How Greeks opened their hearts to strangers
Compassion, kindness, generosity of spirit: all three apply to Panayiota Drougas and her husband, Dimitris, as they pace the platform of the train station at Idomeni.
There is no reason in the world that they should be here. Idomeni, at the best of times, is a godforsaken place: bleak, barren and infused with a melancholy typical of remote border posts. It is a starkness made more haunting still by the thousands of refugees who, following the railway tracks that have led them to this northern corner of Greece, now live in a squalid camp that has sprung up around the FYROM frontier – which is, of course, why the couple are here.
“We saw their little faces on television, all these children, so hungry, so tired, and just wanted to help,” says Panayiota, a retired headteacher, handing out the 150 chocolate-filled croissants the pair have brought with them. “They are refugees – they don’t want to be here,” she sighs, eyes streaming in the cold. “We see it as our duty to show them that someone cares. We’re going to spread the word, tell former colleagues and friends to do the same.”
They are not alone. The conviction that compelled the couple to purchase the croissants, get into their car and make the drive from Thessaloniki is one that many appear to share.
Hardship, Greeks have discovered, comes in different shades. For six years they may have been in the eye of the great eurozone storm, buffeted by the depredations of austerity, the byproduct of their worst crisis in modern times.
But the sight of thousands of refugees stranded on their shores, often with little more than the clothes on their backs, has now taken them somewhere else. As the numbers have grown so, too, have the acts of altruism – some recorded, some never seen – nationwide.
In Idomeni, pensioners struggling to make ends meet buy two loaves of bread, one to share with those who have descended on their tiny community; elsewhere, villagers open their homes. On Aegean islands that have borne the brunt of the influx, shops – hard hit by plummeting consumption – donate supplies.
In Athens, where passenger terminals, parks and public squares have been turned into chaotic reception centres, Greeks of all backgrounds and ages have rushed to join the relief effort. Everywhere, NGOs speak of an explosion of giving that has taken them aback. “I could tell you so many stories,” says Caroline Haga, a Finn seconded for the past four months to the country, with the International Red Cross. “In Samos and Chios, recently, every shopkeeper I met wanted to give something for the children. It’s amazing, considering what they’ve been going through themselves. And more and more, every day, are signing up as volunteers.”
It’s a generosity of spirit that has not been lost on recipients. With Greece’s impoverished state structure stretched to breaking point, refugees have been dependent on the kindness of strangers. “The Greek police are terrible,” says Amar Souadi, an Iraqi, standing on the bluff where he has pitched his tent in the mud fields that are now home to the refugees in Idomeni. “But the Greek people are very good,” he exclaims, breaking into a smile.
“In Kos island my wife, Selma, gave birth. They did everything for us. Look, here is my boy, Kasum, he is 10 days old. We didn’t want to make this journey but in Baghdad I worked as a translator for a British oil company and people saw me as a traitor. Look at my arm, look at my stomach, look at these [gun] wounds.”
In the coming months, EU officials predict that as many as 150,000 migrants and refugees could reach the country. By Friday, 42,000 were recorded across Greece. Any hopes of the numbers dropping as a result of the draft deal agreed between the bloc and Turkey to stem the tide have not been borne out.
Reaction to the flows could have gone either way; and with the closure last week of Europe’s Balkan corridor by Macedonia and other states, it could yet change. On the back of economic collapse, the anti-immigrant, neo-fascist Golden Dawn has emerged, and held sway, as the third-biggest political force. The prospect of Greece becoming a permanent base for refugees would not only place extra pressure on society, but inject it with renewed vitality.
“Everything we are seeing has been a pleasant surprise,” says Melia Eleftheriadi, an employee with the Athens prefecture. “The feeling, right now, is we live under the same sun. We fall in love under the same moon. We are all human – we have to help these people.’
From her work cabin outside the former Olympic taekwondo stadium – whose basement storage space has been turned with record speed into an aid distribution centre – Eleftheriadi has a bird’s-eye view of those wanting to help. Since the centre opened barely seven days ago, a seemingly endless stream of people have made their way to its doors, some in cars, some on foot, some old, some young, but all in common pursuit: to alleviate the plight of refugees.
“It’s been very moving,” she adds, shaking her head almost in disbelief. “There was one man, in his 50s, earlier this week who, not being able to drive, took a bus from Nafplion [in the Peloponnese] just so he could drop off a box with a few things for them.”
Stacks of shoes, sleeping bags, nappies, towels, clothes, water and food supplies are sprawled around the basement – testament, if anything, to the purely organisational nature of the problem now facing authorities. “Almost every Greek has a family member who has immigrated or been a refugee,” says Eleftheriadi. “My own grandmother fled Turkey during the Asia Minor disaster [following the first world war]. So many of us have similar stories, which might explain why donations aren’t the problem. It’s what to do with them all.”
Where the state has failed, volunteers and NGOs have stepped in. On the islands, in Athens and in the innumerable shelters set up in disused army barracks, hotels, parks and public buildings, they have come deploying crisis management skills and the enthusiasm of do-gooders everywhere.
