“Here’s a rough guide to the modern world: More efficiency, less humanity. Technology is principally at the service of productivity. Acts of irrational grace are not its thing. They have no algorithm”. – Roger Cohen for the New York Times.
Greece has not had it easy in 2015. In fact, it may very well be remembered as one of the country’s worst years in history since the Second World War. With two elections, an unemployment rate peaking at 29%, a month long forced bank holiday and enforcement of capital controls, the country has been teetering for months between survival and collapse. But by far the greatest challenge the Greeks have had to meet is dealing with the mass influx of refugees caused by the five year Syrian civil war; a war whose repercussions are being felt throughout the entire Arab world.
Thousands of refugees risk their lives every day in search of a better life in the west. Greece is usually their first landing point and according to the UNHCR, by the end of 2015, an estimated 1 million refugees will have landed on Greek shores!
It is true that a financially weakened Greece was unprepared to deal with a humanitarian crisis of this scope and magnitude. It is doubtful how any country – however organized or resourceful- could have been.
In response to a plea by the United Nations to put “human life, rights and dignity first when agreeing to a common response to this humanitarian crisis”, the people of Greece wore their humanity on their sleeves and rushed out of their comfort zones to save lives and provide food, warmth and shelter to destitute refugees as they arrived in consecutive waves to their shores. In contrast, the countries of Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, F.Y.R.O.M and Bulgaria built fences to keep the refugees out.
Almost overnight, local communities organized themselves and began to collect bottled water, food, dry clothes and medical supplies for volunteers to distribute to the various points of entry. Greek families opened their homes so that mother’s with babies and young children could find shelter from the rain and the cold. Hotels and small business were offering hot showers and a meal. Women knitted scarves and caps to keep babies warm at night. Residents and volunteers on the various Greek islands built fires along the shores to help guide the life rafts to safety and away from the treacherous and often fatal rocky beaches. Young Greek mothers came with their toddlers in tow to offer refugee children a break from their harsh reality and a few hours of play time. Seasoned grandmothers took care of newborns so that their mothers could tend to their other children and to themselves.
Father Efstratios Dimos, better known as “Papa Stratis” from the island of Lesbos had been helping refugees through the NGO ‘Agkalia’, since 2007. Suffering from chronic lung disease, he would roam the island’s most remote corners in his weather worn Citroen he called “Tarzan” while hooked up to his oxygen tank to aid refugees with food, water or to transport them to shelter.
When interviewed by the UNHCR he said:
“These people are not migrants, they do not choose to come here. They are children of war, fleeing bullets. They are life-seekers, they search for life, hope and the chance to live another day.”
Papa Stratis left this world on September 2, 2015. He was 57 years old but his work will be remembered for many generations to come.
The Greeks have a special word for this kind of action; “philotimo”. The word “philotimo” comes from the Greek root words “filos,” meaning friend, and “timi,” meaning honor. The Elder Paisios aptly defined philotimo as “that deep-seated awareness in the heart that motivates the good that a person does”.
As New York Time’s columnist Roger Cohen wrote:
“Greece has made me think about everything statistics don’t tell you. No European country has been as battered in recent years. No European country has responded with as much consistent humanity to the refugee crisis.”
Top German politicians however have expressed another opinion, showing their frustration with Greece for failing to protect the borders of the European Union. They are now threatening Greece with a potential suspension of the Schengen passport-free travel zone for two years, on the basis that the migrant crisis has exposed “serious deficiencies” at the Greek border that endanger the overall area.
Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schauble, who has often been critical of Greece was quoted as saying:
“The Greeks should not put the blame for their problems only on others, they should also see how they can do better themselves.”
With tens of thousands of refugees now stranded in various locations around Europe, the majority of which are still in Greece, perhaps it would be better for Germany and the E.U to consider how it can help itself as well instead of constantly putting a disproportional amount of blame on its member countries. European leaders have yet to come up with a definitive plan for the refugee crisis and are still squabbling over migrant acceptance quotas, making the re-location plan for refugees look like a Band-Aid on a hemorrhaging wound.
European leaders should ask themselves if their civilized nations are doing all they can to put human life at the forefront of this humanitarian tragedy? Is Europe making every effort to secure the fundamental rights of dignity, freedom, solidarity, citizens’ rights and justice that it was based upon?
Wolfgang Schauble and his supporters should not be so quick to rest on their laurels. Europe was not built in a day – it took great sacrifice to get to where the E.U is today, and it could have never been achieved without solidarity, support and cooperation.
If our aim is to preserve our civilized world it will not be by building fences to inhibit the arrival of refugees, but by preserving our humanity. It will be by changing the systems that perpetuate the wars that force people from their homelands. It will be by showing our decency and dignity, even when faced with hardship, and this is something Greece has been undoubtedly doing all along.