…ότι δηλαδή πρώτον μεν έχουμε τας πύλας της πόλεως μας ανοικτάς εις όλους,
…that first of all we have the gates of our city open to all.
«Ο Επιτάφιος», Περικλής, 431 π.Χ.
“TheEpitaph”, Pericles, 431 BC
This personal account of the rescue and relief efforts on the North coast of Lesvos would be incomplete without a tribute to the people of that island. For their deep hospitality, one easily transformed into resilience and resourcefulness, while standing at the pinch point of the largest refugee movements since WWII. Long before we came from the rest of Greece and the World to help them, and before the current constellation of NGOs arrived, they, together with a heroic Greek Coast Guard, plucked refugees out of often unforgiving seas at all seasons, years before the current crescendo of refugee inflows got the attention of the rest of the World. Poor fishermen of Lesvos and other islands of the North-East Aegean, with no other resources except their fishing boats and their courage would sail out in winter-cold and grey seas to save people again and again. When they failed, they alone, together with the anonymous Greek Coast Guardsman, would have to shoulder the lonely deaths of people they never knew.
The people ashore would do all they could to treat refugees in their taverns and homes, long before we arrived. They have seen much worse and on a more unforgiving scale with respect to their available resources, than we ever did. This is a story that has unfolded in various degrees in many Aegean islands, and I am sure in other islands of the Mediterranean Sea such as Lampedusa in Italy. They should all be proud of all their efforts. At the end of the day it is them that gave back to Europe the most important thing that makes her worth defending namely, a living humanist tradition.
Finally, this is a tribute to the Greek people in general. During times of near apocalyptic conditions of their economy (by any measure the bean-counting managerial/banking class of ECB, the IMF, or Brussels cares to use) they took up another enormous challenge history has thrown at them. They kept the dark forces of racism and intolerance mostly at bay while sheltering lives of tens of thousands as best as they could.
As I write these lines, the borders of the Balkan corridor are shut, no serious relocations of refugees are taking place to alleviate the burden on the Greek islands, on the port of Piraeus, or Northern Greece. Yet there are heartening reports of people up in Kilkis opening their houses to refugees, the Veroia library sending a mobile book unit to them with emphasis on children’s books, schools in Arcadia participating in the ‘Take my hand’ campaign to pair Greek schoolchildren with refugee ones, proposals by deans of Greek Universities to organize English and Greek language courses for refugees during their stay here, numerous doctors volunteering their services, people bringing food and medicine, and the list goes on. There is also a proposal for bringing the refugee children into regular schooling in the Greek schools, I really hope that this materializes. All this coming from people which, especially in the countryside and the villages of the Greek islands, face serious difficulties providing for their own families. Given all these challenges I consider their stand a victory, a victory second only to that against overwhelming fascist forces in another uneven battle that started during another October 75 years ago.
I do hope that one day history will remember how a small nation of Europe, at a time of considerable troubles of her own, and scant initial resources, stood bravely and compassionately while at the pinch point of the largest refugee movements since WWII. She stood there, and did not let the beacons of Humanism (Ανθρωπιά!) go out. She used them instead, as best as she could, searching the dark seas of fear and despair where entire nations are adrift once again, much like our search lights did during all those nights along the coast of Lesvos in that Autumn of 2015.