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Posts Tagged ‘Greece’

Children drowning, smugglers abandoning those who had abandoned everything, traversing continents to seek refuge; all of these were the life-shattering realities I heard on a daily basis while volunteering in Kara Tepe Refugee Camp last summer on the island of Lesvos, Greece.  The emotional weight of working with displaced persons is heavy, but certainly not even close to the same level of being a displaced person.  Close friends can tell you I was a little bit jarred and distant when I returned.  As my brain struggled to process all the horror stories I heard and saw the entire summer to understand how such cruelty and injustice could exist in this world, I knew the struggle would be eternal.  I wanted to continue helping people who were fleeing situations I previously couldn’t imagine, but I wanted to see a different perspective to more fully understand the complete situation.

My first attempt to work with refugees was a tiresome Google search years ago to go to Jordan or Lebanon.  Both were countries bordering Syria and taking in large numbers of Syrian refugees, but beyond that I didn’t know too much.  I found a UNHCR posting for a manual laborer to dig irrigation trenches, and the idea of turning my brain off after a stressful school year of teaching and just digging a hole in the heat for a good cause sounded appealing.  Unfortunately, the minimum 6 month requirement did not fit in well with my plan to keep my teaching job and that plan fizzled.

As anti-refugee sentiments flared up across Europe and especially with the election of Donald Trump in the US, I began to see hate displayed more openly and advocacy to close borders gain more steam.  Last year, I wrote about the accepting nature of Greeks to extend their resources to their neighbors in need and I had to wonder what the scale of the rest of the world was doing.  My country with so many resources and potential for good had done embarrassingly little, but come to find out, little ol’ Lebanon had done a ton! According to the UNHCR, 1 in 5 people in Lebanon is a registered refugee, but the actual number is likely closer to 1 in 4.  In fact, the number of registered refugees from Syria is greater than the entire population of Lebanon.

Syrian Refugees in LebanonImagine that in America; if in our giant landscape, 90 million people were refugees.  It seems unfathomable, but that’s what Lebanon has effectively done.  Even under Obama, the plan was to let in 10,000 refugees a year, and progress on that target fell way behind schedule from the day the plan was agreed upon.  To take on such a large number of new inhabitants has caused tension and problems for sure, but it has also save lives and offered countless opportunities to families with nowhere else to turn.

I used to have a Doctors Without Borders world map behind the desk in my old classroom that had their slogan, “We go to where conditions are the worst, because that’s where we’re needed most.”  I saw this video detailing the trash problems in refugee settlements in the Beqaa Valley and I looked at the numbers on the UNCHR data chart.

Greece was the sexy focus of the refugee crisis in Europe.  They got the mainstream news coverage, the celebrity visits, the EU funding, but Lebanon doesn’t have any of those things and they have let in more refugees than all of Europe combined.  The Beqaa Valley was a former Hezbollah HQ and currently maintains status as a drug growing region, but the dangers associated with either are minimal now.  Sitting in an office area with a view of the mountains 23km away that form the border with Syria, I know this experience will open my eyes to the problems of the word in a different way and hopefully help me be a part of better solutions.

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Two thousand people a day were coming to shore on Lesvos at the height of the forced migration that brought Europe into crisis mode.  This was around October and November when there was open passage throughout the continent and Lesvos was just a processing center en route to mainland Greece and beyond.  The small land mass served a similar purpose to Ellis Island, but was more intensely overrun and under-prepared than the small halls of hope were in New York at any point during US immigration history.

One day, 180 boats landed on Lesvos.  My mind instantly projects images of a blotted out sea, covered in a flotilla like one that Helen of Troy would launch.  With engines churning on dreams of freedom, many people stepped foot onto European shores for the first time under false promises from their smuggler that accommodation, food, and clothing were awaiting them. Most, however, were met with long waits for a bus to drive them to a processing center about an hour away while sitting in wet clothes because the huge influx of arrivals had shocked and depleted resources in a matter of days.

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Tents are strewn across the port of Lesvos as the number of refugees on the island tops 20,000 and the mayor asks for the state of emergency to be declared [ekathimerini.com, March 9, 2016]

As many countries decided their plan for accepting these new arrivals was not sustainable, safe, or in their own best interest, doors started to shut.  Borders were closed one by one as the European Union changed its initial open arms policy.  Even as leadership in Germany tried to hold out the increasingly unpopular decision to accept 800,000 refugees, passages through other countries were closed, leaving no route open to reach the far away Deutsch-haven.

