Greeks Bearing Gifts: How Europe’s poorest country is doing more than anyone else to help Syrian refugees.
One Friday in late summer, just as the Syrian refugee crisis was beginning to peak,a blue station wagon pulled up to the Kara Tepe refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. The car’s side mirror was held on with masking tape and force of will. Big letters on the side said “Free Food For All” in English and Greek. A half-dozen sunburned, chain-smoking Greek leftists of all ages piled out, followed by two barrel-sized aluminum vats, several gas burners with propane tanks, two folding tables, forty bags of pasta, a box of spices, a dozen car-battery-sized cans of tomato paste and a couple of three-foot-long wooden paddles for stirring soup.
Within minutes, they had an outdoor kitchen set up. “With all respect, this should come from us,” said a tall young Syrian named Basil, who was a refugee himself. He spent the entire afternoon stirring and serving soup. “We should be doing this ourselves. But I’m glad they are doing it.”
“They” area mutual aid group called O Allos Anthropos, or “The Other Human” in Greek. The founder is Konstantinos Polychronopoulos, a burly, bearded man in his early fifties. In 2009, when the fiscal crisis hit Greece, Polychronopoulos lost his job in marketing and communications. Two years later, at 47, he was broke and living with his mother. One day, walking around Athens, he saw two children fighting over rotten fruit from a garbage can.
“The worst thing was that people were passing, and they didn’t care,” he says. He stuck his nose and chest in the air, in a pantomime of lordly indifference. “They just looked at them and passed by”—here, he strutted off ten feet away, swinging his arms like a commedia dell’arte character, and then back—“I thought that that this was not acceptable, and horrible, and that people should care. So I decided to do something about it.”
The next day, Polychronopoulos went out into the streets of Athens, and began cooking enormous communal meals with anyone who was hungry—Greeks, refugees, whoever. He’s been doing it ever since. This August, Polychronopoulos and other volunteers traveled to Lesbos, where they spent the traditional European vacation month standing for hours in 97-degree sun, with no shade, stirring giant steaming vats of food with thousands of people who were by turns desperate, angry, bewildered, helpless, exuberant at having survived the journey, or all of the above.
Of all the countries in Europe, Greece is the one that can least afford to be anyone’s savior. It is the continent’s most beleaguered country: constantly threatened with expulsion from the European Union, it is hugely in debt to European banks. In 2010, the “troika”—the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—forced the government to adopt extreme austerity measures., and Greek society has been in a state of crisis ever since. Unemployment is 25.2 percent. Suicides are up 36 percent since austerity was introduced. Nearly half of all schoolchildren aren’t getting enough to eat. Greeks have every right to be exhausted and selfish. And some of them are: on Kos and Lesbos, the two islands where most refugees are landing, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party almost doubled its share of the vote in the September 20 general election. (It didn’t help that supporters of the leftist ruling party Syrizastayed home in droves.)
Butif Europe has failed both Greeks and refugees, one of the strangely beautiful things about the current crisis is the way both Greeks and refugees have been helping each other get through it. As their government flounders, and the big international aid agencies focus on the95 percent of Syrian refugees who aren’t in Europe, Greek volunteers have provided everything from housing to food, medical and legal help. Volunteers from Greece and other European countries even produced a clear, comprehensive guidebook for incoming refugees, with useful Greek phrases like “I want a doctor” and “I am from Iraq,” and translated it into Arabic, Farsi and English.
The Syrian refugee crisis first caught the world’s attention this September, when photographs of a three-year-old Syrian child named Aylan Kurdi, who drowned while trying to flee to Greece, went viral. The world moved on, but the situation on Lesbos has only gotten worse: In October, Russia’s relentless bombing campaign in Syria drove out a new wave of desperate people that peaked in mid-October.
Then came the November 13 attacks in Paris by members of the Islamic State. French police found a Syrian passport at the scene of one of the attacks. The passport appears to be fake; so far the only attackers identified have been EU passport holders. But the damage was done. Macedonia and other Balkan countries began closing or tightening their borders. Thousands of refugees were stranded in Greece, the EU’s poorest and least-equipped country—just as it headed into a series ofbombings and general strikes over the EU’s latest austerity measures.
Today, approximately 5,000 people arrive in Greece every day. The majority of them are landing in Lesbos. This year, so far, 719,087 refugees came to Greece. Lesbos took in 406,206, which is almost five time times the island’s population of 85,000. In mid-August, the International Rescue Committee described Lesbos as being at “the breaking point,” which is true; except that this tiny island off the coast of Turkey—like Syria, Iraq and the entire Greek economy—already broke a long time ago.
Most of the refugees land in the north of the island, near the ancient city of Molyvos, where the distance from Turkey is only about six miles. But no matter where they come to shore, all the travelers have to make their way to Mytilini, the capital, to register. Only then can they get the magic slip of paper that allows them to board a ferry to Athens, Thessaloniki, and the rest of their modern-day odyssey: Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary—butwatch out for Hungary!—Austria, then the promised land: Germany.
Mytilini iswhere Europe’s twin crises of austerity and refugees converge. The Greek government is already paralyzed by years of economic collapse, EU-imposed austerity programs, and its own internal political struggles: It can’t handle half the people headed for Europe in the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.In Mytilini, the authorities can’t register people fast enough, which means they can’t leave the island. Today, Syrian families wait in Kara Tepe; Iraqis, Afghans, single Syrian men, and the handful of other nationalities—Pakistanis, Eritreans, Somalians, fleeing the Taliban, forced conscription, and other assorted horrors—wait in Moria, a walled prison camp that makes Kara Tepe look like a bed and breakfast.
By ANNIA CIEZADLO
Annia Ciezadlo is a Beirut-based journalist and author of Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War.