For people such as Nibal Shkirm, a Syrian teacher from Aleppo, who landed in Lesbos with her four children and husband last week, the groups have been a godsend. “You see these shoes?” she says, brandishing a pair of Timberland sneakers outside her tent on a pier in Piraeus port. “Some good Greek gave me them. You see her shoes, and his shoes, and her shoes? Some good Greek gave them, too. These people, they are very kind but please write that we don’t want to stay. We want to go to Germany. Maybe you can help?”
With the EU rushing in emergency humanitarian aid in the weeks ahead, the volunteer movement is bound to grow.
Like the crises that have overlapped in the country on the frontline of Europe’s two great dramas, history is being played out in waves. The refugee emergency resonates because Greeks, too, have moved to foreign lands and have also been immigrants and émigrés forced, through self-exile, or political and economic need, to seek better lives abroad. After the civil war’s brutal end in 1949, more than a third of the rural population emigrated to Australia, Germany and America. Ever since, Greek blues lyricists, poets and film-makers have been inspired by what is known as xenitia.
“This is an experience that very few other people have. It is dug into our collective consciousness,” says Professor Constantinos Tsoukalas, Greece’s pre-eminent sociologist. “Greeks know what it is like to lose everything: homes, friends, memories, pictures, the memorabilia of their lives. The kindness, the compassion can’t go on for ever, of course, but to a great degree it explains what we are seeing today.”
The chef: Babis Kalogeridis, 50
Kalogeridis did not think twice about volunteering when the refugee crisis intensified. As a chef, normally found working in a luxury hotel on the eastern Aegean island of Thassos, his skills were in demand.
“Wanting to help comes or doesn’t come from inside you,” says the father-of-two as he stirs a giant cauldron of lentil and rice soup in a kitchen container that has been set up in the border camp at Idomeni. “All I see are family people, people who have been uprooted because of war.”
Babis Kalogeridis stirs a 500-litre pot of soup at the refugee camp in Idomeni.
Babis Kalogeridis stirs a 500-litre pot of soup at the refugee camp in Idomeni. Photograph: Helena Smith for the Observer
Kalogeridis drives to the camp on the Greek-Macedonian frontier from his home in Thessaloniki at least four times every week. The ride is shared with two other cooks who, like Kalogeridis, are members of a chefs’ club whose activities include doing charitable works.
Wanting to help comes or doesn’t come from inside you… All I see are people uprooted by war
Eight-hour shifts of unremitting labour in rudimentary conditions follow. Until recently, when a pipe was connected to the nearby community of Idomeni, there was no running water in the area. “We produce around 4,000 portions of hot food every day,” he smiles.
“A lot of us in northern Greece whose families were also uprooted in the 1922 [Greco-Turkish] war are sensitive to the enormous hardship refugees suffer. It reminds us of what our relatives went through.”
The schoolteacher: Lili Mastichiadou, 58
Like many in her country, Mastichiadou has been appalled by the tragedy lapping at Greece’s shores. The sight of children drowning off Aegean islands, the sheer scale of the crisis and Europe’s inability to deal with it have all played a role in her decision to volunteer.
“Everyone has their own tipping point,” she says, packing donated sanitary towels into boxes in an aid distribution centre opened last week in the basement of a former Olympic stadium in Athens. “When you see infants dying in front of your eyes, what you believe or don’t believe ceases to matter. It goes way beyond ideology.”
She said it came as second nature to offer support. “The response to the crisis has been very chaotic because we suffer from lack of organisation,” she adds. “I knew there would be a need for logistical backup.”
When you see infants dying in front of your eyes, what you believe ceases to matter
Mastichiadou is also the daughter of a refugee dislodged from Turkey in 1922. As a public employee she, too, has seen her salary slashed as a result of Greece’s’ six-year economic crisis. “My father was from Asia Minor and when I grew up Greece was poor. There was a culture of helping your neighbour. It wasn’t considered special. I will work here, after school hours, for as long as they need me.
The taxi driver: Kostas Moisides, 64
Moisides would not ordinarily consider himself to be a volunteer. But as a committedleftwinger, who has long belonged to a neighbourhood solidarity group now run by the ruling Syriza party, he is no newcomer to helping people out.
“For years now we have been raising money to support the poor,” says the taxi driver who comes from Nikaia, one of the Greek capital’s poorest suburbs, in the west of the city. “There’s an infrastructure in place to help refugees that is the product of our own economic crisis.”
Moisides, who studied electrical engineering in Italy, says that he was also encouraged to participate in the relief efforts for refugees because of his disappointment in Europe. “It wasn’t the Europe that my generation, at least, dreamed of,” he says. “To be honest it’s very disheartening.”
It wasn’t the Europe that my generation at least dreamed of. It’s very disheartening
At 64, Moisides has joined a volunteer group that is distributing food on the piers of Piraeus port. But at least twice a week Moisides also plans to collect and deliver donated goods for refugees and migrants. “Unemployment is more than 30% in Nikaia, there are shuttered shops everywhere. When the shipyards closed many people lost their jobs, but they care and they are giving.”
Interviews by Helena Smith / The Guardian
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