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.
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.
Greater prosperity equals diminishing generosity. Device distraction equals inability to give of your time. Modernity fosters the transactional relationship over the human relationship. The rules are not absolute, but they are useful indicators.
More than 200,000 refugees, mainly from Syria, have arrived in a Greece on the brink this year, almost half of them coming ashore in the island of Lesbos, which lies just six miles from Turkey. They have entered a country with a quarter of its population unemployed. They have found themselves in a state whose per-capita income has fallen by nearly 23 percent since the crisis began, with a tenuous banking system and unstable politics. Greece could serve as a textbook example of a nation with potential for violence against a massive influx of outsiders
In general, the refugees have been well received. There have been clashes, including on Lesbos, but almost none of the miserable bigotry, petty calculation, schoolyard petulance and amnesiac small-mindedness emanating from European Union countries further north, particularly Hungary.
For several hours, I crisscrossed Lesbos with a driver, Michalis Papagrigoriou, who had volunteered to help transport refugees from Molyvos in the north of the island to the port in Mytilene, about 45 miles away. His bus, normally used to ferry pale North European tourists in search of Mediterranean sun, had been leased by the International Rescue Committee (I.R.C.) to help the more than 2,000 refugees arriving in inflatable rafts every day.
Papagrigoriou, besieged by calls to take his bus here and there, was in an irrepressible mood. Around each switchback on the hills between Kalloni in the middle of the island and Molyvos in the north, refugees came into view: children, old men, pregnant women trudging through pine woods.
They raised their arms. They pleaded. They lay slumped against backpacks. Discarded water bottles traced their path. Papagrigoriou, with an appointment to pick up a busload in Molyvos, could not help immediately but each group prompted an impassioned soliloquy about injustice and shared humanity. On the way back, although full, he would bend the rules to squeeze in an extra woman and child. He would also accept a plea from his village, Mantamados, to pick up refugees there, although it meant working deep into the night.
In Molyvos, refugees lined up by the side of the road. Papagrigoriu’s was the second-last bus of the evening. The great golden orb of the sun was already halfway through its riveting plunge below the horizon. I.R.C. officials explained how they try to stop refugees setting off on foot to Mytilene, but some are too impatient to wait.
I got talking on the bus to Taleb Hosein, an Afghan refugee. He’d been on the road for a long time, how long he could not say. The worst was a walk of several days without food from Iran into Turkey. He looked very young. I asked how old he was. He did not know. In Afghanistan, he said, there are often no birth records. “I think I am about 17 or 18,” he said. Where was he headed? “I want a safe place, I don’t care where, but Britain would be my favorite, because I study English.”
A 26-year-old Syrian dentist from Damascus who had been listening to us told me he had gotten married two weeks ago. His wife was sleeping, her head on his shoulder. “This is our honeymoon,” he said.
Night had fallen. The groups of walking refugees held feeble flashlights. Many had stopped, having decided to sleep by the side of the road. One young man stood in the path of the bus until the last moment. Papagrigoriu, slowly negotiating the switchbacks, talked about how certain situations demand that human beings help one another, other considerations be damned.
Exhausted silence enveloped the bus. Hosein and the other Afghans disembarked into a camp surrounded by barbed wire. The Syrian transit camp is less forbidding; Greek authorities quickly hand out a permit to stay for six months. Most refugees want to move north to Germany, where they believe they will find jobs.
They will be lucky if they find Papagrigoriu’s humanity. The world hardens in technology’s vise. The productivity of generosity cannot be measured.
I asked Alexis Papahelas, the executive editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini, what Greece could teach the world: “That dignity and decency can be preserved, even through the hardest times.”
It’s a powerful, important lesson that Alexis Tsipras, re-elected as Greece’s left-wing prime minister, should carry forward.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on September 22, 2015, in The International New York Times.