 

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Since this image was created in October 2015, countries have increased their border controls, most notably Hungary with the supplement of heavy military presence to make a safe crossing near impossible [NY Times]

Trying to stop the new population overflow closer to its source, the European Union brokered a deal with Turkey that went it to effect March 20, 2016.  It basically said “Don’t send any more refugees.”  Because of Turkey’s close proximity to Greek islands and Middle Eastern countries from which people are fleeing, they are the point where the funnel meets the spout, through which all must pass.  In exchange, Turkey was to get favorable terms of commerce and investments that would bolster their economy.

The basic payment in cash or terms to another country is not a new tactic and it’s one the US participates in regularly.  First, some background.  Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million people has more refugees than all of Europe combined.  Even with unemployment well above 25% and almost 1 in 4 people inside their borders being a displaced person, they continue to accept those who come.  Approximately 650,000 forced migrants from Syria are now living in Jordan.  Such an influx in new people and culture has sparked tensions with both of these countries firing off both de jure and de facto discrimination.  Syrians have had major lifelines cut off by losing the legal right to drive or work.  These are major factors that have led many people to seek asylum in Europe and to a much lesser extent, the US.

The US has offered about $60 million to Jordan to build schools for Syrian children, while the World Bank has offered up a $300 million interest free loan.  The European Union is dangling the carrot of tax-free imports which would be hugely beneficial to their clothing industry in particular.  A part of me applauds this policy of “Make life better for the refugees within your borders” except when I know that dictate ends with “…because we don’t want them here.”

From the people I’ve spoken with in camp, they certainly felt the discrimination, fear, and marginalization.  A family of seven displaced from Syria who spent the last two years in Lebanon, had enjoyed a good life in their new country for a while.  The father who was previously an academic, had learned a few trades and now found in-demand work as an electrician and plumber, making up to $75/day.  He drove a car and paid $4,000/year for his kids to go to school.  But when new anti-Syrian laws were passed, he was unable to find work.  Getting paid under the table and illegally, he would sparsely get offered $20/day and consistently get taken advantage of.  No longer allowed to drive or afford school for his children, he decided it was time to leave as the situation looked like things would only get worse.

This is how it has gone for everyone I talk to.  Turkey also does not offer the legal right to work for refugees, so to make ends-meat, they pick up any odd jobs and manual labor they can.  My friend Muhammed who fled Syria five years ago after forced conscription into Assad’s army has lived in Turkey since.  Getting financially taken advantage of as a painter and farmer, it took him the whole five years to save up 500 Euros for his passage to Greece, a relatively cheap price compared to others in camp.  Once he found out his wife was pregnant, he could wait no longer and borrowed the 500 Euros for her passage from another family member.

On March 20, after Turkey agreed to halt any refugees traveling to Europe as part of the new EU deal, boats stopped coming to Lesvos, cold turkey.  Months long stretches where each day was 0, 0, 0, 0, 0.  Turkey must have taken the deal very seriously as they were doing a tremendous job (judging by the results) of policing the issue.

Then, on June 2, German parliament voted to officially declare the Ottoman persecution of Armenians during and post WWI, a genocide.  Anyone from human rights activist to lazy high school student could have looked at the evidence and draw the same conclusion.  I have been teaching it as such in my US History classes for five years.  However, for political reasons, countries often avoid such labels as genocide.  We are scared to call something what it really is when the label is bad and will offend other parties involved.  After the breakup of the Ottoman empire following the Treaty of Versailles, Turkey was carved out with a few other fragmented parcels of land.  To say “The Armenian Genocide” is to point a finger of guilt at Turkey for their scapegoating and destruction of an entire population of people.

Germany had broadcast that they were set to rule on this well in advance.  Ankara sent word about how deeply unhappy they would be over an unfavorable result.  Many questioned whether this would cause Turkey to reneg on their agreement to keep the valve of refugees closed tightly.  Their official statement after Germany’s ruling, even with the red handed title of shame was to stand by their previous agreement.  At least, that’s what they said.  The numbers tell a different story though.  Shortly after this, more boats starting arriving; one every couple of days.  Why Germany would pick this specific time to come to consensus on an issue looming for more than one hundred years, I have no idea.

There are roughly 2 million registered refugees in Turkey and 2.5 million others that haven’t gone through official declarations and paperwork.  Every day as more cross the borders into Turkey, a few more leave. Daily boat arrivals have grown since the April drought of 0, 0, 0, 0, 0 to a flow of 2, 3, 1, 2, 7.  One hundred fifty people arrived on the morning I wrote this.  Many are trying to escape the turmoil bumbling over in Turkey that mirrors that of a country slipping into the violence they originally tried to escape.  A Syrian man in camp said that after several years in Turkey, he finally decided to make the journey to Greece after the bombings in the Istanbul airport on June 28.  Once he heard news of that event, he crossed the Aegean in a small wooden boat the next day.  No one has left their home in one country to substitute violence in another.

