This article is not about the riots in Greek detention camps or increasing tensions over the 53,000 migrants and refugees stranded in Greece, where unemployment is too high for them to find the work and aid they need, and some refugee babies do not seem to be not getting enough formula. I will not discuss the European Union’s controversial agreement with Turkey to send back migrants and refugees who arrive in Greece on smugglers’ boats from Turkey. I will not describe the bombing destruction of a hospital in Aleppo, Syria or the “near total collapse” of the ceasefire that has led to “one Syrian killed every 25 minutes” over 48 hours in the middle of last week. I will not focus on the Pope’s visit, along with the leaders of the Eastern Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Churches and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, to refugees at the Moria detention center on the island of Lesbos. You can learn about all of that in the news, if you haven’t already done so.
I want to focus on connections between ordinary human beings, the type of connections that give me and some of my new refugee friends hope for this world and our children’s future in it. I will tell you about some of the refugees from Syria whom I know because they were living in Chania, Crete, Greece since April 2014, and my interest in learning their story turned to concern about their needs and efforts to gather food and clothing for them. I will discuss several fourth graders’ interview with the refugees who are still here, and an optician’s generous gift of eyeglasses to one who needed them. I will emphasize the personal interactions, the talking and listening, learning and getting to know each other, that the world needs. All but one of my new refugee friends have now managed—after nearly two years of waiting, in some cases—to reunite with family in Germany or Sweden. But we will not forget each other.
The refugees I met in Crete were not trying to reach Greece. Having left Syria earlier, they set out from North Africa, bound for Italy and then Germany or Sweden on a dangerous route that is being revived now that the migrants’ path through Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans has been blocked. (For more on their story, see Greek Crisis, Summer 2015, Part 2: Syrian Refugees in Greece.) As humanitarian aid groups have said repeatedly, walls and prohibitions don’t stop migrants and refugees; they just turn them in a different, often riskier, direction. Thousands have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea since walls like the ones between northeastern Greece and Turkey, and between northern Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, have been erected to prevent land crossings. The children, mothers, and fathers I met were rescued from rusty wreck of a boat more than two years ago, before Europe had seen last year’s arrival of a million refugees.
My son’s fourth grade class was one of eight or ten elementary school classes in our area to receive a journalism association’s award for the article they based on their interview with some of the refugees I know. After helping to gather food and clothing for the refugees several times during the past two years, my son’s teacher came up with the idea for this project. She, another Greek mother, three of our children, and I spoke Greek and English with five of my new friends from Syria, including a boy my son’s age and his older brother, who had quickly picked up Greek in their two years here. The ten year old boy was proud to be one of the best students in his Greek elementary school class.
Although the children did not have enough time to overcome their shyness with each other before the Syrian boys left Greece with their mother to rejoin their father and older brother in Sweden, the Greeks and I certainly learned something from the refugees. The students and their teacher shared the refugees’ stories with the rest of their class, broadening the circle of multicultural understanding. The Greek children’s article was complimented and quoted at the journalists’ awards ceremony, bringing additional attention to the struggles of refugees in Greece.
Our children learned about the refugees’ efforts to escape war in their country, where people were being shot and bombed. They heard about the refugees’ difficult boat journey, on which one man died trying to jump from one vessel to another in rough seas that knocked the boats together to crush him when he fell. They discovered that the refugee father sought a job, while the children wanted schooling, so the teenager could become a dentist. They saw the boys’ drawings of a home and school which they wanted to share with their brother, who was far away in Sweden. The learned that these children longed for a normal, safe home and school like the Greek children have. This father wants that for his family, from whom he has been separated for one and a half years. He should not have had to wait so long for the appointment with an embassy that will allow a reunion with his wife and small daughters. As he told me that reunion had finally been scheduled, my friend broke into the first smile of radiant joy I’ve ever seen on his face.
After the interview, that father told me he had consulted my ophthalmologist about his persistent headaches, and she had prescribed new glasses for him, as well as a test she would arrange for him. He said he did not have the money to pay for the glasses and asked if I could help. I couldn’t promise to do so, since I’d already asked so many people to donate money, food, and clothing for refugees and others in need in the last two years that I didn’t know if I could come up with the price of glasses. However, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask the optician in our village of Kounoupidiana, near Chania, whom I’d visited a number of times; he’d always been helpful with repairs as well as new glasses.
I was hoping Petros Andreadakis would offer a very good price on new glasses for my refugee friend, and I was absolutely delighted when the optician offered to cover the costs and service completely! He even thanked me for giving him the chance to help. This is the type of Greek generosity that inspired a Nobel Prize nomination petition, and the sort of kindness we need to see more. As Petros’s assistant and I chatted with my friend and his Syrian friend, who has lived in Chania for decades, Petros fixed my friend’s new glasses. Then he checked and adjusted their fit and provided a case and cleaning cloth. If you are in the Chania area and need glasses or sunglasses, please look for Petros Andreadakis at Aristotelous Street # 3 in Kounoupidiana, just a few doors down from the stoplight and across from a large gas station. (Petros and his assistant both speak English.) Let’s support those who are ready to help people in need.
If Pope Francis can take twelve Syrian Muslims back to Rome, why can’t other Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others welcome more refugees of different faiths into their communities as well? During this, the worst humanitarian disaster since World War II, more people need to fully understand, as the pope does, that “migrants, rather than simply being a statistic, are first of all persons who have names, faces and individual stories.” Children should have no reason to give the pope drawings of other “children drowning in the sea.” As Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Christians, said, “The Mediterranean Sea should not be a tomb.” But the more migrants are pushed away from land routes by walls, fences, and agreements, the more they seek more dangerous routes, such as the one between North Africa and Italy on which 500 children, women, and men are reported to have drowned recently.
As Orthodox Easter and May Day approached, the sun grew too hot for many of our wildflowers. Most of them are drying up, although many of the irrigated garden flowers have begun to flourish. I admire the perfect pink, white, and red rosebuds, the brilliant fuchsia bougainvillea, the bright red geraniums, the new pink and white oleander, the fragrant yellow and white honeysuckle. I can still pluck some eucalyptus leaves from neighborhood trees and fold them to release their aroma, and I know where to find enough wild and escaped flowers (including wild carrot, shrub verbena, and nasturtiums) for late spring bouquets. I send photos of some of them to my refugee friends in Germany, where their children are in school, and a kind American friend of mine has helped them settle in. I am thinking about the world’s refugees, and especially the refugees I know, today, as I prepare to join an Orthodox Easter celebration here in Greece.