How Europe's poorest country is doing more than enyone else to help Syrian refugees
by Annia Ciezadlo
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.”
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“They” are a 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 Syriza stayed home in droves.)
But if 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 the 95 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, comprehensiveguidebook 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.
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