The events of the recent failed military coup will likely be a catalyst for more arrivals.  President Erdogan is not a friend to Syrian refugees and many despise his leadership that restricts them of fundamental rights.  However, the distraction the coup provided and the internal discontent it represents are the key factors for migration here.   As word reached the ears of volunteers late on July 15, my immediate first reaction was that we would be seeing more boats coming.  If I was a displaced person trying to avoid police, this is just the internal struggle I would need as a diversion to stage my exit. As Turkey is forced to shift focus more and more to their own internal issues, they will be able to devote fewer resources to stifling the flow of people into Europe.  Indeed, the next morning we had some boats arrive.  While there has not been a huge increase since, there seems to be a vastly different pattern developing from that of April and May.

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Lesvos is the largest of three Greek islands arrivals passed through before arriving to mainland Europe through Greece.  [UNHCR]

UNHCR Data: Daily Arrivals, Lesvos

And so here we all are, in a bankrupt country which has had unemployment numbers comparable to the US Great Depression for the past 7 years and even more staggering numbers of youth unemployment.  The country clearly lacks the economic strength to support a dependent population, yet they are trying their best.  Despite some instances of discrimination, the citizens of Greece have been surprisingly welcoming, all things considered.  In a country with so many needs, how can this mindset persist?

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Current Unemployment Rate is 23.30% [National Statistical Service of Greece]

Greece is an open minded, humanitarian state that worries itself with more than just the comfort of its own citizens, but rather the safety of a world population.  In The Battle for Home by Marwa Al-Sabouni, the high level of tolerance in Homs is discussed through the lens of both people and city design by a brilliant architect.  Al-Sabouni asserts that because of its location on the Great Silk Road, Homs became a commerce hub that was home to different cultures and products, thus serving as a point for interaction and exchange of diverse ideas.  Over the course of its history, Homs has switched back and forth from being a domain of Christianity and Islam several times.  After imperial conquests ceased, people of different beliefs lived in a peaceful coexistence.  Churches and Mosques both stretched into the skyline representing a fusion of ideologies and not just tolerance, but acceptance.

I believe that Greece has the same recipe for acceptance in their history.  Without trying to sound like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I believe Greece invented couchsurfing.  Xenia is a term that means “guest friendship.” In classical times, this was a strong social norm that dictated one sheltered, fed, and looked after a visitor with reciprocity generously given if the host traveled to the land of the guest.  Xenia was originally an honor code enacted by fathers who fought together in battle and sent their sons to travel throughout the country to broaden their horizons in a number of ways.  I imagine the scene as “Knock knock, ‘Hello, I am Patriclus, son of Theseus who you battled with many years ago.’ ‘Yassas! Welcome friend!’ All hug.”  Top notch hospitality has always been a keystone feature of the Greek populace.

Additionally, the country has long been a central point in worldly affairs in commerce, thought, and beyond.  Owning the Mediterranean and catapulting civilization leaps and bounds with development after development, they became a magnetic force for success.  Merchants, academics and anyone aspiring to improve their lot in life flocked to Greece.  Even as the Roman Empire took over, places like Athens remained a central hub, attracting people far and wide. Persian traders, religious crusaders, and outsiders Greeks originally categorized as barbarians flocked to their main cities.  The agora itself was set up to be an open place of trade and oration with main roads all passing through.

Exposure breeds acceptance, maybe not in ideas themselves, but in the understanding that people have different ideas.  So when the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time broke, I believe Greece opened up its arms because it has a rich history of understanding and accepting people who are different.  People they would have once considered barbarians, are now considered friends.  It is worth noting here that “barbaros” in Greek, simply means outsider and in the intellectual, democratic realm of Athens where citizenship was so highly valued and safeguarded, anyone who was not Athenian was considered a “barbarian.”  One could be persecuted and perhaps even exiled for “philos barbaros” or showing love to outsiders.

It has taken a lot of exposure and time for such feelings to subside, but the evolution of acceptance seems to be at a high level in the only country besides the USA where pridefully flown flags can be frequently spotted on the streets, in shop windows, and on cars.  If the early stages of reacting to difference is hate, Greece is well beyond that.  Even though it’s impossible to see what stands behind the white washed coat of a retaining wall on the walk to Kara Tepe, the spray painted message now reads “Welcome Refugees.”

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While the rest of Europe has closed their doors to those escaping the exploding destruction of their former lives, Greece has said what they have told the world for thousands of years as nations rose and fell around them, “Come to us.”  It seems to be a successful mantra for an enduring civilization and so more boats will come.

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