over twice as many as last year--examined scientific projects related to computer programming, virtual reality, microorganisms in pond water, changing coloration on a 3D topographical map in a sand box, dyed flowers, a 3D printer, computer-generated shadow puppet theater, the physics of lasers and air pumps, glow in the dark chemistry experiments, flying drones, and robotic spiders and soccer players. With the help of over 200 enthusiastic student volunteers, my children and I hurried from one exhibit to the next, afraid we wouldn’t have time for it all in a mere three hours, which passed very quickly—and unfortunately we did run out of time and missed a few stalls. The robotic soccer player seemed to have succumbed to fatigue by the time we got to it, but fortunately we’d seen it in its glory, facing a robotic opponent, two years ago.

Flying Drone, Science Day, Technical University of Crete
Koinoniki Kouzina, the local independent soup kitchen, and Steki, the hangout for natives and migrants in Chania, continue their important work helping needy Greeks and migrants. Steki has been participating in a nationwide collection of necessities for refugees, gathering more clothes than they could sort and store, as well as impressive amounts of food, hygiene items, blankets, and tents. I’ve also noticed what their report on that venture’s success emphasized: every time I ask Greeks to provide things refugees need here in Chania, I end up with more donations than I expected. As one news story after another has shown, even when they barely have what they need, Greeks are caring, generous people with many impressive gifts.